Being Strange

I’ve been reading Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital. I’ve been hearing so much about these “bit” things, with the “online” and the “digital” and the ga-hoy, that I thought I ought to check out what the fuss is all about. But seriously folks, it’s a sufficiently legendary book—if more for influence than for anything else—that I figured I ought to have a better sense of what’s actually in it.

The results were in many cases surprising. There are some right-on predictions, a total miss here and there, and an awful lot of, well, odd little passages. Here are my favorites, with commentary. (All page references are to the paperback edition.)

Page 13: In the case of textbooks, 45 percent of the cost is inventory, shipping, and returns. Worse, a book can go out of print. Digital books never go out of print. They are always there.

This was the point at which I sat up and opened my eyes. The “45 percent” fact, and I’ll assume its truth, is deeply misleading. Textbook publishing is dominated by shipping tons of books to students, then taking returns at the end of the class, and selling the books to the next crop of students. A 50% buyback (with a resale at 75%) is all but built into the price of many college textbooks. This statistic has little to do with shipping costs and a lot to do with the textbook market.

Page 13: The first entertainment atoms to be displaced and become bits will be those of videocasettes in the rental business …

Flat-out wrong. Music was first, thanks to MP3. Video is just getting there. (Even Netflix still mails bits around.) Given how many fewer bits it takes to encode reasonable audio than to encode reasonable video, I’m surprised by this one.

Page 58: I am convinced that by the year 2005, Americans will spend more hours on the Internet (or whatever it is called) than watching network television.

Dead-on. For 1995, that was a pretty good call.

Page 62: “The fact that, in one year, a then thirty-four-year-old former Michigan cheerleader generated sales in excess of $1.2 billion did not go unnoticed by Time Warner, which signed Madonna to a $60 million “multimedia” contract in 1992.

$1.2 billon in one year is utterly implausible. Madonna does have the record for the all-time top-grossing tour by a female artist: $195 million, but that was in 2006, in 2006 dollars, and in 2006 audience numbers. A League of Their Own took in $132 million, but that was worldwide. To make $1.2 billion at 1990s record prices, you’d need to move on the order of 100 million records. That’s quinquagenuple-platinum. Nuh-uh. Where on earth did he get that number?

Page 101: There may even be exotic channels of communications of which we may not even be aware today. (As somebody married to an identical twin and with identical twin younger brothers, I am fully prepared to believe from observation that extrasensory communication is not out of the question.)

Negroponte’s credulity might explain some of the Media Lab’s odder projects over the years.

Page 130: [M]any people (including me) don’t touch-type.
Page 194: When I fly from New York to Tokyo, roughly fourteen hours, I will type most of the trip and, among other things, compose forty to fifty e-mail messages.
Page 210: I carry more than ten pounds of batteries when travelling in order to feed my laptop on a long flight.

Think about these three facts together. Just think about them.

Page 153: What if a newspaper company were willing to put its entire staff at your beck and call for one edition? … In fact, under these conditions, you might be willing to pay the Boston Globe a lot more for ten pages than for a hundred ages, if you could be confident that it was delivering you the right subset of information. You would consume every bit (so to speak). Call it The Daily Me.

This is the famous “Daily Me” passage, the one that gave Cass Sunstein paroxysms of fear about information cocoons and people walling themselves off from contrary points of view. But notice what follows immediately after in Being Digital:

Page 154: On Sunday afternoon, however, we may wish to experience the news with much more serendipity, learing about things we never were interested in, being challenged by a crossword puzzle, having a good laugh with Art Buchwald, and finding bargains in the ads. This is The Daily Us… . We are not two distinct state of being, black and white. We tend to move between them, and, depending on time available, time of day, and our mood, we will want greater or lesser personalization.

This is exactly right. Personalization is part of our tastes, but so is serendipity. Sunstein’s view of information cocoons and information cascades is a dangerous over-generalization to all-the-time from phenomena that are true enough now-and-then. It’s a profoundly mistaken view of human nature. I’m glad to see the Negroponte doesn’t share it.

Page 173: With all due respect to Blockbuster and its new owner, Viacom, I think videocassette-rental stores will go out of business in less than ten years.

Not quite yet, but Blockbuster is on the ropes.

Page 182: In a very real sense, MUDs and MOOs are a “third” place, not home and not work. Some people today spend eight hours a day there.

Off by a factor of three.

Page 186: The fax machine is a serious blemish on the information landscape, a step backward, whose ramifications will be felt for a long time.

Right on!

Pages 193—-94: There is a very good, now quite famous, cartoon of two dogs using the Internet. One dog types to the other: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The dog is talking to the other dog, not “typing.” Had he really seen the cartoon?

Page 202: Today kids are getting the opportunity to be street smart on the Internet, where children are heard and not seen. Ironically, reading and writing will benefit.

d00d! teh suck!

Page 204: Today a game like Tetris is fully understandable too quickly. All that changes is the speed. We are likely to see members of a Tetris generation who are much better at packing a station wagon, but not much more.

It is quite possible that I have played over a hundred hours of Tetris. I do not believe that I “fully understand[]” the game. I don’t know whether anyone does, except possibly this guy.

Page 207: At a yet higher level, we can think of protocol as meta-standards, or languages to be use to negotiate more detaiiled bit-swapping methods. … TVs and toasters will ask each other the same kind of questions as a precursor to doing business.

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from the TV to the toaster, but the TV and the toaster, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

Pages 210—-11: An excellent and newer candidate for power storage is your belt. Take it off and look at the enormous amount of area and volume it consumes. Imagine a faux cowhide belt with a buckle design that allows it to be plugged into the wall to recharge your cellular phone.

And imagine your belt overheating and bursting into chemical flames.

Page 237: Jake Baker had posted a fictitious essay on (a place I have never been am not sure how to get to).

The founder of the Media Lab and the first investor in Wired didn’t know how to use USENET in 1995.

Negroponte, by the way, has gone on chair One Laptop Per Child (see also), which is both a natural extension of his ideas in Being Digital also profoundly transcends it. I’m hoping he’s right there, and I’m cheered by the signs so far.

In re “serendipity”: I happen to agree, but I’m confused, because back then Negroponte was singing a different tune on other channels. I emailed him back then to take issue with one of his essays in “Wired,” wherein he suggested that physical bookstores were doomed. I emailed him to say that people need serendipity; he wrote back to say that serendipity is nice, but it’s no basis for a business anymore. He thought that Amazon and its ilk would kill traditional bookstores. So it’s weird to see him insisting on the value of serendipity elsewhere.

The founder of the Media Lab and the first investor in Wired didn’t know how to use USENET in 1995.

It was a joke.

Great post, James. Thanks!

5 messages per pound of battery. He might have benefited more from a Moleskine and an assistant to type in the emails upon landing.

I still have a promotional bookmark for this book. It included a binary code secret message that Negroponte claimed couldn’t be cracked. Any idea if it ever was decoded? I’ve looked online for info about it and have turned up nothing…

that tetris video was insane. thanks for the review!

Tetris is hard.

I looked reading this book as a teenage and still think it has some amazing ideas in it. Roll on the house as computer / ambient interface! Interesting review - though rather harsh given the benefit of hindsight - think how wrong he could have been.