Re-reading “Being Digital,” 25 years later

We read a hundred and one child-rearing advice books, my wife and I did, back in 1995 when we were expecting our first kid: the seminal What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Terry Brazelton’s brilliant and groundbreaking Touchpoints, a well-worn copy of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care that had made the rounds with our older, child-bearing siblings, and many more.   But while we were busy seeking the secrets to being perfect parents in the pages of these books, I didn’t realize I was already in possession of the one book I really needed to help my soon-to-be-son thrive in this world: Being Digital, by Nicholas Negroponte.

Re-reading Negroponte’s book now, 25 years after it was released (and just a few weeks before my son Evan turns 25), I realize that Being Digital told me everything I would need to know about the kind of world my son would be growing up in, and how to navigate it.  It’s an extraordinarily prescient book, describing how the world back then was quickly transitioning from “atoms to bits,” and how everything would soon be digitized. 

I remember being skeptical about some of Negroponte’s predictions: Who would want to read a digital book? Digital files will replace all my albums? No way.  

But if you read the book today, it’s striking just how much Negroponte got right.

Negroponte was no Nostradumas-like psychic, though.  He was the founder and director of the MIT Media Lab and a columnist for Wired Magazine, giving him access to many of the world’s most future-thinking people and cutting-edge technologies.  And Negroponte was blessed with the storytelling skills to write a best-selling book that painted a vivid picture of the soon-to-be digitized world that we would live in.

I was 29 years-old when Being Digital was published, and at the time I was living large in an analog world: typing my grad school papers on an IBM Selectric typewriter while listening to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on my dusty vinyl-turntable.  I still hadn’t figured out how to set the clock on the VCR, and I was just starting to tinker with my IBM PS 1 personal computer and its 28.8 modem.  

But this baby we were about to have, Negroponte told me, would live and learn and play and work in a world of bits, not atoms. 

When Being Digital went to press, the book tells us, “35 percent of American families and 50 percent of American teenagers had a personal computer at home; 30 million people were estimated to be on the Internet; 65 percent of new computers sold worldwide in 1994 were for the home; and 90 percent of those sold in 1995 were expected to have modems or CD-ROMs.”

Imagine?  CD-ROMs!  Wow.

It’s easy to roll your eyes now, 25 years later, when you re-read this book.  Because we take for granted that, back in the day, none of this stuff was obvious.  

“I spend a minimum of three hours a day in front of a computer and have done so for many years,” Negroponte boasts.  From today’s work-from-home-because-of-the-goddamn-global-pandemic perspective, he’s a slacker.  

Here are a few nuggets from the 1995 book:

  • “Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time…if instead of going to work by driving my atoms into town, I log into my office and do my work electronically, exactly where is my workplace?”  (Who wants to tell him?) 
  • “The user community of the Internet will be in the mainstream of everyday life.  Its demographics will look more and more like the demographics of the world itself…the true value of a network is less about information and more about community. The information superhighway is more than a shortcut to every book in the Library of Congress.  It is creating a totally new, global social fabric.” (No way, your 1995-self says.) 
  • “Bits co-mingle effortlessly.  They start to get mixed up and can be used and reused together, or separately. The mixing of audio, video and data is called multimedia; it sounds complicated, bit it is nothing more than co-mingled bits.”  (Sounds exciting!)

The section entitled “Books Without Pages” describes the Kindle 12 years before its debut. The concepts of Video on Demand, DVRs, iPods, iPhones, The Internet of Things, Smart Cities, Siri, Alexa — and their likely impact on the analog society I was raised in — were all explored and explained in Being Digital.   

Looking back now, I wish I was more mindful of the insights Negroponte was passing on to me as a new dad.  I know now, for a fact, that I was applying analog standards to my son’s approach to his increasingly-digital life.  The way he studied, the way he read and consumed information, the games he played, were all so foreign to me as he grew from a toddler to a young man, even though I was still just in my thirties.  And the acute friction we sometimes felt while arguing over homework and screen-time validates Negroponte’s central point when he wrote Being Digital:  the world was changing fast, and my son was a digital native. 

Despite having figured out my PS 1 and upgrading my modem to a blazing fast 56k, I was not a native.  He and I were occupying two very different spaces.  

By the time the stork brought our next two kids — Julia in 1998 and Ethan in 2002 — it felt like they had e-mail addresses before they left the hospital.

Google, founded in September, 1998, tells me today that Negroponte turns 77 this coming December.  So, happy early-birthday to him.  And happy birthday to Being Digital and to my son Evan, who both turn 25 this year.  

I highly recommend you read the book to get a sense of perspective on just how far we’ve come.   And to be honest, while it’s available digitally on Amazon, it’s a better read in analog format.  You can use your kids’ picture from way-back as a bookmark.

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