The metamorphosis of modern thought

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
Jack Kenny recommends a book that makes complex ideas intelligible and puts technological change in perspective. If you want to participate in a unique experience start here. Nicholas Negroponte's book now has a dual life: on paper from Hodder and Stoughton and digitally (and free) on the Internet at the Online BookStore. It is interesting to look at what both forms of publishing can do.

Negroponte, who is director of the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes with simplicity and engagement, and provocatively enough to make you re-think many ideas and develop new ones. Getting your mind around the concepts opened up by the information superhighway and the Internet is not easy. We are moving from media that are essentially passive to others that are more engrossing, stimulating and interactive. We are also being given the potential to enrich all learning environments.

He introduces us to a world that is already here, where a fibre the size of a human hair can deliver to us every issue ever made of The Wall Street Journal in less than one second; which can deliver a million channels of TV concurrently. A world of information, infinite abundance; not made from a precious metal, just sand. If we want more capacity, we just make it.

Also researching education at MIT is Seymour Papert. The sections detailing their work together are essential reading for those who believe, or don't understand, that the IT environment for children is essential for their learning.

Negroponte knows that the problems are not technical, and although he is optimistic, he can see that the new technology will affect white-collar workers in the way that it has already affected blue-collar workers. He can also see that it is not just greater capacity that we want. He knows that new information and entertainment services are not waiting for fibre cables to reach to the home: they are waiting on imagination.

Imagination is what motivated the work on intelligent agents (software that seeks information you need). This is part of his work to improve the user-friendliness and usability of computers. He foresees a time when the computer will understand what we require, and do it or look for it. There are already agents that prioritise e-mail or search networks for texts.

Negroponte's gift is to make complex ideas intelligible. His explanation of data compression is a model of how technology should be written about for lay readers.

The value of the electronic book is that Laura Fillmore, of the Online BookStore, can demonstrate what she advocates, that the reader can participate in a dynamic way with a digital text. She sees the book's text files as a casting off point for an exploration of the ideas on the Internet. "We will be liberating the ideas from the paper and ink of the book, and offering them up for use and growth by the readers. It is like the process of metamorphosis by which the chrysalis is transformed into the butterfly, with the essential difference that, on the Internet, many different butterflies can emerge from the same, single, well-stated idea the same chrysalis."

In the electronic (abridged) version of the book, it is interesting to see the way that the message becomes the medium becomes the message. Negroponte talks about intelligent agents, and from within the book, from the text talking about intelligent agents, one can access and employ an intelligent agent to go and do one's work out there on the Internet. It's an idea realising itself in the hands of the reader. For example, from the sections depicting the experiment with LEGOLOGO at the Hennigan school in Boston and in Dakar, Senegal, a link points to the site in which a father of an eight-year-old Canadian shares his experience about programming in LOGO with other parents and invites them to send their children's work to be published on the Net. Other links challenge Negroponte's ideas.

The real value of both books is not on the "tomorrow's world" level, but on the way they emphasise that we are not just witnessing technological change, but change that will require something from us . . . a shift in attitude, a different perspective on virtually everything we think and teach and learn. Both versions are essential reading to discover what the fuss is about.

"The true value of a network is less about information and more about community. The information superhighway is more than a short cut to every book in the Library of Congress. It is creating a totally new, global social fabric."

* Being Digital. Nicholas NegroponteHodder and Stoughton, ISBN 0 340 64525 3, Pounds 12.99

Online BookStore: http:marketplace.comobstop.htm

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