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By Nicholas Negroponte
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, 243 pages

This 1996 bestseller examines the frontiers of digital technology and its impact on the future of human social life, work, entertainment, and commerce. It is made up of columns originally written for Wired magazine and therefore has a unifying theme but little in the way of a central argument. Negroponte's primary aim here is to speculate about the "radically new culture" emerging at the intersection of "computer graphics, human communications, and interactive multimedia."

The book begins with a discussion of the essential differences between bits and atoms. By bits, Negroponte means the binary digits — the zeros and ones — of computer language. Atoms, in his definition, are physical materials. The information revolution is driven to a large extent by the shift from atoms to bits in the information industry, Negroponte says. Sounds, images, and video can now be translated and disseminated as strings of bits. "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." The result is not only that more and more information is produced in digital formats like video cassettes and compact discs and thereby changing the information industry, but, more fundamentally, that our whole relationship to information and the media is undergoing a dramatic change.

One example of this that Negroponte returns to again and again is the Internet. As communication becomes increasingly digital, "many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role." Negroponte believes the value of the Internet is less about information and more about community since it is at bottom a tool for interpersonal communication. This is reflected in the popularity of e-mail which is by far the most significant application of the information superhighway. He predicts that by the next century e-mail will be the "dominant interpersonal telecommunications medium, approaching if not overshadowing voice within the next fifteen years."

There has been much discussion about the cultural and economic divides that prevail on the Internet, the gaps between the information-rich and the information-poor. But, according to Negroponte, the primary divide is generational. "The haves and the have-nots are now the young and the old. Many intellectual movements are distinctly driven by national and ethnic forces, but the digital revolution is not. Its ethos and appeal are as universal as rock music." This means that the "digital future" is "more than ever before in the hands of the young." Given the decentralizing, globalizing, and empowering potential of digital technologies, this bodes well for the future, Negroponte says.

I wish I could claim the same optimism in the name of technological progress. Some of the innovations Negroponte describe strike me as, well, Being Dismal.