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“The digital revolution is over”: Nicholas Negroponte in 1998

Douglas Adams once described Nicholas Negroponte as someone who: “writes about the future with the authority of someone who has spent a great deal of time there.”

After re-reading his 1995 classic Being Digital and collected Wired magazine columns, I think that is a very valid description.

Being Digital is best remembered for his distinction between bits and atoms – but second time around it made me appreciate how uncannily prescient he was on a whole host of things: mash ups (commingling), the current travails of the music and media industries and the rise of Chindia for example).

But it also made me realise there were lots of other gems he uncovered. One was regarding MIT faculty member Mike Hawley who had looked at the challenge of cramming more music on to a normal CD. As Negroponte described it, the music industry was tacking the problem in a very incremental manner: “by changing the laser from red to blue.” Hawley looked at recording a piano piece as an example – and noticed that the gestural data density, the measurement of finger movement, was very low. In other words, by storing this on the CD and using a MIDI interface, you could get around 5000 hours of music on a single CD.

According to Negroponte: “By looking for the structure in the signals, how they were generated, we go beyond the surface appearance of bits and discover the building blocks out of which the image, sound, or text came. This is one of the most important facts of digital life.”

PR and marketing is still very much about signals (messages) – though as Negroponte stresses: “interaction is implicit.”

Or consider his Dec 1998 Wired column in which he pronounced: “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.”

A trip through Negroponte’s past writings thus still holds valuable guidance for today and the future.