Foreseeing future events is usually associated with fortune tellers, psychics, Nostradamus, or Mayan calendars. When it comes to the world of computer technologies and new media however, one man is considered the official spokesperson for the New Era. Nicholas Negroponte is a leader in the field of computer technology and has been for decades. His viewpoints, research, and predictions have the ability to shape markets and influence the development of new technologies and strategic plans. One of his major commentaries forecasting his future vision for our digital world lies in his 1995 work Being Digital. In the book, Negroponte outlines many of the emerging technologies in the world of personal digital usage and his beliefs as to where this will lead us in the coming decades. Having the advantage of fifteen years of passing time, one can now look back to his predictions, fears, commentaries, and desires to see just how accurate he was and the degree to which he may have swayed the development of the digital world. It can be seen that Negroponte has hit the proverbial nail square on the head when it come to envisioning the future of tech. Whether it be the shape of video gaming, the advent of the IPAD and Kindle, or even the net neutrality debate, he has clearly defined an outline for our time which rings true in the most Nostradamian of ways.
First, Negroponte made the claim that, “Sega and Nintendo will also be extinct if they don’t wake up to the fact that PC’s are eating their lunch” (Negroponte 115). He states later in the same passage that PC gaming will overtake the gaming world and eventually wipe out the stand alone machine. At an initial glance, this may seem like a near miss. Obviously, Nintendo Wii’s are flying off shelves just like XBOX 360’s. But when you look closely at what these machines really are you get the fuller picture. Sega, a now dead company, continued to focus only on graphics and game-play rather than useability of the medium and interface when creating games and consoles. They now exclusively license rights to games and work purely on development as they have been eaten by the Microsoft and Nintendo giants of the world. And why have those giants survived? Because they made the conscious decision to wake up as Negroponte suggested. Both the XBOX 360 and Nintendo Wii are computers. They have hard drives, operating systems with easy to use interfaces, internet access, media viewing capabilities that extend to television and music content, as well as the ability to be upgraded, modified, and interacted with just like a PC. You can store game data and any other binary codified info you wish on these machines which effectively takes the traditional PC out of the equation. Gamers who are not also tech geeks have been pried from the PC and plopped in front of a computer with set parameters and predefined functionalities that offer the illusion of great freedom while providing superior useability in terms of interface, hardware, and customization. Looks like Negroponte’s warning was heard. Well, by Nintendo at least. And of course, Microsoft just saw this as an opportunity to become their own competition.
Another interesting allusion to our current day comes by way of Negroponte’s assertion, “Multimedia will become more book like, something with which you can curl up in bed and either have a conversation or be told a story. Multimedia will someday be as subtle and rich as the feel of paper and the smell of leather” (Negroponte 71). It is easy to see where we are heading with this one. As recently as this year, Apple has come out with devices of this type, most notably, the IPAD. It functions like a thin folder that houses web functionality and multimedia galore. And with the advent of the Kindle device, thousand upon thousands of books are now being sold in digital formats for downloading to a small, book like device that you can indeed curl up with and physically turn virtual pages with a gentle finger stroke. In this instance, he is exactly on target with his vision for ease of use in the world of new media. I personally have friends who have rid themselves of most of their physical libraries in lieu of their new Kindle books. They have stated boldly that they shall not purchase another paper book again. The user friendliness seems to be be inherent in the machines and now the book experience is truly digital.
Finally, Negroponte foresaw the coming debate and controversy regarding neutrality in terms of content and bandwith via cable and internet sources. On page 79 of Being Digital he mentions the coming difficulty of regulating a company should they own both content and channel (or service) and what new problems may be faced by that company regarding their behaviors. As he questions, “…if AT&T and Disney merge, will the new company make it less expensive for children to access Mickey Mouse than Bugs Bunny”? And earlier in the work he makes the assumption regarding governmental bandwith regulation that, “ (He) believe(s) that the FCC is too smart to want to be the bit police” (Negroponte 55). Well, he may be right on the money in terms of the new debate rising and the future of the media and content technologies but he isn’t so sharp when it comes to government. Recently, the FCC has decided to be just that; bit police. Though they have been blocked by the courts, they have continued to appeal for the right to enforce a bandwith neutrality that would require companies to give equal speed and service to all content regardless of bias and ownership. But that being the case, Negroponte is correct in his belief that this would become a major issue as companies like Comcast have slowed the connections to certain content for reasons of delivery speeds or preferential treatment to certain medias. So the war is on, it seems, just as he foretold.
Now, obviously, Nicholas Negroponte is no true soothsayer or powerful psychic. What he is, is a man who lives right on the pulse of the creative front in the worlds technology innovation factory. He is at the epicenter of creation and thus can see where things are heading as he is just as must a part of the driving force as any other innovator in the field. What Negroponte has that we don’t, is a front row seat to the imagination of the greatest technological minds in our world. If he isn’t the one creating the new wave, he knows the people who are and that makes him incredibly influential and strikingly important to our understanding of the possibilities for our future generation. He is a front-line reporter who is part of the story he is covering. Being immersed in the world you provide commentary for affords one a great deal of accuracy when making assumptions or predictions. While this helps Negroponte a great deal, keep in mind that he himself has driven a great deal of this innovation. And having a knack for knowing people and the way they invariably react to new things, he provides a candid take that should be considered every time he offers. While all this tech and future predictions can be overwhelming, it is important to remember that he was correct in most cases about where we and the technology were heading. But even greater still, is the necessity to look past those envisionings to his true purpose in writing this work. He sees the evolution of the human experience as being and becoming digital. He predicted that social networking would become web based, that our information will continually become more digitally stored and based, and that televisions would reach definition levels that would baffle in contrast to their thinness. He knew that we were heading toward an age of become digital people. People who have entire lives in binary code. Persons whose existence is a series of ones and zeros. His work, Being Digital, isn’t just a commentary on the future of our technologies, it was a commentary on the future of us. That is his greatest prediction. That we will become a part of what we have created. We will be intertwined personally with our technologies and, in some cases, indistinguishable.
Negroponte says it best in the closing line of page 61, “The medium is no longer the message”. How true that is for our world. Let us not look at our ever digitizing tech for meaning, but rather to our ever digitizing lives. Are we near perfect binary representations of the image and idea of real persons long since past? Or are we the real deal; the genuine article; one of a kind? Well, Nicholas Negroponte sure the hell is.