Except for spreadsheets and other financial software, the familiar everyday uses of computers have almost nothing to do either with "computing," as such, or with the computer itself creating anything. From writing this essay with a word processor to putting up web pages on the Internet, the principal everyday uses of computers almost all involve human beings creating documents in some form or other, and sending them to--or making them available to--other people.
In his book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte never quite makes that point explicitly, but it is implicit in the great majority of what he has to say. The book is primarily about two things: the digital transmission of documents, and even more the role of digital technology in transforming our concept of just what a "document" is. The two aspects, how a document is transmitted and what a document is, turn out to be highly intertwined.
In the 1960s, when "2001: A Space Odyssey" was filmed, Marshall McLuhan created a great stir by proclaiming that "the medium is the message;" that is, that the form which information took was fundamental in determining its significance. As Negroponte points out, digital technology has fundamentally undermined that notion. "The medium is not the message in a digital world. It is an embodiment of it" (p. 71).
In the pre-digital world, for example, the written word, music, and pictures were essentially different in the way they could be conveyed; they were effectively isolated from one another. Someone could call a friend and read a written message (say, an item from a newspaper), but hardly send the accompanying picture. Today, an e-mail message might include both text and pictures, and perhaps sound recording as well; to the computers at both ends, all are simply streams of data bits, and all can be integral parts of one document. To an increasing degree, they can even be transformed; a weather photograph, as Negroponte sugg...
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