nicholas negroponte


Nicholas Negroponte (1943-) was born and raised in New York City's Upper East Side. A dyslexic, Negroponte has always found reading difficult and gravitated early on toward charts and tables (Being Digital, 3). He matriculated at MIT, where as an undergraduate student he studied architecture, a field in which he holds two professional degrees. As a graduate student, Negroponte decided that "if you designed the design tool you'd have a bigger influence than if you merely designed an object or a building" (Bass) and turned his attention to computer-aided design or CAD. Negroponte joined the faculty at MIT in 1966 and helped found the Architecture Machine Group, a lab which focused on the human-computer interface, in 1968.

In 1973 Negroponte published his first book, The Architecture Machine, which focused on the importance of improving the human-computer interface, e.g. through the use of color video monitors. His emphasis on usability has long since been adopted by the makers of personal computers, and though out of print now, The Architecture Machine helped establish Negroponte's reputation as a successful futurist. Negroponte went on to found a Computers in Everyday Life program in 1980 and become the first executive director of the World Center for Personal Computation and Human Development in 1982.

Today Negroponte is perhaps most famous as the co-founder of MIT's Media Lab, which he has headed since 1985. From its inception the lab has focused on using technology to connect three different worlds - "the interactive world, the entertainment world, and the information world" - as one multimedia world. (Bass). As Negroponte tells it, "Two simple ideas got the Media Lab launched: one being that the human-computer interface is a real problem, the other being that the relationship of content to technology is more than random. In other words, the computer and its content are not independent of each other" (Bass). The latter claim, already anticipated by Negroponte's decision as a graduate student to work with building design tools instead of individual buildings, echoes Marshall McLuhan's famous slogan "the medium is the message." The Media Lab holds hundreds of patents (for its pioneering work on "smart objects," among other pursuits) and has helped start similar labs elsewhere in the world, but is currently best known for its proposed $100 WiFi-ready, crank-powered laptop for use in developing countries, a project which has attracted considerable buzz. The spirit of the project neatly reflects Negroponte's own techno-utopian attitude.

This attitude has occasionally led Negroponte astray, for example in his early predictions that open-architecture television, and not the personal computer, would become the home information appliance. After the dotcom bubble burst, some writers dismissed Negroponte as a charlatan for his tech-optimism (Rutherford). More recently, tech columnists have also expressed skepticism that the $100 laptop will succeed, questioning both his cost estimates and his assessment of the demand for such a machine (Farivar). And for many readers, his current predictions might seem fantastical - "The decades ahead will be a period of comprehending biotech, mastering nature, and realizing extraterrestrial travel, with DNA computers, microrobots, and nanotechnologies the main characters on the technological stage" ("Beyond Digital") - but time will tell.

In 1992, Negroponte was a minority investor in Wired, a monthly magazine devoted to the intersection of technology and culture. From 1993 until 1998, he wrote a series of columns for the back page of Wired. It was these sixty-six columns, and the best-selling book Being Digital, which came out of his columns in 1995, that established Negroponte's popular reputation as a media theorist.

Central to Negroponte's worldview is the distinction between "atoms" and "bits." What is a "bit"? "A bit has no color, size, or weight, and it can travel at the speed of light. It is the smallest atomic element in the DNA of information" (Being Digital, 14). All bits need to be transferred into atoms to be accessed, and that interpretative process is/was woefully inadequate at the interface level. The back cover of Being Digital warns that, because of its dependence on atoms, "the book you are holding is probably obsolete," and indeed there are now e-book editions of the work. In his book and columns, Negroponte calls for speech and sight recognition interfaces, both now realities. He also complains that we often assume that because they aren't immediately tangible, the bits lack value. "Our mind-set about value is driven by atoms," he writes in one of his columns. "Companies declare their atoms on a balance sheet and depreciate them according to rigorous schedules. But their bits, often far more valuable, do not appear. Strange" ("Bits and Atoms"). In 1995 Negroponte successfully predicted the destabilizing value that an increasing reliance on bits would have on our concept of communication at the level of time - "As human-to-human communications become increasingly asynchronous, time will be meaningless" - as well as distance: "Distance is irrelevant: New York to London is only five miles further than New York to Newark via satellite." He also anticipated the debate over ownership that has become a key aspect of the digital age: "Bits are bits indeed. But what they cost, who owns them, and how we interact with them are all up for grabs" ("Being Digital: a book (p)review").

What does it mean to be digital? For Negroponte, who claimed the Digital Revolution had ended in the nineties, giving itself over to the Digital Age ("Beyond Digital"), the ongoing presence of computers in our lives - and the way easy access to information, though those computers, shapes our culture, economy, and infrastructure - helps make our lives "digital." In his own words:

Being digital in its literal sense refers to computer-readable ones and zeroes, but at the more global level, it has to do with where you find your information and entertainment. It has to do with the computer presence in your life. Being digital is about lifestyle and attitude and usage of this computer presence moment to moment. Being digital is an egalitarian phenomenon. It makes people more accessible and allows the small, lonely voice to be heard in this otherwise large, empty space. It flattens organizations. (Bass)

In the ideal digital world, we would be aware of digital technology in the same way especially wired people like Negroponte are aware of the Internet - it would be "like air" (Bass), so taken for granted that we only miss it when it's gone. Negroponte's vision of an omnipresent, converged media seems very similar to Friedrich Kittler's view of digitization, which "erases the differences among individual media," though it's not clear that he was aware of Kittler's work at the time (1). In his "Tangible Bits," Negroponte hopes that we will retain the "the primacy of the physical world as interface" and envisions a futuristic Sicilian kitchen, with technology so unobtrusive as to be invisible, as an example of his ideal digital environment. In a digital world the only schedule that matters is your own, and people are connected by ideas in an egalitarian environment. Location, and with it the concept of the nation-state, will become increasingly irrelevant to global citizens ("Beyond Digital").

This view of technology as something omnipresent and unnoticed, a tool capable of perfect utilization by creative people, seems to show a departure in Negroponte's thought from the more deterministic view of technology he held earlier in his career. By limiting the possibilities for expression only by the user's imagination, the medium of the future seems to leave the message untouched - with typical optimism, Negroponte seems to have started down a path away from McLuhan. Or rather, he seems to look hopefully toward a future in which McLuhan's deterministic media no longer exist.

Since Beyond Digital, Negroponte has yet to publish a third book, and his primary outlets have been speaking engagements and his continuing role as head of the MIT Media Lab. A third book about "digital globalization and global digitalization," entitled Geo Digital, is reportedly in the works.

Dan Holbrook

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