Of Bits, Atoms, And Softwear

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2005
Of Bits, Atoms, And Softwear
Nicholas Negroponte is founder and director of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA

One of the first definitions of convergence came from Nicholas Negroponte: "Bits co-mingle effortlessly. They start to get mixed up and can be used and re-used separately or together. The mixing of audio, video, and data is called multimedia. It sounds complicated, but it's nothing more thanco-mingled bits."

Negronte pointed out in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital that our world is fast exchanging the trade in atoms for the trade in bits. In other words, he has been a big proponent of the 'bit switch'-the idea that we're moving from producing and distributing atoms in the form of products to producing digital things in the form of bits that get pushed around the world.

We present two columns Negroponte wrote for Wired magazine-'Wearable Computing' and 'Bits And Atoms'. These columns read as well today as they did when they were first published.

Wearable Computing
The digital road warrior's kit-laptop, cell phone, PDA, and pager-is just capable enough to bother you everywhere without necessarily helping you anywhere. It's absurd that each device is still on such poor speaking terms with the others. We walk around like pack horses saddled with information appliances. We should be in the saddle, not under it.

The Evolution Of Softwear
More than 20 years ago, The Architecture Machine Group at MIT built a mediaroom based on the idea that one should be inside a computer rather than in front of it. While that vision foreshadowed today's immersive environments, it did not go far enough and shrink the room to the size of a person.

In the future, the PC will be blown to bits, many of which, naturally, should be kept near you rather than in your home or at your office. But so far, software has not been particularly soft. Though bits are as insubstantial as the ether, they tend to be packaged in hard boxes. For hardware and software to comfortably follow you around, they must merge into softwear. Developing wearable computing requires as much attention to the medium as the message.

In fact, the medium becomes the message.

What single manufactured material are you exposed to the most? The answer is fabric. We wear it, stand on it, sit on it, and sleep in it. Marvellous technology goes into looms, but all we ask fabric to do is protect us from the elements, look pretty, and not wrinkle or shrink. Can't it do more?

Advances in conducting polymers and reversible optical media are pointing towards fabrics that can literally become displays. Amorphous semiconductors can be used to make solar cells to power fabric. Polymer semiconductors are candidates for wearable logic. The result would be the ultimate flexible computer architecture. Fashion accessories will take on new roles, becoming some of the most important Internet access points, conveniently surrounding you in a Person Wide Web. How better to receive audio communications than through a earring, or to send spoken messages than through your lapel?

Footwear is particularly attractive for computing. Your shoes have plenty of unclaimed space, receive an enormous amount of power (from walking) that is currently untapped, and are ideally placed to communicate with your body and the ground. When you come home, your shoes can talk to the carpet in preparation for delivery of the day's personalised news to your glasses.

The Body Bus
A wearable computer will be useless if you have to walk around looking like the back of your desk. Fortunately, bits are more than skin deep. Tom Zimmerman has shown that the non-contact coupling between your body and weak electric fields can be used to create and sense tiny nano-amp currents in your body. Modulating these signals creates Body Net, a personal-area network that communicates through your skin. Using roughly the same voltage and frequencies as audio transmissions, this will be as safe as wearing a pair of headphones. Keeping data in your body avoids the intrusion of wires, the need for an optical path for infrared, and conventional problems such as regulation and eavesdropping.

Your shoe computer can talk to a wrist display and keyboard and heads up glasses. Activating your body means that everything you touch is potentially digital. A handshake becomes an exchange of digital business cards, a friendly arm on the shoulder provides helpful data, and picking up a phone downloads your numbers and voice signature for faithful speech recognition.

Cyborgs are here already. No, this isn't a paranoid fantasy about intruders from the future. Two cyborgs have been roaming the Media Lab, wearing computers day in and day out for over two years. It's an uncanny experience teaching a course to Thad Starner, who is simultaneously watching you lecture and annotating the lecture notes behind you through Reflection Technologies' Private Eye, a wearable heads-up display.

Steve Mann goes further, wearing a completely immersive system: movable cameras connect to a computer and transmitter to send video to a workstation for processing and delivery back to displays in front of his eyes.

This lets him enhance what he sees (he likes living in a 'rot 90' rotated world) and position his eyes. (Some days he likes having his eyes above his head, or at his feet, and when he rides a bicycle he sets one eye looking forward and one backward.)

He can assemble everything he's seen into larger mosaics or 3-D images, and through the radio-frequency link you can see through his eyes (at www.wearcam.org).

Don't expect to see much computing featured in Bill Blass' next collection, but this kind of digital headdress will become more common. Bear in mind that 20 years ago, no publisher anticipated that teletype terminals would grow into a portable threat to books, that paper tapes would merge with film into multimedia CD-ROMs, or that telephones would threaten the whole business model of publishing by bringing the Web into your home.

