Friday, February 24, 2006

Being Digital, 11 Years Later

When I was in high school in the US a decade ago, a fellow student in my programming class introduced me to Wired magazine. In those days, Wired was the cheerleader for the slowly spreading Internet boom.

The last page of the magazine - just before the latest rendition of the Absolut Wodka ad – featured a column by Nicholas Negroponte, former director of the MIT Media Lab.

Negroponte eventually turned these columns into a book, Being Digital, which I recently re-discovered when browsing my bookshelf. It was first published in January 1995, a bit more than 11 years ago.

The book's credo is "Move bits, not atoms." It repeatedly makes the case for digitizing all mass-media content, filtering it to what's important for the individual consumer, and delivering it to his home in digital form. I think this was a worthy cause to fight for in the last decade. We're slowly beginning to see the fruits of digitization: iTunes is selling music and videos online, while Amazon and Google are scanning and digitizing books. Soon, all information should be available online.

Thankfully, the book contains plenty of predictions, of which I'm going to dissect just a few:
"Few people realize how good copper phone lines are. A technique called ADSL [...] is a means of sending large amounts of data down relatively short copper lines. […] So while fiber is the future for sure, there is a lot we can be doing and learning with our existing copper plant today."

Right on the money. Today, ADSL is everywhere – does anyone even remember dial-up speeds?
"My VCR of the future will say to me when I come home, 'Nicholas, I looked at five thousand hours of television while you were out and recorded six segments for you which total forty minutes. [...]"

Sounds a lot like TiVo to me.
"Early in the next millennium, your right and left cufflinks may communicate with each other by low-orbit satellites and have more computer power than your present PC."

Unlikely. While there have been plenty of attempts of making wireless sensor networks, none of them employed low-orbit satellites. Bluetooth or ZigBee seem to be better alternatives. Besides, what would be the point of your chatty cufflinks?
"The first entertainment atoms to be displaced and become bits will be those of videocassettes in the rental business, where consumers have the added inconvenience of having to return the atoms and being fined if they are forgotten under a couch ($3 billion of the $12 billion of the US video rental business is said to be late fines."

Slowly starting. Hopefully, iTunes and Google Video will make this all come true soon. An unlikely twist has been the rise of NetFlix, which uses the good old postal service to distribute atoms with bits.

Most of the progress in the last and the current boom was focused on the Internet and its applications. The book discusses many other technologies such as speech recognition, home robots, HDTV, eye tracking, 3-D holograms, and precursors of RFID. All these were fashionable visions in the nineties, but still haven't really had their breakthrough in consumer markets.

The Wikipedia entry on Negroponte says: "In the years following the dot-com bust, the book dated quickly." This is wrong. The book is not about dot-coms, and, if I remember correctly, doesn't even contain the word "start-up". Instead, it's a book about the digitization of all content, a topic that is still relevant today.

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