Sunday, January 3, 2010

Being Digital

How appropriate of me to read a book on technology from 15 years ago after the decade that I think was the most exciting comes to a close. The funny thing is that Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte (founder of the MIT Media Lab and One Laptop Per Child) was both a look back and a look forward, given that some predictions have come true and some are not yet reality.

The main themes that I took away from this read were interconnectivity, openness, and personalization. Negroponte spent a lot of time talking about the future of television in particular. This focus felt strange to me at first - especially the long portion near the beginning of the book about the future of digital broadcasting - but I later realized how well the examples fit with the main point. Negroponte believed that technology should be interconnected so that, for instance, your television could find programming that would interest you based on what it knows from your purchase history, work schedule, and so on. Information would be defined openly so that all devices could share it amongst themselves. And devices would work for you and you alone, giving you exactly what you wanted.

While the diatribes into the fight for making HDTV digital instead of analog (wow, really??) were interesting (at least for a while), my favourite parts of the book were those that speculated on how we would interact with technology in the future. Some predictions are basically true now, some don't seem far off, and others seem like pipe dreams.

For instance, we now have Rogers on Demand to serve us programming when we want it, rather than only on their schedule. We carry around pocket computers that do more and more for us, and occasionally even allow us to place phone calls ("there's an app for that"). News aggregation on the 'net kind of gives us our own personal newspaper, though the providers don't yet make use of very detailed or interesting information about us. Technologies like augmented reality, when more mature, will certainly allow personalized views on just about anything. Open standards aren't the norm yet, but they are becoming more prevalent than they were before.

From Negroponte's Wikipedia article:
Negroponte expanded many of the ideas from his Wired columns into a bestselling book Being Digital (1995), which made famous his forecasts on how the interactive world, the entertainment world and the information world would eventually merge. Being Digital was a bestseller and was translated into some twenty languages. Negroponte is a digital optimist who believed that computers would make life better for everyone[1] However, critics[who?] have faulted his techno-utopian ideas for failing to consider the historical, political and cultural realities with which new technologies should be viewed. Negroponte's belief that wired technologies such as telephones will ultimately become unwired by using airwaves instead of wires or fiber optics, and that unwired technologies such as televisions will become wired, is commonly referred to as the Negroponte switch.
Take what you will from this criticism, but do consider that TV over air has indeed given way to cable and fibre, while landlines are disappearing in favour of cell phones. Besides, I for one am looking forward to the day that technology becomes smarter and can give me what I really want. Maybe then I'd finally bother subscribing to TV.


Samuel said...

Hey Gail. Interesting post. If it can be of some use for future reference and inspiration, I have a page with all the quotes I found worth taking note of:

Most of the quotes you mentioned are there :)


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