MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte discusses what it means for the atomic world to turn digital.
Nicholas Negroponte: In the early 1990s it was clear that there was a new DNA for things that we thought were real like print or movies and we didn’t understand until roughly 1990 that actually the fundamental representation was digital and then you’d map that into a movie or a book or writing, you know, signs in the sky with smoke signals or carving something into metal or whatever. But the fundamental element was digital and because it was digital the medium was not the message. You can actually take any message and map it into media of one sort or another because the message was digital. And then you started to realize that a lot of things that were previously physical were, in fact, potentially virtual and they lived in cyberspace and they lived in ways that are today taken for granted to be digital. So the world of bits and atoms emerged where just how much of our lives was made of bits. And most people don’t realize that the word bit didn’t even exist in 1949. Nobody knew – it hadn’t been invented as a word.
And so in the space of sixty plus years it’s gone to being sort of kind of the basic element. And we never thought of bits and atoms as related that you could convert something from one to the other and there was a transformation. And now with some of the modern maker movement things where you do manufacturing at home and you transmit a part as bits and then it gets created, it’s just again part of that same chain that has to do with the mixture of bits and atoms and the transition from a world dominated by atoms to a world dominated by bits. And country by country it happens at different speeds but it’s interesting to note that even the concept of a country is an atom’s concept. It had an edge. You could be inside it or outside it. You stepped over a line and you were in another country. Back – whether it was a river, whether it was a mountain, whether it was an arbitrary line running through the desert – it came from the world of atoms. And so in some sense to argue that this country is more digital than that country is correct. Korea, South Korea at least is far ahead of many other countries. The United States is kind of in the middle. And there’s some countries that for a variety of historical and regulatory reasons are behind. It’s all temporary. The whole world will be sort of on a somewhat equal basis within some short period of time.
The term net neutrality has a little bit of a pejorative ring. How would you want something not to be neutral. In other words, neutrality seems to be a feature of good. And so yeah, you kind of want this to be net neutral. But the truth is all bits are not created equal. And people don’t appreciate that a book, a normal novel, is about a megabyte. And yet a second of video is more than a megabyte. So when you look at video for a couple of hours it’s the equivalent of hundreds of books. And then if you have a pacemaker that transmits – this is an imaginary pacemaker now that communicates and monitors your health by sending data up to the Cloud. Then a few bits of your heart data are, you know, a small fraction of a book. So you have bits that represent your heart, bits that represent books and bits that represent video.
And so to argue that they’re all equal is crazy. So how do you reconcile that and still say neutral in some sense where some aren’t charged and some are charged and so on. What I can assure you on the topic is those of us who were there at the beginning of the Internet never imagined that Netflix would represent 40 percent of it on Sunday afternoons. It was just off the charts. We just didn’t think that. There is, to me, a certain morality in that because why the hell are you streaming video. Maybe streaming should be illegal. But the point being that all bits aren’t created equal and whether that resolves itself into net neutrality or not net neutrality is a separate story.
In the food department you could argue that genetics is their equivalent of bits and that you can create meat synthetically from the genes of meat. In other words you can do artificial meat. People are doing it at the moment. So, you know, just a tiny sample of a pig can make tons and tons of pork. That’s pretty amazing. You don’t have to have the fields and the grass and the grazing and the water. You can start doing this and it’s not artificial in the sense of it’s soybean made to look like turkey. It’s actually genetically porterhouse steak. And you can do that. So as things like that come out of the labs and go into the world you can see a world that is nourished in a very different way than we do it today. Generally people have given up on climate change as happening through restraint and regulation and sort of believe now the answer’s gonna be technical and that’s one of the technical solutions is to manufacture food. And when people talk about genetically modified food being wrong, they’re nuts. What are they thinking of? All food should be genetically modified and will be more and more so. And that’s again like arguing against digital libraries or electronic books. Genetically modified food is the future and it’s a very important future.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton