November 21, 2007

What's being digital?

In his book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte relates how he was asked the value of his laptop computer before being allowed to take it into the office of a company he was visiting. "Roughly," replied Negroponte, "between one and two million dollars."

"Oh, that cannot be, sir," said the receptionist. "Let me see it."

Negroponte opened his case, she looked at his Apple laptop, she wrote down "$2000" and allowed him to enter.

Yet Negroponte had been perfectly serious. Some years ago, I found out for myself, rather unpleasantly, just how much so.

My computer at the office had been misbehaving for weeks. One problem or another kept popping up, to the point where the machine was nearly unusable. So we decided to reformat its hard disk and re-install all the software. If that's incomprehensible gobbledygook to you, think of it like this: doing that is the equivalent, in many ways, of a full-scale brainwash: empty someone's head of all knowledge and thought, and fill it up all over again. (If that's possible).

Now if you're into brainwashing, you probably don't care what your victim had in her head to start with. (At least, you want it gone so you can substitute your particular propaganda.) With computers, you care very much indeed. Me, I had plenty of my work -- all my programming -- on that computer. I didn't want to lose any of it. So we needed to copy it all somewhere, do the reformatting and re-installation, and then copy it all back onto the computer.

Simple, right?

Unfortunately, we made a mistake during the process. In that instant, I lost a vast amount of work that stretched back years. I did manage to retrieve a fair amount from elsewhere, but a lot was just gone.

And in that despair, I knew just what Negroponte meant. My computer -- the plastic and metal it was made of, that is -- was worth a few thousand rupees. It would hurt to replace, but I could do it. But the data on it, the stuff that I lost? I couldn't begin to put a price on it. There's no way to replace it all.

My depression apart, there's a subtle but profound point here about the digital age we are in. It sometimes seems obvious, especially in our limitlessly wired era, but I like to think about it anyway, every now and then.

The best way to appreciate "being digital," writes Negroponte, is to think about the "difference between bits and atoms." Much of the world works with atoms: books we buy, things we trade, cars we drive and so on. Atoms are usually not worth very much. Books, toys, computers, cars -- they can all be replaced.

Bits, on the other hand, are close to priceless, because they are the building blocks of information. Negroponte calls a bit "a state of being". It's either on or off, true or false, 0 or 1, black or white. All kinds of information, from numbers to journal articles to a Bhimsen Joshi performance, can be encoded as streams of bits. And then it's the information that's really valuable, not the atoms -- computers, books, the Bhimsen Joshi CD -- it is recorded on.

The other distinction between bits and atoms is even more far-reaching. We impose taxes and restrictions on atoms -- think of customs duties on imported computers, or fines we pay to libraries for returning books late, or even censoring films. Copyright laws apply to that Bhimsen Joshi CD. Besides, shipping CDs around the globe needs money, paperwork, effort.

But while you can ban atoms, or just make it difficult to move them around, moving bits is easy. In fact, it's effectively impossible to restrict, and especially so in our digital age. Put the bits that are on the CD on the Internet, and Joshi's mellifluous tones are suddenly available to millions.

Once again, an experience at that previous job brought this lesson home. A shipment of drawings from the USA that we needed to work on was held up in Customs for a month. There was a steady flow of reasons we were given for this bottleneck, but I suspect the real one was the one that, I'm sure, sprang readily to your mind. In the meantime, the clients in the USA sent us scanned images of the drawings over the Internet. We were done with the work before we got the shipment out of Customs. And we never bothered with shipments again.

The atoms (the drawings) can be held up, but the bits (the images) get through freely. Put another way, the Joshi CD -- the atom, the medium -- is unimportant. His music -- the bits, the information, the message -- is the thing.

That's being digital.

2 comments: said...

The medium is the message
Marshall Mcluhan
The medium was the message ?

Sunil Deepak said...

Dear Dilip, I guess you are right most of the time but some times it can be relative. If the tradeoffs are my atoms, from my ageing neurons or may ageing body, I would rather have my atoms and give away all (or may be some) of my precious bits! If I am there, I will rebuild the lost bits. :-)