Becoming Digital

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, published a seminal book of essays, titled Being Digital.  At the core of his work was his division of all things into atoms or bits. Just as an atom is the basic particle of matter in modern physics, bits are the basic particle of data in modern computing. All the material things in the world are composed of atoms. Increasingly, all of our ideas, learning, communications and stories are expressed in digital format.

As all technological fortune-tellers do, Negroponte gets some things very right and others very wrong. I’m not writing a book review, though, so I’m not going to enumerate each little quirk and quibble. He did get one big lesson right, and we need to learn it.

Developing nations everywhere share a common set of problems. The most obvious and common of them is a simple lack of capacity to begin taking advantage of the things that people in developed nations take for granted: instantaneous communications and the ability to access, gather and store vast amounts of information about every single aspect of humanity, no matter how trivial.

Whether we want to peek at Brad and Angelina’s twins or carbon date Eva de Naharon, we can do so via digital technology. Negroponte puts it quite simply: Everything that can be stored as bits will be stored as bits. Lack of resources, planning and understanding mean that in many parts of the developing world, most local knowledge can’t or won’t survive the transition.

The digitisation of the world’s information has a few important implications. Perhaps the most important is Negroponte’s observation that breadth and depth are no longer mutually exclusive:

“When you buy a printed encyclopedia, world Atlas, or book on the animal kingdom, you expect very general and broad coverage of many far ranging topics.  By contrast, when you buy a book on William Tell, the Aleutian Islands, or kangaroos, you expect an “in depth” treatment of the person, place, or animal.  In the world of atoms, physical limits preclude having both breadth and depth in the same volume — unless it’s a book that’s a mile thick.  In the digital world, the depth/breath problem disappears and we can expect readers and authors to move more freely between generalities and specifics.”

For as long as accessing digital data of any kind remains the primary challenge, the distinction between breadth and depth remains meaningless. But the funny thing is that as soon as you have access to any digital information, the barriers to accessing all of it evaporate. If you can get to a single page on, you can get to all of them. Once you’ve won access to the Internet Movie Database, you get all of MIT’s learning resources as a free bonus.

That’s because – unlike atoms – bits cost nothing to copy. Or as close to nothing as makes no difference.

The first copy does cost, though. Those bits are transmitted over atoms. They’re either tossed through the air between wireless antennas, or they’re sent swimming through pipes made of copper or glass from one information device to the next. It doesn’t cost nearly as much as it used to, but transmitting data still doesn’t come free.

Nor – and this is important – nor does producing data. That requires an inordinate amount of time, effort, material and skill. Even the silliest youtube video requires a digital video camera, someone to hold it, a computer to store and process the footage on, and an Internet connection to transmit it. Of these four things, the average Pacific Islander has only one.

That’s changing, but only slowly. Too slowly, if you ask me. I’ve railed time and again about how unrealistic it is for us to expect to capture and transmit our bits exactly as others do. We should let our needs define which tools we use.

In digital terms, Vanuatu has reached a level of communications that approaches the state of North America in 1995, when Negroponte’s book was first published. Just about everybody has ready access to a phone, but only an elite few have access to computers or the Internet, usually through their work. Time is usually limited, so the task of transcribing local information from atoms to bits is often deferred.

This election season saw a rare flowering of what pundits in the developed world like to call citizen media. Bloggers kept a running tally of the unofficial vote count. And for the first time in history, one of our candidates used a website as a means to deliver his message. Ralph Regenvanu’s site takes advantage of community-built software to pull together significantly more detailed information than that available from other candidates. He also used email assiduously throughout the campaign to keep people up to date on his activities.

It’s not my intention to discuss the merits of this candidate’s message. What’s of interest here is the medium. The effort required to set up a website is significant. The cost of creating content for it, especially in terms of time and materials, is something that many people consistently underestimate. But the rewards are significant, too.

It would be presumptuous – and probably wrong – to ascribe Regenvanu’s election win entirely to his mastery of digital media (Internet, email and mobile phone). But the candidate himself states that it’s no accident that he achieved an historically large plurality in the best-educated, best-informed constituency in the country.

I noticed a curious effect in all of this. In the few days following the election, my website (which featured a bit of amateur analysis and some links to other information sources) received a little less than 600 visits. Because of the dearth of online information about this election, my poor excuse commentary has appeared consistently on the first page of search results with the keywords ‘vanuatu election results’. While more reputable sources are appearing now, my poor page is still in first position. (That will probably not hold true for much longer….)

But that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is that the vast majority of people searching Google for election results online also used the keyword ‘regenvanu’. In other words, there’s a tight relationship between Ralph’s tendency to transform his message from atoms to bits and his supporters’ (or at least interested observers) tendency to consume information primarily as bits.

I’m surprised and frankly disappointed that more people haven’t twigged to the value of information in digital form. I’m even more disappointed that island and village based political machines, with their small scope and reliance on atoms organised into saucepans and bags of sugar, are still the state of the art.

I often tell my friends and those foolish enough to sit within earshot that the first charismatic candidate to realise the value of broadcast SMS is going to be the next Walter Lini.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing will depend on the individual. But sooner or later, someone’s going to realise that for about 80,000, they can reach 10,000 people with a consistent and clear message. They can coordinate activities to maximise their visibility and impact for less than the candidate registration fee.

So-called digital democracy groups have long since recognised the power of text messaging. They’ve created portable, laptop-based kits that can send thousands of SMS messages per hour. Some day soon, one of these is going to arrive in Vanuatu. On that day, we will finally leave 1995 behind and start being digital.