September 03, 1996

Article at The Age

TECHNOLOGY | Caught in a storm of change

Nicholas Negroponte: not your average college professor

Nicholas Negroponte is one very wired guy. A pioneer of the Internet and oracle of electronic commerce, he warns that the digital revolution is about to change the very way we do business. Radically.


NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE is not your average college professor.

A columnist and part-owner of Wired magazine, the American bible of the Internet, he logs 480,000 kilometres a year on airliners - always first class. His suits are the best Italy has to offer, he has a taste for (elegant and expensive) Montrachet wine and boasts that he knows “basically every media mogul on a first name basis”. (And that includes the man he calls Rupert).

He is the director of The Media Lab, the world-renowned research centre at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was here that multimedia was born, where computers are being made that can be worn - personal organisers implanted in the heel of your shoe and powered by walking. They have machines being trained to read emotions as well as understand speech, and computer programs that can learn the kind of movies you like, then accurately recommend others you haven’t seen.

It’s been 10 years since he founded The Media Lab. Its early work, considered slightly crazy then, is now taken as commonplace.

Some call him a true visionary; others a circus act: “the P. T. Barnum of science”. Well-connected hype merchant or not, he is certainly the darling of the corporate world. The Media Lab has more than 130 corporate sponsors, ranging from Sony, IBM, Intel and News Corp to Swatch, Nike and Levis. Even the Government of Singapore is said to throw in the odd dollar.

It has an annual budget of $32 million, and a $40 million endowment. It receives only $1.3 million from MIT: in comparison, other MIT faculties get between 6 and 10 per cent of their funding from outside sources. In the past seven years, the Lab has been awarded 26 patents for hot emerging technologies.

At the heart of it all is Negroponte’s vision of the digital revolution: we are changing from a world based on atoms into one based on “bits”, or packets of information.

“Today’s TV sets let you control brightness, volume and channel,” Negroponte says. “Tomorrow’s will allow the viewer to vary sex, violence and political leaning.

“Look at what makes television today: mass audience, synchronised viewing for the convenience of advertisers, and little choice.

Compare that to books. Over 50,000 trade books a year are published in the US alone. It is a medium of choice. Think of TV like books, delivered over the Internet.

“But you’re not going to get 500 channels; they won’t be pushing bits at people like they do today. What you will get will be one channel with everything you want in it. Zooming down that pipe will be a little packet with my name on it. It will come out like personalised, packaged media that I can play at my leisure in my VCR.”

TV stations will start delivering programs on request, or let viewers choose camera angles they want to see at the football.

As far as Negroponte is concerned, television as we know it, with TV networks pumping out programs over the airwaves, and everyone rushing home to see the same thing at the same time, is already dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.

That’s what the war between Foxtel and Optus Vision is all about: building optical fibre pipes that can bring you torrents of digital information and services at home. Companies that want to sell you goods will be charged a tiny fee for every transaction: nothing noticeable, just a cent here and a cent there. It’ll be so easy to do everything from home, you won’t think twice.

But these are only the first footsteps of the digital revolution, says Negroponte. Already, anything that can be digitised can be shipped across the planet at the speed of light. It’s already happening in industry: computer programs, legal documents, magazines, music. Anyone not preparing for this world would end up being a roadkill on the information superhighway within years.

“Computing is not about computers, it’s about life,” Negroponte adds. “We’re discussing a fundamental cultural change. Being digital is not about being a geek or an Internet surfer or a mathematically savvy child, it’s actually a way of living and is going to impact on absolutely everything.”

The repercussions of this revolution will be massive, he says, and not just for consumers. “My intuition is that this is a big one, much bigger than the Industrial Revolution ... bigger than the printing press. And it’s certainly happening more quickly.”

“But it’s like a storm. When you are in it, you really cannot compare it so easily with other storms. My guess is that the implications of this revolution, because of its global nature, will force major changes in nationalism, education and economics.”

And it’s coming at us at breakneck speed, the scientists will tell you. Every two years, there is more computing power created than existed before in all of human history. At current rates of growth, there could be 100 million on the Internet within three years: Negroponte predicts one billion by 2001.