Re-Reading Negroponte, Being Digital (1995)

In preparing for the final lecture of a two-day seminar that Urs Gasser and I are teaching here at the University of St. Gallen, I was going back through one of the books that got me interested in Internet law in the first place — Nicholas Negroponte’s seminal book in atom form, Being Digital (1995).

A passage that spoke to me, on p. 20: “One way to look at the future of being digital is to ask if the quality of one medium can be transposed to another. Can the television experience be more like the newspaper experience? Many people think of newspapers as having more depth than television news. Must that be so? Similarly, television is considered a richer sensory experience than what newspapers can deliver. Must that be so?

“The answer lies in creating computers to filter, sort, prioritize, and manage multimedia on our behalf — computers that read newspapers and look at television for us, and act as editors when we ask them to do so. This kind of intelligence can live in two different places.

“It can live at the transmitter and behave as if you had your own staff writers — as if the The New York Times were publishing a single newspaper tailored to your interests. In this first example, a small subset of bits has been selected especially for you. The bits are filtered, prepared, and delivered to you, perhaps to be printed at home, perhaps to be viewed more interactively with an electronic display.

“The second example is one in which your news-editing system lives in the receiver and The New York Times broadcasts a very large number of bits, perhaps five thousand different stories, from which your appliance grabs a select few, depending on your interests, habits, or plans for that day. In this instance, the intelligence is in the receiver, and the dumb transmitter is indiscriminately sending all the bits to everybody.

“The future will not be one or the other, but both.”

He picks up the story of the newspaper industry again, on p. 56, noting how everything is created in bit form, then pressed onto atoms. Imagine if the head of a newspaper read Being Digital in 1995 and really listened? Maybe that’s what happened with Martin N. and co. at NYT Digital and a few others. But most clearly missed this lesson back then; I doubt many are missing it now.

Also, on copyrights, he nailed the vision of the trainwreck we’ve experienced in the late 1990s and early oughts (p. 58 ff.).

I think he gets a handful of things wrong, of course, but only at the margins — mainly, the reliance on machines, rather than humans, who I still think will play a key role, as the “web 2.0” people will tell you — but this book was astonishingly prescient. I’m not sure that he predicted quite the information quality problem that Urs is talking about right now, but then again, most people don’t focus on that even now.

Whether or not you first read it in 1995, it’s fun to read Being Digital today. (Then again, I learned last night from Prof. Dr. Herbert Burkert that you can only read 3,172 books in your life.  I don’t know how re-reading fits into that calculation.)  In any event, wildy impressive as a futuristic tale.

16 thoughts on “Re-Reading Negroponte, Being Digital (1995)

  1. Where does that number come from? It seems remarkably specific. How tongue in cheek is it?

    I realize that one book a week for 60 years is 3000 books, but there must be some people –like me, I’d guess, 😉
    who average more than that.
    I mean, at the very least it seems like a total page number would be more accurate.

    I am intrigued, to say the least.


  2. Thanks, Adam. Was tongue in cheek, for sure. I aspire to be like you, to beat the numbers. But Burkert’s main point was important, to me: life is too short to read bad books. It came up in the context of whether it’s a bad thing that many people read a few chapters of most books then put them down. If it’s because they are not worth your time, then DEFINITELY a good thing. (If it’s another explanation, i.e., that we do not have the attention span to read a sustained argument over 400 pages or that books only have one idea, easily captured in a few chapters, then there are deeper issues lurking there!)


  3. Although I have not yet read “Being Digital,” I am always intrigued by questions comparing old technologies to new (i.e., “Can the television experience be more like the newspaper experience?”). Sometimes I wonder if we are missing the point. Should we be comparing experiences, or instead, looking to new experiences? In a sense, the internet does permit one to create their own digital magazine—to act as their own editor. This seems like an entirely new experience, for me at least. I prefer to look at the tools and information that technology can provide me with; as apposed to how does it compare to the old? I believe others are beginning to do the same—maybe it is just a natural progression.

    It is amazing the wealth of information available at our fingertips and the amount being generated 24/7. I look forward to following the natural progression of the Internet and how it interacts with society; it is a great time to be a techie.

    Thanks for the comment on the book (Judging on the tone of the responses I don’t know if I’ll actually choose to read).



  4. Hi JP – I have not been blogging for well over a year now and good to see the debate on designing democracy alive and well. I also surfed onto to Urs Gasser and found myself spooked. I mentioned sometime back about a Domain Name dispute and the “conversation” between systems. I am now working on a monograph that uses the DNS system to make explicit the “law as a system” and “law as a structure” binary.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on the post-Negroponte discourse….(how about a tentative reading list for a module on Designing Democracy and Transnational Governance).
    Take care

  5. […] After an intense and wonderful “Law & Economics of Cyberspace”-teaching experience with my friend and colleague John Palfrey, I started working today on my contribution to the upcoming Gruter Institute’s Squaw Valley Conference 2006 on Law, Behavior & the Brain, where I will be participating in a session on Law & Emotion. Here’s the abstract of my presentation, entitled “The Quest for Principles of Emotional Legal Design”: The presentation is intended as a contribution to the emerging field of scholarship at the intersection of law and emotion. However, instead of providing findings of prior research or research in progress, I would like to present and discuss a few hypotheses—and even ask some questions—that mark the very beginning of one of the speaker’s research projects. Two beliefs are the starting point for my inquiry. First, I argue that the law & emotion scholarship has made a strong case why, in fact, emotions are of relevance to the legal system. Second, I suggest that in-depth and cross-disciplinary research in the field of law & emotion will soon be complemented by a discussion about what we might call “emotional legal design”, i.e., a discourse about the design principles aimed at guiding the future development of a legal system that takes the findings of law & emotion research serious. Against this backdrop, I will formulate a series of theses that address, inter alia, the following questions: […]

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