Thoughts on ‘Being Digital’

ICSA 860

September 9, 1996

Sean Butler



There is a basic game in academia to ask the question, ‘What is the most important invention in the course of human history?’ Answers vary widly. The plow, simple and prehistoric, allowed humans to change their social patterns from hunters and gatherers, to aggregate in large cities, because it allowed one group to create a surplus of food and therefore they could feed others. The printing press is an answer that also is often given, as it allowed humans to record and pass on information easily to the masses, which accelerated our learning and knowledge acquisition process.


Perhaps we are on the verge of exploiting another revolution that will be in the same class as the plow and printing press. In ‘Being Digital,’ Nicholas Negroponte presents a futuristic view of the future and how it will be shaped by the current growth of digital information. As our reliance on ‘atoms’ decreases, and our reliance on ‘bits’ increases, the world around us and how we interact with it and with each other will undoubtably change.


From Atoms to Bits

Negroponte’s focus throughout the book is on the movement of atoms to bits, and the technological infrastructure necessary to facilitate that movement. Although he constantly discusses the technological changes along with the effects they will have on society, this paper will take a different approach by first focusing on the technology, and then turning to the effects the technology will have, after the foundation is laid for what being digital means.




Currently in our society, nearly all information is being transformed from atoms to bits. What this means is that the physical entities once used to represent information are no longer necessary. Whereas a book or a newspaper once carried text, and audio waves and video waves once carried radio and TV signals, now, this information is represented by bits.


Basically, bits are ‘binary digits,’ which means they are either 0 or 1, on or off. Textual, audio, and video information, can all be represented by bits. Why would we want or need to digitize such information? There are many reasons, including the fact that once a book is digitized, for example, many people from many disparate locations can all access the book. There is no longer the need to print thousands or millions of books and to ship them all over the world. The savings resulting from no printing and shipping costs would be enough to justify the digitization process, but there is more.


When information is digitized, it can be compressed. This means that if the original representation of the information is 10000 bits, depending on the nature of the information (i.e., text, audio, video), it may be shrunk down smaller and smaller, depending on how much degradation of the original is possible. In some cases, no degradation is possible, as with financial data, or many other types of textual information. However, with audio signals, slight loss of quality from the original does not significantly reduce the transmission of information. (Think of how easy you can understand another speaker when a loud truck whizzes by, or how you understand a conversation on a cellular phone even though there is a lot of static.) Compression is important because it allows you to store the same information using less and less storage space, and it allows you to transmit that information at faster and faster rates.


It is important to note that not everything is or can be digitized. In the information and entertainment industries, bits are everything, but not in other industries such as manufacturing or food production. As Negroponte states, “If you make Chinese food or cashmere sweaters, it will be along time before we can convert them to bits. ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ is a wonderful dream but not likely…” (p.12).



The Computers

Throughout the book, Negroponte emphasizes that technology is currently advancing at a tremendous pace, and computers and their peripherals are becoming smaller, faster, and simpler to use. As this happens, computers will become ubiquitous. They currently show up in many areas other than the conventional locations of an office desk or a manufacturing plant. There are several in most cars, and many household appliances now have small computers. Eventually, most machines and appliances will have computers. Negroponte suggests that they will all work together in tandem, instead of separately as they generally do today.


Also, our interface to computers, which today generally consists of a keyboard, a terminal, and a mouse, will change. Other input devices, such as light pens and touch screens, are already being used. The biggest step will be when our interface to computers becomes more multi-sensory, so that we can combine the use touch, sight, and hearing. All of these exist today, but they have not been combined satisfactorily. Negroponte suggests that there is no single ‘best’ interface, and he is correct. However, he seems to imply that any application should be able to handle any interface, but this is not necessary and won’t always be beneficial. Each application should have a customizable interface that makes use of any and all senses that can be used to benefit the interaction.




