The world according to Negroponte

Posted on April 2, 1996 
Filed Under Anita, The Star


MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte insists he is, by nature, an optimistic person.

Jetlagged, he looked more tired than wired while presenting his paper at a recent conference organised by the Malaysian Institute of Management.

After spending a day listening to his version on how the world is going to evolve, you’ll want to believe in it happening too.

He reflects hope and underneath his suave and cool persona, Negroponte does very little to reveal the other side. If he was upset (which he was during the press interview), he hid it well and replied in loaded sentences.

Ask a pessimistic question and his retort is “why are we constantly looking at some intrinsic badness, why not otherwise.”

So it was ironic for a person who proposes that the world should move out of a paper-based medium, that his book Being Digital is in printed form.

It is a small issue he says, the economics did not warrant it being distributed online -not yet, at least.

Bit by bit

Although an architect by training, Negroponte is very knowledgable about physics. Most of his analogies on how the world will change is based on bits and atoms.

An atom, he says, is a complex structure made of bits while a bit is, well, one bit. And he reckons it is easier to manage and work in a world of bits rather than to deal with atoms.

He likened public libraries to atoms. The concept of a public library works because it is based on atoms and intellectual property laws are rooted on atoms.

“You borrow a book, read and return it. But in the world of bits, you can withdraw information from anywhere around the world through the Internet at no cost,” he explains.

Negroponte suspects most people understand the concept of digital bits, and that it does not behave in the same way as atoms.

“But they do not understand the degree to which one move the bits around the world,” he points out.

The moral: Not everything can be moved by bits, certainly not your BLR meal. (Banana Leaf Rice, if you have to ask).

Net result

The Internet, according to Negroponte, is decentralised in nature. Its dynamic and organic nature almost gives it a will of its own, allowing messages and other forms of information to be transmitted.

Invented by Larry Roberts 1963, the Net has had a profound impact communications – that is, there is not way to stop the message from getting there.

Negroponte says that the World Wide Web has defined the Internet and turned it inside out. It grew from electronic mail (posting messages) to dual carriageway transporting data, movie clips, lyrics and excerpts from magazines.

This, he continues, changes the concept of travelling. The decentralist nature of Roberts’ design today is truly an unsolvable and uncontrollable media. This does not mean chaos, but means it goes by its own set of rules.

“Many centralist governments will try to control this “decentralist” process. These things will keep happening,” he says, adding that the biggest problem is not technology but governments.

But the “creative licence” that emerges out of the Internet will eventually make governments less important, and by that virtue, governments may begin to concentrate in other areas that need their attention.

He hopes that job creation in the digital age will be bigger. “I believe most skills like those in white collar sector will be appropriate for the digital world.”

He reckons many people are already profiting on the Internet by displacing cost, and not by gaining extra income. Where newspapers are concerned, Negroponte warns that the mantra of subscription begets advertising begets transaction will flip next year.

“Transactions will take precedence and subscriptions will go away, or you may even pay people to subscribe.

“Companies will end up giving subscribers free connect time and software, but will charge them for all other information required,” he predicts.

He adds that being digital is being small and big at the same time, and anything in the middle goes away – including middle management.

“Over the next 10 years, there will be a tendency for anything in the middle to disappear, and this is not limited to the Net.

“The next shakeup will happen to those who aren’t on the digital bandwagon,” he declares.

The home

Negroponte is confident that children will propel the growth of IT in the home market. And to back his claim, he cites the success of Wired magazine.

“The primary subscribers of Wired are children who buy it as a Christmas gift for their parents to help their parents understand the world they live in – which is cyberspace,” he says.

He adds that if manufacturers get the right interface to market, the growth of computing will be exponential.

“It is the interface that really matters. Kids don’t care. Adults do,” he says. “The right interface would persuade adults to invest in a computer.”

Negroponte believes in the indestructibility of children and that a genetic behaviour prevails among younger children, which is displayed by their curiousity towards the computer.

“Imagine this scenario of communities of children all over the world interested in computers – a powerful uniformity will emerge. That’s a great hope.

“Kids have these things in common, which will disappear when they grow up and replace it with things that we don’t consider important or common previously,” he reasons.

