Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Books Read in 2010: "Being Digital" by Nicholas Negroponte

Re-read, actually.

I first read this, I don't know, 13 or 14 years ago. There were a couple of things that I remembered about it, but only vaguely. I thought it might be interesting to read it again and see what has held up in the intervening years and what seems hopelessly naive in retrospect. However, I was mildly surprised by how far out the book DIDN'T seem. Negroponte wisely did not make hyper-specific predictions or lay them out on a timeline that would be too easy to nitpick. (No "...and the Age of the Jet Pack shall be ushered in on May 15, 1998...")

He liked to write about "digital butlers" and "agents" that would do our bidding, finding information that we would want while filtering out the data that we wouldn't have any interest in. What are those but things like RSS feeds and our TiVos, making suggestions based on our likes and dislikes? His "asynchronous broadcatching" as an alternative to synchronous broadcasting has taken form as radio shows downloaded in seconds as podcasts, or TV shows downloaded in a few minutes from iTunes.

There's a lot more, of course. He was sometimes a little too optimistic about the unfettered good that a digital future might bring. I took some notes while I was reading, and I may expand on this a little bit more later on. I'm still mulling over some thoughts, both about what Negroponte wrote and what can be predicted about the digital world in another 13 or 14 years.

(Funny thing, though? I looked and could not find an ebook version of this title for sale anywhere. I re-read my old paper copy. And what's sobering about that is the fact that any electronic version I might have bought this in in 1996 would almost certainly be in a format indecipherable by now. Plus I found the damage pictured below, that was either done by the cat my room mate had at the time, or by the cat of the friend I remember lending the book to. (A post-it with his email address is still affixed inside the front cover. Yikes!)

Comparable damage to a digital file would probably have rendered the whole thing useless. It's easy enough to read around the tears in an analog format, but any wonky bits in a digital file can just shut the whole thing down. Something that hasn't improved significantly.