The Network

Information in bit form is useless if there is no way to transport the bits from one place to another without having to first change them back to atoms. As an example, audio compact discs are digitized music, yet they are manufactured in a factory and shipped to music stores across the world. This doesn’t take advantage of all the benefits of being digital. It would be much better if the music could stay digital, and be shipped to the consumers in that form, and stay that way even while the consumer is using it. To facilitate this type of use, a network capable of transporting bits is necessary.


Negroponte discusses the current situation of the network infrastructure in the United States. Copper telephone lines reach nearly every household. Also, cable television wires reach well over half of all homes. And broadcast radio signals, used in radio and TV, reach everywhere. These three separate networks will need to converge to create a true Information Super highway that will allow being digital to reach its full potential.


One possible problem is bandwidth. Digital audio and video take more bandwidth than conventional digital text information. Current copper lines with current modems operate digitally at maximum rates of 33.3 Kbps, yet audio signals require 64 Kbps, and video 1.5 Mbps, so transfer of audio and video can’t happen in interactive, real time mode. However, newer technologies are emerging, such as Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Loop (see URL http://, that allow up to 6 Mbs to be received. The cable lines that are currently installed are right now capable of transmitting 10 Mbps.


The real answer to the bandwidth problem is fiber lines, which are capable of handling tremendous amounts of bits per second. Negroponte tells us to “think of the capacity of fiber as infinite,” (p.23), and goes on to explain that recent experiments indicate fiber lines are able to deliver 1000 billion bits per second (100,000 times faster than cable lines). As fiber becomes cheaper and cheaper, it will eventually replace copper and cable to reach every home. However, Negroponte suggests that the copper and cable infrastructure now in place can and should be used during a transitionary phase to fiber.


These thoughts lead Negroponte to describe what has come to be known as the “Negroponte Switch.” The idea “simply says that the information currently coming through the ground (read, wires) will come in the future through the ether, and the reverse” (p.24). By ether he means the spectrum of waves, or nonphysical media, which includes radio and TV signals. “The reason . . . the trading of places is self-evident is that bandwidth in the ground is infinite and in the ether it is not.” (p. 24). The ether will have to be reserved for devices that can not stay attached to wires, such as cellular phones and pagers.


One more important aspect of the network infrastructure Negroponte discusses is stars vs. loops. The current telephone network is a star topology, where individual lines are wired to each house, and each line can carry its own signal. The cable television network is basically a loop topology, as even though individual lines go to each house, they all carry the same information. Negroponte states that eventually most wiring will be stars (p.33), because it is silly to deliver 1000 programs to every home, when instead you can deliver 1 program to each home when that home requests the program.


Digital Effects

Now that the meaning of ‘Being Digital’ has been discussed, and how it will work is understood, we can address the effects it will have on humanity. Changes will be many and far reaching, so we will only discuss some of the major issues here. First, we will discuss some issues Negroponte addressed in his book, including his views and some of my own thoughts, and then address some issues he neglected..



Negroponte Effects

Information Overload and Intelligent Agents

As is currently evident with the explosion of information available on the Internet, our greatest unsolved problem right now is information overload. Using the search engines available today, a simple search on ‘Being Digital’ may give 5000 hits. Many of these are duplicate sites, and many more are sites in foreign languages. Another example of information overload is the IBM InfoSage product (, which delivers a list of summaries on articles that match my personalized profile for topics I am interested in, and gives me the choice to retrieve any or all of the full articles. When I first subscribed to this service, I received 8-10 articles per day at most. Now I am getting 30-40. I have not updated my profile since I first created it 3 months ago, but that kind of growth is impossible to keep up with.


Even though the InfoSage application is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. There is a real need for intelligent agents that can retrieve information and assemble it in formats that people can quickly and easily use, and deliver it when and where they want it. Negroponte states that demographics will no longer be necessary, as the computer will know you better as an individual than statistics can. “True personalization is now upon us.” (p. 164) Basically, mass media as we know it will be forever changed. Instead of push based media, where a single newspaper or news broadcast is sent to everyone, media wil be pull based, where my computer will act as an intelligent agent to retrieve a personal newspaper or news broadcast for me. Even beyond this, the computer will know that if I like a particular brand of clothing and if local department store has a sale on that brand, it will notify me. We will be asking both explicitly and implicitly for information and intelligent computer agents will deliver it to us.



