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.

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MEME: Bitsharks

I’m going to start blaming random network- and computer-related problems on Bitsharks. Get everyone believing in the idea of predatory bots cruising the network, dining on people’s digital transmissions.

USER: “Why didn’t my email go through?”
ME: “Did you receive a failure message?”
USER: “No.”
ME: “Uhhh, you didn’t send it alone, did you?”
USER: “What do you mean?”
ME: “Well… how big was the message?”
USER: “Just a paragraph or so. Why?”
ME: [Dismayed] “And you sent it onto the Internet alone?”
USER: “What, why?”
ME: “Don’t you know what can happen?”
USER: “What? What are you talking about?”
ME: [sighs] “Poor little thing. Probably never had a chance. Hang on a sec….” [Types random commands into console.]
USER: [alarmed] “What’s going on?”
ME: “It’s what I thought. Bitsharks.”
USER: “What did you call me?”
ME: “Nonono. Bit. Shark. A Bitshark got your email.”
USER: “A Bitshark?”
ME: “Yeah. Predatory bots cruising the shallow parts of the Internet. They single out the smaller, more vulnerable bits of data, then consume them.”
USER: “Oh my God.”
ME: [Pained, patient] “Look, just do me a favour. Next time, send your email out in groups. Sometimes the numbers confuse the Bitsharks and the little guys manage to make it through.”
USER: “Oh, the poor thi- I, I… of course.”
ME: “You won’t forget?”
USER: “Heavens, no.”
ME: “Good. Tell your friends.”