Growing Old with Negroponte

The problem of 'real time' is that it is not. It is not real precisely because the real continues its ride in the virtual lane where the non-event in unreal time haunts it. Thus the nostalgia for the perfect real time weaponry of Virilio, whether God or the Patriot missile, runs up against the entropic spectrum of 'real time.' Who better, then, than Nicholas Negroponte to put us all straight. Straight into digital vectors where the time of your life can be had at any time of the day or night.

The Boom is Over in Old Age Homes

Growing old together has been the sign of America in recline: a reflection on the empire mentality of the imperial war machine.

As they always have, great civilizations come and go. American civilization is now engaged in the "going" part which takes the form of a fierce struggle to shift the time vector - preferably to the infinite enduring stasis of John Kenneth Galbraith's the 'good life'.1 Nor has one given up on the fountain of youth, or, at a minimum, health in older age which has done wonders for the American investment in old-age facilities. These homes and gardens, civilizations if you will, are all the products of analog consciousness the epitome of which is the great American monument to itself - the television. As Negroponte has it: "Unlike young digital companies such as Apple and Sun Microsystems, television technology companies were old-age homes for analog thought."2 The vision of a greying America in front of the television set is a reassuring one again witnessed by Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment.

Or perhaps one would even nostalgically prefer the America of the good book, usually pictured beside a fireplace, complete with pre-digital citizens having the last of the good reads. But that was before the world according to Negroponte. As Negroponte states with reference to gardening and the problem of parasite maintenance: "Think of a CD-ROM title on entomology as another example. Its structure will be more of a theme park than a book."3 Books lose out to theme parks, or maybe a better way to express it is that books become theme parks at the moment they shed their analog existence and become digital.

In either case, immortality is just around the corner once analog existence with its constant deterioration is replaced by the digital that has overcome the ravages of time. While perhaps not living forever, digital, at least, has the good sense to end without a trace once the delete button is pressed or one is sent off into an unknown address in cyberspace.

All that is Solid Melts into the Ground

What all of this has to do with life is, according to Negroponte, the following. Life will have made its escape from the very vector that now creates it. The real time world of the threatening 'presence of being' can at the very moment of its birth be nicely avoided. That is, the 'now' of time present can, in a fit of Derridean erasure, be indefinitely deferred. Good news for bill payers, but, perhaps, not quite what the world had in mind concerning the digital revolution. All this centers around the broadcast vector. Current television analog vector thought is still trapped in the physics of the ether. Looking to the heavens for one's solace has been the way of communication technologies that broadcast through the air. In a perverse reversal of freeway propensities, the air waves have become like the Beltway - a standing-room only vector. Not only is this quite dangerous because you might and will be seen and you might and will be listened to, it is even worse as it has become like the metro - crowded. The solution is, of course, to take to ground. This results in Negroponte's principle of what one might call the 'Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Digital Mores': "...what is in the air will go into the ground and what is in the ground will go into the air... bandwidth in the ground is infinite and in the ether it is not."4

Here again is the bunker architecture of Virilio, now at the forefront of the vector revolution that threatens an infinite bandwidth.

Demanding Life of 'Me'

The taking to ground of the digital bandwidth is also a taking to ground of the individual. For the bandwidth has, within its proximal zone, no internal time consciousness. The Being and Time of Dasein suddenly finds with Being and Digital that time's manifold has lost its horizon. Finally emancipated from time, Being is coded into the cyber-grid: a serial existence fed now, through the ethernet port, new digital ether rather than the ether of classical physics. For Negroponte, real time, in its digital mode, ends up being time deferred.

Digital life will include very little real-time broadcast. As broadcast becomes digital, the bits are not only easily time- shiftable but need not be received in the same order or at the same rate as they will be consumed. ...With the possible exception of sports and elections, technology suggests that TV and radio of the future will be delivered asynchronously... On-demand information will dominate digital life.5

Negroponte's individual is completely delighted by this turn of events: digital life as retro fashion files given on demand. A type of instant gratification feed from the gargantuan memory file. The culture of narcissism can now safely join therapeutic, medical culture, at least as long as one subscribes to America Online and the Negroponte body is happily hardwired.

It is not surprising that Negroponte will then construct a new virtual self that is immune from the intrusion of politics and sports, which he nostalgically exempts from going to ground. The self becomes fully described in the broadcast vector space that he warns his reader not to confuse with the former analog narrowcast.

By the time you have my address, my martial status, my age, my income, my car brand, my purchases, my drinking habits, and my taxes, you have me - a demographic unit of one.

This line of reasoning completely misses the fundamental difference between narrowcasting and being digital. In being digital I am me, not a statistical subset. Me includes information and events that have no demographic or statistical meaning.6

"Me," to use his charming italicized referent, would appear to Negroponte to miraculously escape (like sport and politics) the closure of meaning. Perhaps the inference is too direct to conclude that for Negroponte there is no meaning - demographic, statistical or otherwise - to digital life. Or perhaps the political no longer includes surveillance and war machines, or maybe the marketing staff have simply gone on vacation.

Negroponte is correct in at least one respect: the older statistical subset based on the analog individual is too slow for the world of surveyed selves. The statistical lies within the spectrum of the possible limiting the vector of the virtual. Negroponte opens up the spectrum, recasting the individual as the digital self: a self ready to process the infinite bandwidth of digital corporations. Negroponte is the 'Installer' of the operating system that goes with this 'Me'. If home seems far away for some nostalgia buffs, racial bigots, or fans of old ET re-runs, it is because they mistake home for the real rather than the virtual. "The address becomes much more like a Social Security number than a street coordinate. It is a virtual address."7 A virtual address that quite naturally fits the security system.

And what about politics and sport that might just escape the net? Don't worry he was just kidding. We no longer have to worry about sport, given Nintendo's 'virtual boy.' Negroponte himself took care of politics much earlier when he teleconferenced a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff through digital imaging systems.8 An experience of the out-of-body that appears to have put the Joint Chiefs out of joint.


1. See John Kenneth Galbraith, The Good Society.

2. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital. New York: Vintage, 1995. p.39.

3. Negroponte, p. 72.

4. Negroponte, p. 24.

5. Negroponte, p. 168-169.

6. Negroponte, p. 164.

7. Negroponte, p. 166.

8. Negroponte, p. 121.

David Cook is professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and author of The Postmodern Scene, with Arthur Kroker.