Bits are Bits

As Negroponte is found of saying, ‘bits are bits.’ By this, he means that once information is digitized, it all looks the same no matter what it was originally. Therefore, the sender transmits the bits, and the receiver can choose to interpret them anyway it wishes. For instance, a bit stream with the latest political news may be sent, and depending on where you are and what you are doing, you may want to receive that information in various ways. If you a driving in your car, it is not a good idea to watch the information in video form, yet it would be easy to listen to it in its audio form. No longer will the originator of the information dictate in what form the receiver must use the information.



Bits about Bits

When information is digitized, there is room in the signal for other bits to describe what the original signal is. For instance, a video stream for a documentary on the assassination of John F. Kennedy can have another stream of information stating that it is a documentary about JFK, as currently there is no way for a machine to recognize from the video only what the subject of the video is. What this means is that you set your VCR to record based on the content of shows, not based on when they air (p.19).



Virtual Reality

As computers become more and more powerful, the applications and their realism get better and better. We are at the very beginning stages of virtual reality (VR) applications, where a computer simulates reality and a person’s interaction with it. As we progress with this new technology, the applications and their usefulness will be tremendous. One example Negroponte explores is driver education. Schooling and practice can only go so far. It is impossible to obtain real experience for dangerous situations. You can not have a child run out in front of your car in real life, but in a virtual reality simulation, this and much more is possible. Besides training applications, Negroponte discusses the entertainment value of VR. Instead of a passive move where the consumer sits back and watches, interactive VR movies will be possible.



Telecommuting and Being Asynchronous

For many types of people, whom Negroponte terms “knowledge workers” (p.166), it is not necessary to be at a given location to perform their job functions. With the growth of computer networking, ‘work-from-home’ programs have proliferated. And as the technology of computers and networks gets better and better, more and more types of jobs will be capable of being performed remotely. Although Negroponte’s example of performing brain surgery (p. 166) seems far fetched, there are definitely many types of jobs where working from afar will be possible.


Negroponte further goes on to discuss ‘being asynchronous,’ meaning that besides not having to be at a certain location to work, people will also be able to work at any time. E-mail and voice mail are just two examples of applications that enable workers to be asynchronous. In the future, “Digital life will include very little real-time broadcast,” (p.168) except for sports or news events that need to be seen live. There will be real ‘media on demand,’ so that if I want to watch a particular TV show, I won’t have to be in front of the TV at a certain time, but instead could request it whenever I had time.


Negroponte doesn’t delve very deep into the effects telecommuting and being asynchronous may have, so let’s discuss them briefly. Besides the fact that the technology enables people to work remotely, there have to be good reasons for businesses to allow it, and there have to be good reasons for employees to want to do it. One of the main factors on the business side is in reduced office space. As corporations grow, they generally need larger and larger buildings to support more and more offices. Office space is one of the most costly operating expenses of a corporation. However, if many employees work from home, and only come in once or twice a week (and not all telecommuters come in on the same work days), there is an instant increase in office space if the telecommuters share resources.


On the personal side, there are many benefits. No more time is spent commuting to work. Since the middle of this century, when workers began to move out of the cities and into the suburbs, commute times have grown dramatically. In many large cities, average commute times are over an hour. Working from home frees all this time to pursue other activities. Also, commuting is often not a pleasant experience, as everyone is in a rush and the roads are crowded. Many people get very tense driving to work, but this is eliminated when an employee can telecommute.


As telecommuting becomes more and more popular, there are bound to be some profound changes in society. Not only will the breadwinner of the family be telecommuting, but students will be able to take classes remotely. The family and the local neighborhood will likely become more important as people spend more time close to home and with each other.



