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Negroponte's Substantive Esoterica

Guest Column John Dakss

In his column in the last issue of The Tech ["Negroponte's Wacky Columns Embarrass MIT," Dec. 9, 1997], Anders Hove G criticizes Professor of Media Technology Nicholas P. Negroponte. Hove's column condemns Negroponte's essays in Wired magazine as "goofy," "fluff," and "total insanity," yet he fails to critique or even state any of Negroponte's beliefs regarding the future of technology and society. Instead, Hove chooses to insult Negroponte's idiosyncratic style of writing and mock excerpts of his monthly column out of context.

Admittedly, Negroponte's writings are unusual and off-beat. He often intertwines his knowledge of American pop culture, foreign cultures and Internet culture, but always with a point in mind. In his 1995 book, Being Digital, Negroponte uses an example from Star Wars to explain holographic video, and uses a ski lift analogy to explain the concept of bandwidth. As a result he is able to write about technology in a manner which appeals to both the readers of "Dilbert" and the readers of "Doonesbury." How else could a book which explains ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Loop) technology, discusses the merits and drawbacks of fiber versus twisted pair and describes the origin of words like "pixel" become a New York Times bestseller? In Hove's own words, "to most Americans, bits are things that come in orange juice." There is no reason why substantive publications concerning technology and society must be esoteric and understandable by only the technical elite found at institutions like MIT.

Hove's column would have been an enlightening and worthwhile read if he had provided thought-provoking and intelligent criticisms of Negroponte's unconventional ideas regarding the future. Rather than provide scientific evidence which challenged the man's predictions of innovations like paper-thin, flexible, lightweight, waterproof electronic displays, or philosophical scruples which attacked his predilection towards a digitally-enhanced society, Hove instead took shallow pot-shots at isolated sentences penned by Negroponte.

As an example, Hove chose to facetiously mock the quote "Nations today are the wrong size" by attributing it to be antipathy towards cartographers. Hove should have instead critiqued the meaning behind Negroponte's words, which are a prediction that global digital networks will generate communities which defy physical boundaries and that telecommuting will eliminate the need for people to function in cities and other products of the industrial age. Many pundits have already debated the likelihood of this phenomenon and its positive and negative ramifications. Hove, on the other hand, flouts Negroponte's sense of humor but does not even attempt a tte--tte with his beliefs.

How utterly ironic that Hove, after criticizing Negroponte's style but not his ideas, chose to end his column with the statement that fluff by any other name is still fluff.

Jonathan Dakss is a graduate student in Media Arts and Sciences.