history is like so over

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Fri Apr 23 09:21:51 PDT 1999

Suck <http://www.suck.com> - April 23, 1999

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 - <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.11/nicholas.htmldirector> 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 <http://www.feedmag.com/95.05magna1.htmlMagna> Cartas for the Knowledge Age and <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.06/independence.html> 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."

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. <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.10/negroponte.htmlPurchasing> 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."

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 <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.12/negroponte.htmlwearable> 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.

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 " <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.01/negroponte.htmljaggies>," 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 <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.06/negroponte.htmldigital> 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 <mailto:markdery at suck.com> Mark Dery

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