S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 April 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
Bit Rot
 
[]

Though it has been four months

since his final bow,

surprisingly few in the media

have mourned Nicholas

Negroponte's passing. This

writer, for one, laments the

fact that we don't have Tricky

Nick to kick around anymore. In

the December 1998 Wired,

Negroponte - director of MIT's

Media Lab and sharp-dressed

retailer of broader-bandwidth

tomorrows to corporate America

(and to the unwashed AOL

millions in his best-selling book

Being Digital) - announced that

he was vacating his bully pulpit

on the magazine's end page.

After six years there, the man,

whose audio-animatronic prose

is to literary style what the

Parkinsonian tics of

Disneyland's Mr. Lincoln are to

fluid human movement, had

decided to step down.

 

Negroponte's departure marks the

end of an era when Magna Cartas

for the Knowledge Age and

Declarations of the Independence

of Cyberspace were taken

seriously, at least by the self-

anointed "digital elite." Oddly,

Negroponte himself seems not to

have noticed how retro his

Jetsonian visions of digital

butlers and supercomputing

cufflinks seem in the

politically turbulent,

economically anxious late-'90s.

At the end of a century that has

witnessed acid rain and global

warming, Bhopal and Chernobyl,

he beckons us toward a future

where technology never fails,

corporations are always benign,

and there's a high-tech magic

bullet for every social malady.

 

In Negroponte's future, the

employers who track us through

"active badges" woven into our

work clothes have only a smarter

workplace in mind ("When you

have a call, the phone you're

nearest rings"); heaven forfend

they should spy on us or monitor

our bathroom breaks in the name

of Taylorist efficiency.

Likewise, it's unthinkable that

Negroponte's electronic

cottages, controlled by

ubiquitous, networked computing,

would go haywire like the smart

house from Hell in Demon Seed,

where Julie Christie ends up

held hostage by the "Enviromod"

system that runs her "luxurious,

totally automated home staffed

by electronic housekeepers and

security guards."

 
[Socks by Ralp Lauren]

And speaking of security guards,

criminals are conspicuously

absent from Negroponte's vision

of things to come; the

"intelligent doorknobs" of his

smart houses, which "let the

Federal Express man in and Fido

out," never open to the

technosavvy psychopath.

Troubling thoughts of social

ills such as crime and

unemployment and homelessness

rarely crease the Negroponte

brow. In fact, he's strangely

uninterested in social anything,

from neighborhood life to

national politics. Despite his

insistence that the Digital

Revolution™ is about

communication, not computers,

there's no real civic life or

public sphere to speak of in his

future.

 

There, most of the communicating

takes place between you and

talkative doorknobs or

"interface agents" such as the

"eight-inch-high holographic

assistants walking across your

desk." In the next millennium,

Negroponte predicts, "we will

find that we are talking as much

or more with machines than we

are with humans." Thus, the

information-age autism of his

wistful "dream for the

interface": that "computers will

be more like people." Appliances

and household fixtures enjoy a

rich social life in Negroponte's

future, exchanging electronic

"handshakes" and "mating calls":

"If your refrigerator notices

that you are out of milk," he

writes, "it can 'ask' your car

to remind you to pick some up on

your way home." Human

communities, meanwhile, consist

of "digital neighborhoods in

which physical space will be

irrelevant." Translation:

Knowledge workers will dial in

from their electronic cocoons,

squeezing their social lives

through phone lines.

 

It's no accident that the

personalized electronic

newspaper that Negroponte's

infotopians read is titled, with

unwitting irony, The Daily Me.

The individual, in Negroponte's

future, is the self-interested

social atom familiar from

18th-century laissez-faire

capitalism. Years spent hosting

dog-and-pony shows for

corporate investors at the Media

Lab have shaped Negroponte's

concept of the body politic. In

his laissez-faire Tomorrowland,

the citizen has been redefined

as the consumer. Purchasing

power equals empowerment: "In

the digital world, consumers

hold almost all the power, which

is a nice change. Grassroots

activism means organizing "by

church group to buy Barbies

directly from Mattel." (Why by

church group? What's the

connection between going to

church and wanting a piece of

America's best-loved Stepford

babe? But I digress.)

Negroponte's future is a

commodity future inhabited by

inexhaustible producers and

insatiable consumers, a candy

store for Sharper Image shoppers

crammed full of Dick Tracy

wristwatches, talking toasters,

and wearable laptops. There's no

room on this Carousel of

Progress for those unhappy

campers who want more out of

life than "a Larry King

personality" for their newspaper

interface or a computer-TV that

allows them to transform the

weather report into "an animated

cartoon with your favorite

Disney character."

 
[by Armani]

 

Negroponte would probably argue

that his job description is

limited to technological

extrapolation, not social

responsibility. "The Media Lab

isn't a social-science

organization," he told the

technology journalist David

Bennahum, in a New York magazine

profile of the Lab. "We don't

study. We're inventors. And then

we try things." Like McLuhan's

protests that he was merely a

clinical observer of the

electronic revolution,

Negroponte's attempt to wrap his

laissez-faire futurism in the

lab coat of the disinterested

tinkerer doesn't quite convince.