Broadcasting and Publishing

As Negroponte discusses, with the growth of the Internet, anyone can be a broadcaster or a publisher. Publishing is straightforward, as once a work is put on the Web, and a few announcements are made to news groups and hypertext links are added to a few search engines, the work is easily accessible by many. Broadcasting via the Internet is still in its early stages, as the software and hardware necessary on the home PCs that can receive the transmission is just now becoming popular. Also, the bandwidth needed for audio and video is not always available, and since the response of the network is not predictable, real time transmission is difficult. However, these will not be hurdles much longer, and once the technology is ready, anyone will be able to broadcast.


What kind of issues may arise from the fact that anyone can publish or broadcast? As Negroponte puts it, “There is simply no way to limit the freedom of bit radiation…” (p. 55). This means that the FCC in the U.S., and government agencies of other countries, will not be able to regulate broadcasting as is currently done. Licenses to broadcast, and the money necessary to purchase them, will be useless when the data flowing across the network is in digital form and it will require too many resources for the government to determine which bits are broadcast bits. And although the government doesn’t regulate publishing, the cost to produce and distribute printed works is often prohibitive, but to do so electronically is not, so anyone who wants to will be able to publish on the Web.


Negroponte does not discuss the creditability of information in this digital age, and although the creditability of information sources as always been of interest in the past, the magnitude of the problem will be much higher once the Web becomes a publishing and broadcasting free-for-all. Whereas society now feels comfortable with certain broadcast news shows and reputable news papers and magazines, and most of society does not feel comfortable with other types of news shows such as ‘Hardcopy,’ and certain types of magazines, such as ‘Weekly World News,’ it will be much more difficult to judge the creditability of the information when there are millions of providers instead of the hundreds that exist today.


Another issue that arises when discussing the publishing and broadcasting capabilities available on the Internet, that Negroponte does not discuss, is the fact that it is very difficult to hide information or keep secrets on large social scales. For a government to withhold information from the public will be very difficult, for if just one person has knowledge of or access to the information, and does not agree with the government trying to hide that information, all they have to do is release it on the Network, and instantly the whole world will have access. This may have major effects in countries such as China, where the government is very careful on what information is sent to the masses. If they are unable to prevent such information flow, the citizens will have more knowledge and may demand political changes.



Other Effects



Negroponte briefly touches on one major issue in the Afterward of his book, but it deserves much more attention than he gives it. That issue is privacy. More discussion of this issue would not really fit well with the ‘futures’ style and theme of his book, so it is understandable that he did not delve deeper into it. However, we can discuss it here.


With the computerization of many financial transactions, via credit or debit cards, and now with personal checks, nearly everything you buy, where you buy it, and when you buy it is recorded. Every phone call you make, to what number, at what time, and for how long are also recorded. If you take advantage of the convenience of banking features such as automatic deposit, or automatic payments of loans, all of this information is stored. Medical records are now being kept by your doctor online, so that transfer of the information to other doctors is simpler. As ‘Being Digital’ becomes more of a reality, eventually all of these records will be linked.


Another issue with the digital Internet is that e-mail is not the same as ‘snail mail’ when it comes to privacy. Although the envelope you send a paper letter in can always be opened, if it arrives sealed at its destination, it was most likely never read by anyone except the sender and receiver. However, this is not necessarily true of electronic mail. There is no way to know that the sender and receiver were the only ones to see the information inside. Anyone with access to the mail servers at either end could potentially read and/or save the e-mail for their own uses.


Protection schemes, such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), are available to help reduce the problems of e-mail privacy, though there will be many governments who will not allow its use. The issues of personal records being stored are not so easily remedied. The fact that in most databases, from your banks to your doctors records, a single number (social security number) is generally used to identify who the information belongs to, means that if precautions are not taken, it will be tremendously easy to instantly know nearly everything about you.

