Suffer the little children to come unto Negroponte

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
9 May, 2017
Editorial: 95
Fecha de publicación original: 25 noviembre, 1997

The person who gives, sells well, if the person who receives understands it

A Negroponte on the point of sinking under the weight of his fame arrived in Madrid last week. The director of MIT’s famous MediaLab (Boston, US) gave a talk, not unfamiliar to those of us who have seen him do so a couple of times over the last two years and, during lunch with a group of journalists afterwards, he came out with a few pearls of wisdom. He also frankly admitted that he travels 300 days a year and so literally doesn’t have time to to keep abreast of what’s happening on the Internet, which doesn’t mean that he isn’t well- informed (for example, we updated a few of his neurons which were still working on old web versions). This absence from the digital world might explain why his discourse over the last few years has been somewhat reiterative and lacking the imagination which he displayed in parts of his book “The Digital World”, and noticeable in the articles he writes for Wired magazine as well. Referring to the one he wrote in the November issue, he himself admitted that he had “written better things”. At times, it is chores like having his clothes washed and ironed during a long tour that keep him occupied. But, Negroponte is not bowed by problems of this nature. He told us how he had suggested to the president of Federal Express that his washing get sent on to the next point on his itinerary so that he could travel light. As you can see, some of the rigours of the world of atoms can’t be eased by the world of bits.

The speech delivered by this big US guru of the nets, focussed mainly on education this time, although it was not without his usual references to electronic commerce, automatic translation, books with electronically rechargeable pages and the jurisdictional problems that the Internet will pose in the short term. Negroponte, is after all a good American reconverted to the colourless digital dollar in cyberspace, and in 1998 he said that we would see digital money –digi-cash–become normal currency and that electronic commerce would experience its first “big bang”, above all because users would appreciate the fact that, despite propaganda to the contrary by banks and telephone operators, the Internet is a much safer place than it is normally thought to be. This was the only direct reference he made to a virtual community: the Net will allow consumers of a particular community to form a “cartel” and, for example, get a car salesman up against the wall to negotiate a drop in car prices directly with Ford or General Motors along the way. At this, the middlemen in the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

Nevertheless, to my way of thinking, the most interesting comments he made were those which emphasised education and the role young people will play as the driving force of change and consolidation in the Net. According to Negroponte, 85% of young people in the US have access to a computer in their homes. This figure may seem a pedagogical exaggeration, but the head of MediaLab includes the Sega and Nintendo generations in this statistic, considering them, and quite rightly so, as “digitally literate”. On the basis of this information, Negroponte paints an interesting political panorama: in 20 years’ time children caught up in the Net won’t understand national or nationalist questions. They will have grown up, learnt, interacted and interrelated in a world without frontiers determined by cultural peculiarities. He pointed out that, “Peace will mean something quite different to them”, although he didn’t go into any further detail.

In any case, it’s clear that Negroponte, as is almost always the case with him, is referring to the situation in the US, and, with an ease which history does not back up, he uses it as an infallible model to extrapolate about the rest of the world. Anyway, he has no alternative but to resort to certain stereotypes (with the grains of truth these always contain) to explain the different cultures which he discerns in cyberspace and which spoil his analysis a little. Scandinavia is a flourishing digital garden, where the Internet is firmly ensconced (60% of the Finnish population is connected, more than even the US. Curiously enough though Negroponte did not mention the stereotypical cold weather to explain Nordic digital literacy). On the other hand, the bastions of the European G7, in particular France and Germany, are a barren desert, the spitting image of the Dark Ages, as he described them.

His analysis shed a ray of hope on the Mediterranean, especially Italy, Spain and Portugal, where the obstacle of a deficient telecommunications infrastructure is compensated by a healthy disrespect for authority (he asked us not to misinterpret him here, which, of course, I wouldn’t dream of doing). This is apparently a solid base compensating for the lack of cold weather which will help us to move towards the Scandinavian model. The drive will come from students. Negroponte made a fervent call to journalists to insist on the need for getting the Internet into schools, especially primary schools. The growth of teledensity (the number of telephone lines per 100 inhabitants), the new way of measuring wealth in the Information Society, “will depend to a large extent on how education moves forward in developing countries”, he pointed out emphatically. That was the moment when one misses not only the necessary proselytizing work of journalists (and please don’t misinterpret me here either), but also the presence “in corpore” of the minister of Education with the hope (Esperanza) that she would become Aguirre god of the Wrath of Bits. But this didn’t happen.

Negroponte exuded the same optimism –and ingenuity– which Wired magazine showed some months ago when it painted a picture of humanity’s most promising future ever over the next 50 years, thanks to the relentless drive of technological innovation with which us mortals will be blessed (or almost all of us). He referred to the satellites, particularly the low-orbit ones (LEO), interconnecting the Third World during the next four years. It is in that part of the planet that half of the thousand million connected people that he estimates there will be by then, will live. If the inhabitants of the South make this prediction come true, the first to benefit will be, once again, schools, thanks to the knowledge that will be showered down on them from the heavens by constellations of satellites. Negroponte himself wants to take part in this enterprise through his “2B1” Foundation (a play on words: Two be one or to be one, take your pick), which doesn’t admit funds from the US lest anyone accuse it of imperialistic intentions.

By the way, I asked him if the latest episode with Iraq confirmed the worst suspicions of Information Society sceptics in the sense that when the US comes up against a problem that, for whatever reason, it considers crucial for foreign policy and internal security, then they are capable of drawing a veil of disinformation over it which is difficult to penetrate, so much so that not even their own citizens are able to challenge the Department of Defence with an alternative vision. His reply: “I don’t think that what you are saying is actually happening. There is information, lots of it”. At another point in the conversation– in reply to a question made by another colleague– he explained that military funding represents a mere 2% of MediaLab’s funds (it had been much more substantial in the past, he said) and that the CIA was just one of the 160 companies that contribute, with him, to shaping the digital dreams of the future.

I’m sorry but I’m not going to crack an obvious joke.

Translation: Bridget King