Message: 20
Date: 2.1.95
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Being Digital - A book (p)review

The Paradox of a Book
When I agreed to write the back page for WIRED, I had no idea what it would entail. I encountered many surprises. The biggest by far was my discovery that the magazine readership included a wide range of people, not just those with an @ behind their name. When I learned that kids were giving WIRED to their parents as Christmas presents, I was blown away. There seems to be a huge thirst to understand computers, electronic content, and the Net as a culture - not just as a technology.

For this reason, and with encouragement from many readers (both rants and raves), I decided to repurpose my WIRED columns into a book entitled Being Digital, which comes out the first of February. The idea sounded simple in June - but 20 stories don't necessarily string together into one book, even if they happen to be pearls. More important, so much has changed so quickly that the future-looking early stories have become old hat.

To my surprise, one thing that held up from the beginning was that the columns used words alone - no pictures. That seemed to work. As one of the inventors of multimedia, I found it ironic that I never use illustration. Furthermore, as a believer in bits, I had to reconcile myself to the idea that my publisher, Knopf, would be shipping mere atoms around.

Bits Are Bits
But I did learn a few things as Imined my columns for the themes that run throughout Being Digital. The first is that bits are bits, but all bits are not created equal. The entire economic model of telecommunications -based on charging per minute, per mile, or per bit - is about to fall apart. As human-to-human communications become increasingly asynchronous, time will be meaningless (five hours of music will be delivered to you in less than five seconds). Distance is irrelevant: New York to London is only five miles further than New York to Newark via satellite. Sure, a bit of Gone with the Wind cannot be priced the same as a bit of e-mail. In fact, the expression "a bit of something" has new and enormous double meaning.

Furthermore, we are clueless about the ownership of bits. Copyright law will disintegrate. In the United States, copyrights and patents are not even in the same branch of government. Copyright has very little logic: you can hum "Happy Birthday" in public to your heart's delight, but if you sing the words, you owe a royalty. Bits are bits indeed. But what they cost, who owns them, and how we interact with them are all up for grabs.

Interface - Where Bits and People Meet
You cannot experience a bit. It must be turned back into atoms for human beings to enjoy it. While the process of converting bits to atoms has become sensory-rich, the reverse direction - turning atoms into bits - is almost desolate. Human input to machines is Paleolithic and keeps most parents and many of our friends from being wired.

The bottlenecks are speech (long overdue) and vision (normally not considered). What I realized in writing this part of the book is that a happy coincidence is staring us in the face (so to speak). Many companies, notably Intel (which is very vocal about many things), are pushing desktop videoconferencing. The result is that sooner rather than later, we will have a growing population of machines with solid-state television cameras at the top of the screen and built-in microphones at the bottom.

While this design has been conceived to pass your voice and a picture of your face to a remote and similar machine, it could serve handsomely as a direct feed into your computer - not a teleconference but a local conference with your machine. So please, Intel, make sure that audio and video are processable, so my machine sees my face and hears my voice. On occasion, I really do want to be in a society of one.

Digital Life
Here is where my optimism may have gotten in the way; I guess I have too many of those O (for optimistic) genes. But I do believe that being digital is positive. It can flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people in ways beyond not knowing whether you are a dog. In fact, there is a parallel, which I failed to describe in the book, between open and closed systems and open and closed societies. In the same way that proprietary systems were the downfall of once great companies like Data General, Wang, and Prime, overly hierarchical and status-conscious societies will erode. The nation-state may go away. And the world benefits when people are able to compete with imagination rather than rank.

Furthermore, the digital haves and have-nots will be less concerned with race or wealth and more concerned (if anything) with age. Developing nations will leapfrog the telecommunications infrastructures of the First World and become more wired (and wireless). We once moaned about the demographics of the world. But all of a sudden we must ask ourselves: Considering two countries with roughly the same population, Germany and Mexico, is it really so good that less than half of all Germans are under 40 and so bad that more than half of all Mexicans are under 20? Which of those nations will benefit first from "being digital"?

And You Don't Even Have to Read It
One of the many things I learned is that publishers will release simultaneously an audio version of the book. I discovered this at the same time I learned I was expected to read it. Being dyslexic, even with my own words, I refused. Then I asked Knopf if Penn Jillette (see WIRED's September cover) could do it. Penn is one of the coolest people I know, and I felt he would bring all sorts of magic to the process. During the time when I thought Knopf was stewing on this wild idea, they were in fact asking Penn, before I could even get to him. He graciously agreed. All he asked me by e-mail was, "Are there any hard words?" No, there are none.

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[Copyright 1995, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 3.02 February 1995.]