How will this affect society? There will be many individuals who don’t care about the privacy issues and will always take advantages of the digital conveniences, and there will be others who will never know all of their personal information is being saved by others. Many consumers who do not want all of their purchases to be recorded will turn to cash. If paper cash is ever replaced by electronic cash, as it appears it may be with the popularity of debit cards, some consumers may eventually turn to black markets, where goods and services are not purchased with money, but traded for with other goods and services.




“Copyright is totally out of date,” states Negroponte on page 58, and he is basically correct when it comes to digital information. With information in atom form, there were always cost restrictions on copying. For example, copying a book with a photocopy machine would only give one copy, and it most likely would cost more than buying another book. With audio CD’s, the equipment to make copies is beyond the means of most consumers. However, bits are tremendously easy to duplicate, so once information is in digital form, it can be sent to millions of people at basically no cost to the copier.


Another problem is that the network is global, and there are some governments that will disregard copyrights from other nations. As an example, look at the mass production of audio CD’s in China, which the Chinese government has not truly tried to stop even with pressures from the US government.


Besides the fact that bits are easy to duplicate and send, they are also easy to modify. Transformations can be simple, such as changing the colors on a digital photograph, or more complex, such as changing the actual information in a news article without stating it was done. Without some type of protection on the bits, there will be know way of knowing for certain that they match the originals.


There are no simple solutions to these problems. The information producers are always going to want and need money for their works. In the software industry, the 1st attempted solution was to make it difficult to copy the software, but hackers quickly solved all of the tricks. The 2nd solution was to charge more for their products than an individual product was worth, as the producers knew for each one they sold, there would be several copies made. A 3rd solution was to sell the documentation with the software, and limit the online help, so that the product would be nearly useless without it. None of these tactics seemed to help solve the software piracy issues, and there are no apparent solutions for the fact that digital information is easily copied and transferred to others. Copyright laws will have to change in order to protect the information creators, but more importantly, technologies will have to be developed to protect the digital information.



Human Relations

Negroponte discussed the transformations that will take place between the human-computer interactions of today and those of tomorrow. He briefly touched on some applications that will and are already affecting human interactions today, such as e-mail, but he did not discuss the long term effects ‘Being Digital’ will have on human interactions. E-mail and electronic conferencing, such as is popular on the Internet’s USE NET, are clearly viewed and used differently by humans than more conventional forms of communications. The benefits are obvious. E-mail allows users to communicate effectively asynchronously and with tremendous speed, from anywhere in the world. Electronic conferencing also provides the asynchronous and geographical advantages, and allows many people to contribute to a group discussion. Willing experts routinely provide their knowledge for the benefit of the group.


However, these new forms of communications have clearly affected human relations. For email, electornic letters are much less formal than their written counterparts. Often, a few sentences are all that are sent, whereas written letters are generally much longer and more personal. For electronic conferencing, it is apparent from the ‘fighting’ that occurs on the Internet, that individuals are much more likely to speak up on issues that they might not have if the group were interacting face-to-face. This ‘fighting’ is not as apparent in the work place or in controlled settings, such as a distance learning class forums.


It is impossible to see how this will affect humans in the long term. The technology is so new and in its early stages of development, we do not yet know the full ramifications. Some people, who do not communicate well face-to-face, will clearly benefit by communicating from behind a computer screen. However, on a large scale, the new tools are not likely to dramatically change human interactions. They will most likely only be used as additional vehicles to interface with others, and enhance our current communications.





Nicholas Negroponte, in Being Digital, clearly sees the digitization of information and the network infrastructure necessary to facilitate it as having huge impacts on the course of human history. From intelligent agents that will assist us in weaving our way through the tremendous amounts of information available, to virtual reality applications that will better train and entertain us, to the changes we will see in our work and home life, our personal and social relations will be forever changed. Will these changes be as significant as the changes brought about by the invention of the plow or of the printing press? Only time will tell, but Negroponte’s vision of the future answers with a resounding yes.



Being Digital. Nicholas Negroponte. Vintage Books. 1995.


IBM InfoSage, URL


ADSL Internet Page: URL http://

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