 

The "Dammit Jim, I'm-an-

Inventor, Not-a-Social-

Scientist" defense died at

Hiroshima, where Robert

Oppenheimer's blithe dismissal

of the moral implications of his

invention - "When you see

something that is technically

sweet, you go ahead and do it" -

came back to haunt the world in

nightmare images of walking

corpses. Obviously, the Media

Lab is playing with Flubber, not

fire; the road to Armageddon

isn't paved with propeller-head

inventions like the technology

that enables two Media Labbers

to exchange business cards with

a handshake, transmitting data

through a minute electrical

charge conducted across their

skin. But Media Labbers like

Bruce Blumberg and Neil

Gershenfeld sound like members

of a (post)human potential cult,

babbling about "creating a

collective consciousness" and

editing the human genome so that

Homo cyber can grow computer

chips out of his body. If ever

there were, these are

technically sweet dreams with

profound social consequences.

 

In Being Digital, a funny thing

happens on the way to the

Rapture. Five pages from the

end, an unhappy little cloud

briefly darkens Negroponte's

digital vision of blue skies.

"Every technology or gift of

science has a dark side," he

concedes, on page 227 (!) of a

231-page hymn to the deus ex

machina. "As we move toward such

a digital world, an entire

sector of the population will be

or feel disenfranchised. When a

50-year-old steelworker loses

his job, unlike his 25-year-old

son, he may have no digital

resilience at all."

 

But the nutty professor, who is

a bottomless font of solutions

to bandwidth bottlenecks and

power sources for wearable

computers, is surprisingly

silent when it comes to what he

himself calls the "worst of all"

social consequences of the

computer revolution: job loss

due to automation. After a

minute of silence for the

downsized, Negroponte banishes

the specter of defeatist

thinking with one of those

today-is-the-first-day-

of-the-rest-of-your-life

bromides he always seems to have

up his pinstriped sleeve: "But

being digital, nevertheless,

does give much cause for

optimism. Like a force of

nature, the digital age cannot

be denied or stopped. It has

four very powerful qualities

that will result in its ultimate

triumph: decentralizing,

globalizing, harmonizing, and

empowering."

 

Those of us who like our paeans

to progress with a little

history on the side as a

corrective will recall similarly

dizzy responses to the invention

of telegraphy in the middle of

the last century. "It is

impossible that old prejudices

and hostilities should longer

exist, while such an instrument

has been created for an exchange

of thought between all the

nations of the earth," wrote

Charles Briggs and Augustus

Maverick in 1858. But

Negroponte, who likes to

scandalize the Sven Birkertses

of the world with the

unapologetic admission that he

doesn't like to read, writes

utopian philosophy for the Age

of Amnesia. History is, like, so

over.

 
[Cart by Sebastian Ranow]

 

So, too, is serious thought

about the social and economic

fallout of post-

industrialization and

globalization for America's

working poor, Mexico's

maquiladora workers, Indonesia's

sweatshop laborers, and others

whose daily worries are a little

more pressing than the

inelegance of fax technology.

But the everyday reality of the

underclass has never much

concerned the man who breezily

redefined the "needy" and the

"have-nots" in a New York Times

editorial as the technologically

illiterate, the "digitally

homeless" - a phrase that wins

the Newt Gingrich Let Them Eat

Laptops Award for cloud-dwelling

detachment from the lives of the

little people. The son of a

shipping magnate, Negroponte

grew up in "the stylish circles

of New York and London,"

according to Stewart Brand, and

went to Choate Academy and Le

Rosey, an elite boarding school

in Switzerland.

 

Now he sells the future to

prospective corporate investors

in a Media Lab that eats up

US$25 million a year. His future

is the future of a man who

hobnobs with French cabinet

members and Japanese prime

ministers and OPEC sheiks, a man

who buys a lot of white wine and

owns a BMW and a house in France

and another in Greece. A

frequent flyer who travels

300,000 miles a year, he glides

through the stratosphere both

socially and literally, aloof

from Second Wave concerns like

geography and time zones, health

care and child care, social

justice and economic equity. (He

can, however, work himself into

a lather over " jaggies," the

staircase effect that makes

certain letters look funny on

computer screens, or succumb to

weltschmerz over the design

flaws of the RJ-11 phone

connector.) In his evocations of

interactive systems that are "as

stern and disciplinarian as a

Bavarian nanny" and intelligent

toasters that brand your morning

toast with the closing price of

your favorite stock (you do have

a favorite stock, don't you?),

he speaks the language of the

corporate ruling class. His

dearest dream is a digital

butler and a smart house that

will return us to the age of

domestic servants without the

simmering resentment of the

underclasses.

 

Strangely, Negroponte's

gadget-happy evocations of self-

cleaning shirts, transmitting

neckties, and driverless cars

have always seemed, at least to

this reader, like memories of

futures past - the top-down

technocracies of the 1939

World's Fair or Disney's

Tomorrowland, socially

engineered utopias presumably

overseen by the visionary elites

who "basically drive

civilization," as Stewart Brand

famously informed the Los

Angeles Times. Negroponte seems

to live in the semiotic mirage

hallucinated by the protagonist

of William Gibson's story "The

Gernsback Continuum" about a

Machine Age tomorrow that never

was; governed by "a dream logic

that knew nothing of pollution,

the finite bounds of fossil

fuel"; and populated by

bright-eyed technophiles, "smug,

happy, and utterly content with

themselves and their world."

Those who remember the future,

it seems, are doomed to repeat it.

 
courtesy of Mark Dery
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 





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