He adds that youths should be encouraged to take risks to create a plural society -otherwise “you’ll have a dead country.”

Negroponte feels there is a need for a stripped down PC that is low-cost yet offers the basic computing functions and Internet access.

The numerous features and functions on PCs have slowed down the system, although PCs have more than compensated with increased speeds.

“Why not translate that into a low cost machine/cheaper machine? The new stripped down PC should cost under US$400 (RM1,000). It should be modular and scalable so users can grow with it. I wish Sega would do it,” he says.

(Last month, Oracle unveiled a stripped down PC valued under US$500).

He also suggests that governments subsidise the cost of owning a PC to make it as pervasive as possible.

“I am sure governments can talk to computer vendors and come up with something,” he adds.

Ask a question, you are assured of an answer from the media guru, except that it may not be what you want to hear.

The runaway success of the Internet, coupled with the growth in multimedia use among the general population pleases him. It convinces him that the digital age is coming. Faster than ever.

With an obvious preference for the big picture outlook in life, Negroponte is secure in the belief that details and issues will resolve themselves.

Nothing fazes him anymore.

Risking the digital world

Media guru Nicholas Negroponte has a lot to share – when asked. He does not volunteer more information than necessary. For if some of his predictions were to come true, it could be plain scary.

So when he spoke of the dawn of a digital civilisation to an audience made up of managers, many – especially those from the baby boomer generation – found it difficult to grasp.

Yes, the possibility existed. But many of us are caught between the old and new. It is exciting, especially to those who have been exposed to technology and are conversant with it. The digital era is promising.

For those who are not, the idea repels.

There is no doubt that there are many issues to grapple with and many changes that need to be reconciled to realise such a dream.

Negroponte is convinced there is no other way. The digital world must come.

He is unperturbed by critics and sceptics. After having spent 15 years promoting multimedia technology before finally seeing it being endorsed, the issues become mere hurdles to be resolved. There are no obstacles in his path.

Negroponte proudly declares that he is intrinsically optimistic – a trait which is almost godlike, and childlike. Certainly, he places his hope on children. Children will be the driving factor in the creation of a digital generation.

Children will lead the way because being children, they have no fear and are not bounded by tradition. Their curiosity to seek and desire to improve will fuel the digital era.

Give a child a computer and the kid will touch the keys instinctively. Growing on a diet of technology will mean transactions via PCs is the most natural thing to do. Imagine other possibilities.

For the less optimistic, it seems like a great burden to place on children. Negroponte believes there is no other choice.

Coincidentally, on the same day I listened to Negroponte and his worldly views, I chanced upon a parent who told me that he went out to buy his two-year old daughter a multimedia PC.

According to the father, his two-year old came up to him one day and said: “Pappa, I want a PC too.”

Being a parent who wishes to provide whatever he can to his child, he did just that. Today, the father is on his way to being transformed into a technophile because of his child.

If this already taking place among the digitally illiterate, then Negroponte’s prediction of a digital life is not far off the mark.

And parents’ fears that their children will gain access to forbidden areas are just excuses. It is the parents’ responsibility to make sure their kids do not go where they are not supposed to.

The economy is also parallel and essential to the struggle led by children, Negroponte says. The way we do business will change too. A new form of economy centred on the individual will emerge.

It was coincidental too that the two-year’s father revealed that he had had a first-hand experience with this new way of business.

His PC vendor sent a father and son team to install Internet software applications on his newly acquired PC.

Dear dad drove his 16-year-old son over one evening and let the boy get on with his work while he sat and read the papers. They earned a tidy sum for their efforts.

So, is the digital world here yet? Or are we just seeing bits of it being put in place? How do the baby boomers and the rest of us deal with it?

I don’t know, just jump into the deep end and get on with it. Maybe it is not such a bad idea to risk it.

To see living proof of what Negroponte predicted seems reason enough to believe his assertion that computers will have a deeper than ever meaning in human life.

He certainly was not kidding when he said that computers are about living.

Published April 2nd, 1996, Star Publications (Malaysia) Berhad. All rights reserved.

Related: Nicholas Negroponte: Why Bits Matter


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