Beyond Digital
Sometimes defining the spirit of an age can be as simple as a single word. You may remember, for instance, the succinct (if somewhat cryptic) career advice given to young Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, in the 1967 film The Graduate:


"Exactly how do you mean?" asked Ben.

"There's a great future in plastics," replied Mr. McGuire. "Think about it. Will you think about it?"

Now that we're in that future, of course, plastics are no big deal. Is digital destined for the same banality? Certainly. Its literal form, the technology, is already beginning to be taken for granted, and its connotation will become tomorrow's commercial and cultural compost for new ideas. Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence.

The decades ahead will be a period of comprehending biotech, mastering nature, and realizing extraterrestrial travel, with DNA computers, microrobots, and nanotechnologies the main characters on the technological stage. Computers as we know them today will a) be boring, and b) disappear into things that are first and foremost something else: smart nails, self-cleaning shirts, driverless cars, therapeutic Barbie dolls, intelligent doorknobs that let the Federal Express man in and Fido out, but not 10 other dogs back in. Computers will be a sweeping yet invisible part of our everyday lives: We'll live in them, wear them, even eat them. A computer a day will keep the doctor away.

The foothills of the future
And so? I know: Extrapolating bandwidth, processor speed, network dimensions, or the shrinking size of electromechanical devices has become truly tiresome. Moore's Law, first expounded by Gordon Moore in 1965, is indeed a stroke of brilliance, but one more mention of it should make you puke. Terabit access, petahertz processors, planetary networks, and disk drives on the heads of pins will be ... they'll just be. Face it - the Digital Revolution is over.

Yes, we are now in a digital age, to whatever degree our culture, infrastructure, and economy (in that order) allow us. But the really surprising changes will be elsewhere, in our lifestyle and how we collectively manage ourselves on this planet.

Consider the term "horseless carriage." Blindered by what came before them, the inventors of the automobile could not see the huge change it would have on how we work and play, how we build and use cities, or how we derive new business models and create new derivative businesses. It was hard, in other words, to imagine a concept such as no-fault insurance in the days of the horse and buggy.

We have a similar blindness today, because we just cannot imagine a world in which our sense of identity and community truly cohabitates the real and virtual realms. We know that the higher we climb, the thinner the air, but we haven't experienced it - we're not even at digital base camp.

Looking forward, I see five forces of change that come from the digital age and will affect the planet profoundly: 1) global imperatives, 2) size polarities, 3) redefined time, 4) egalitarian energy, and 5) meaningless territory.

Being global
As humans, we tend to be suspicious of those who do not look like us, dress like us, or act like us, because our immediate field of vision includes people more or less like us. In the future, communities formed by ideas will be as strong as those formed by the forces of physical proximity. Kids will not know the meaning of nationalism.

Nations, as we know them today, will erode because they are neither big enough to be global nor small enough to be local. The evolutionary life of the nation-state will turn out to be far shorter than that of the pterodactyl. Local governance will abound. A united planet is certain, but when is not.

Being big and small
All things digital get bigger and smaller at the same time - most things in the middle fall out. We'll see a rise in huge corporations, airplanes, hotels, and newspaper chains in parallel with growth in mom-and-pop companies, private planes, homespun inns, and newsletters written about interests most of us did not even know humans have.

The only value in being big in any corporate sense will be the ability to lose billions of dollars before making them.

Being prime
Prime time will be my time. We'll all live very asynchronous lives, in far less lockstep obedience to each other. Any store that is not open 24 hours will be noncompetitive. The idea that we collectively rush off to watch a television program at 9:00 p.m. will be nothing less than goofy. It will make sense only for sporting events and election results - and that is only because people are betting.

The true luxury in life is to not set an alarm clock and to stay in pajamas as long as you like. From this follows a complete renaissance of rural living. In the distant future, the need for cities will disappear.

Being equal
The caste system is an artifact of the world of atoms. Even dogs seem to know that on the Net.

Childhood and old age will be redefined. Children will become more active players, learning by doing and teaching, not just being seen and not heard. Retirement will disappear as a concept, and productive lives will be increased by all measures, most important those of self. Your achievements and contributions will come from their own value.

Being unterritorial
Sovereignty is about land. A lot of killing goes on for reasons that do not make sense in a world where landlords will be far less important than webmasters. We'll be drawing our lines in cyberspace, not in the sand. Already today, belonging to a digital culture binds people more strongly than the territorial adhesives of geography - if all parties are truly digital.

Ask yourself about the basics, about water, air, and fire. Remember the game 20 Questions? You begin by giving a hint as to whether you are thinking of an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral. OK. I am thinking of none of them. I am thinking of 100111100010110001.

Next: After six years of writing the back page, I have decided it is time to pass this prime real estate on to someone else, before I find myself on the wrong side of the Wired/Tired equation. I won't be gone too far and will appear at times in this and other parts of the magazine. Promise.

[Back to the Index of WIRED Articles | Back to Nicholas Negroponte's Home Page | Back to the Media Lab Home Page]

[Copyright 1998, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 6.12, December 1998.]