The difference in time between loony ideas and shipped products is shrinking so fast that it's now, oh, about a week.
Bits and Atoms

The $400 Limit Applies To Atoms Only
When returning from abroad, you must complete a Customs declaration form. But have you ever declared the value of the bits you acquired while travelling?  To Customs officers, the value of any diskette is the same-full or empty-only a few dollars; the value of the atoms.

I recently visited the headquarters of one of the top five integrated-circuit manufacturers in the US. I was asked to sign in and, in the process, was asked whether I had a laptop with me. I did. The receptionist asked for the model, serial number, and the computer's value. "Roughly US$1 to $2 million," I said. "Oh, that cannot be, sir," she replied. "What do you mean? Let me see it."

I showed her my old PowerBook, and she estimated its value at $2,000. She wrote down that amount and I was allowed to enter.

Our mindset about value is driven by atoms. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is about atoms. New movies and music are shipped as atoms. Companies declare their atoms on a balance sheet and depreciate them according to rigorous schedules. But their bits, often far more valuable, do not appear. Strange.

Atoms Are Judged Less Greene

Than Bits
When Judge Harold Greene broke up AT&T in 1983, he told the newly created regional Bell operating companies that they could not be in the information business. Who did he think he was fooling? The seven sisters were already in the information business and doing just fine, thank you. Their largest margins were-and still are-from the Yellow Pages, which they have sold at great profit. Judge Greene, sir, the companies are and always have been in the information industry. What are you talking about?

What the judge is saying is that the companies have every right to kill thousands of trees, to litter our homes, and to fill garbage sites with their information business, as long as this information is in the form of atoms. But as soon as the companies deliver the exact same information with no-deposit, no-return, environmentally friendly bits, they have broken the law.

Doesn't that sound screwy? Was anyone thinking about the meaning of 'being digital' during the time that AT&T was being disassembled? I fear not.

Pay Per View
During a speech I gave at a recent meeting of shopping centre owners, I tried to explain that a company's move into the digital future would be at a speed proportionate to the conversion of its atoms to bits. I used videocassette rental as an example, since these atoms could become bits very easily.

Wayne Huizenga, Blockbuster's former chairman, was the lunch speaker. He defended his stock by saying, "Professor Negroponte is wrong." His argument was based on the fact that pay-per-view TV has not worked because it commands such a small piece of the market. By contrast, Blockbuster can pull Hollywood around by the nose, because video stores provide 50 per cent of Hollywood's revenues and 60 per cent of its profits.

"Our mindset about value is driven by atoms. Movies ship as atoms. Companies declare their atoms on a balance sheet. But their bits, far more valuable, do not appear."

I thought about Huizenga's remark and realised that this extraordinary entrepreneur did not understand the difference between bits and atoms. His atoms-videocassettes-prove that video-on-demand will work. Videocassettes are pay-per-view TV. The only difference is that in his business he can draw as much as one-third of the profits from late fees.

Library Of The Future
Thomas Jefferson introduced public libraries as a fundamental American right. What he never considered was that every citizen could enter every library and borrow every book simultaneously, with a keystroke, not a hike. All of a sudden, those library atoms become library bits and are accessible to anyone on the Net. This is not what Jefferson imagined. This is not what authors imagine. Worst of all, this is not what publishers imagine.

The problem is simple. When information is embodied in atoms, there is a need for all sorts of industrial-age means and huge corporations for delivery. But suddenly, when the focus shifts to bits, the traditional big guys are no longer needed. Do-it-yourself publishing on the Internet makes sense. It does not for paper copy.

It was through The New York Times that I came to know and enjoy the writing of computer and communications business reporter John Markoff. Without The New York Times, I probably would not have been introduced to him. However, now it would be far easier for me to collect his new stories automatically and drop them into my personal newspaper or suggested reading file. I would be willing to pay Markoff five cents for each of his new pieces.

If one-fiftieth of the 1995 Internet population subscribed to this idea, and Markoff wrote 20 stories a year, he would earn $1 million, which I am prepared to guess is more than The New York Times pays him. If you think one-fiftieth is too large a percentage, then wait awhile. Once someone is established, the added value of a distributor becomes less and less in a digital world.

The distribution and movement of bits is much easier than atoms. But delivery is only part of the issue. A media company is, among other things, a talent scout, and its distribution channels, bits or atoms, provide a testbed for public opinion. But after a certain point, the author may not need this forum. In the digital age, Wired authors can sell their stories direct and make more money, once they are discovered.

While this does not work today, it will work very well, very soon-when 'being digital' becomes the norm.

© 1995 Nicholas Negroponte. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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