Reflections on what might have been
In 1995 “Being Digital” by Nicholas Negroponte (Professor of Media Technology at MIT and founder of Media Lab) was a “must read” for anybody interested in how digital technology was having an impact on the world. The potential of digital technology as a catalyst for change was only just starting to gain traction in the mass consciousness. Ideas of personalisation, mobility, location independence were just glints in the developers’ eyes. It was a time when digital storage was floppy and 640k (with 360k Himem for drivers) was all you would ever need. I read a comment by someone, somewhere, recently talking about being digital and it motivated me to go and find a new copy of “Being Digital”. The new copy cost more to deliver than it did to buy (ironically, I couldn’t find an electronic version”.
The first thing that strikes you about the contents of this book is that it’s eerily accurate in its forecasts. Professor Negroponte imagined everything – even micro publishing and time shifted television – except for the impact of social media, and I’m not sure how many people saw that one coming. So what can the perceptions of being digital in 1995 tell us about what it means to be digital in 2010?
In 1995 Professor Negroponte put it thus:
“The best way to appreciate the merits and consequences of being digital is to reflect on the difference between bits and atoms.”
It seems self evident today, the fact that bits do not need to exist in a physical form in order to be bought, sold, stored or transported. They only need to exist when they are used and some can stay in digital form even then. It is because of this malleability of certain commodities that an information economy took form and the impact of portable, transposable information was felt even on those things that must have physical form, manufactured goods and physical media. The consequence of this was described by Professor Negroponte as creating “…. the potential for new content to originate from a whole new combination of sources.”
Fifteen years on we haven’t quite grasped the full potential of the difference between atoms and bits. We still have an industrial mentality to the creation of “goods”, even digital ones, and we bring people together around places of production rather than around tasks. This impacts upon our perception of what it means to “add value” because, by logical extension, for certain “things” we believe that we can only add value in certain places as opposed to points in the processes of creation.
I’m not denying the need to come together at certain times for certain things whether it be maintaining group cohesion or having the creative stimulus of sharing ideas and collaborating in person. Nor do I deny that some tasks cannot be done without a physical presence of some kind; manufacturing, farming or supporting people will always require a physical presence and being together will always support processes and creativity but – and it’s a big but – we have to seriously question the need for people who are engaged in the processing of information to be gathered in one building between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon. The mass movement of people to accomplish information related tasks is a hangover from the industrial society. In this sense, we are not being digital.
The further consequence of this industrial mentality is a focus on city regions as centres of economic prosperity and a concept of innovation as only emerging from hubs of excellence. The “on cost” of this thinking is that we withhold resources from other areas in order to feed these centres of production. In short we deliberately disadvantage almost a quarter of our population in order to support something that is the result of an industrial rather than an information mindset. Professor Negroponte puts it this way:
“The future will be a combination of intelligence at the centre and intelligence at the edge.”
While he is principally focussed on mass media the idea of intelligence at the centre is an industrial mentality. Moving intelligence to the edge allows for individuals and small groups to add value and allows for a view of innovation that is the result of crowd sourcing and individual creativity. The world described by Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater is one of inter-connected small units of knowledge, creativity and production. As long as we maintain an industrial mentality we will not reap the benefits of an inclusive, knowledge economy. At the same time, we will suffer the disadvantages of an industrial one. Professor Negroponte sees this as a transitional phase but identifies the need for a change in approach from industrial to digital.
“I am convinced that by the year2005 Americans will spend more hours on the Internet … than watching television. The combined forces of technology and human nature will ultimately take a stronger hand in plurality than any laws Congress can invent. But in case I’m wrong in the long term and for the transition period in the short term, the FCC had better find some imaginative scheme to replace industrial – age cross-ownership laws with incentives and guidelines for being digital”
While our economy is nominally “digital” we keep our society predominantly “industrial”. We do this for the purposes of keeping an economic advantage, protecting a market share and for political advantage. The Marxist idea of power in the hands of those who control production would appear to still hold true and the vision of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis remains the reality of the 21st Century. This is apparent in the current “Content Wars” which have found expression in “Digital Britain”. Infrastructure developments driven by shareholders that sweat the assets in city regions and copyright restrictions that favour large distributors.
I don’t object to paying for content. I do object to having to pay for content by being forced to use one channel. In Negroponte’s words: “Such a smorgasbord of incompatible set-top boxes is a horrible thought”. Once I’ve bought my content I want to use it how I want to use it. I want to watch it on my TV or on my laptop or on my mobile device irrespective of who manufactures it and independently of who produces the original content. Even in 2010, I can’t easily do that. The modern implementation of DRM is not about protecting content, it’s about protecting market share and history shows us that protectionism does not work. As Negroponte says: “Being digital is a license to grow ……..Being digital is the option to be independent of confining standards”. In this way we aren’t being digital we are clinging to the industrial past.
So what does being digital mean in 2010? Being digital means having the opportunities for true personalisation of services. It means access to content at times and through a medium that suits us. Being digital is being able to be innovative, creative and to add value in ways that are location and time independent. Being digital means having digital places in which to live, work and play. I believe that being digital involves something more fundamental, a mindset that realises the benefits of innovation and understands the contribution of knowledge society, not an industrial society in a digital world. Without a knowledge society the knowledge economy will fail. It is the need for a knowledge society that is the real driver for a digitally inclusive society. Being digital is not just about delivering services to disadvantaged groups it’s about the social justice of being able to participate and the social benefit of being able to contribute.