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November 3, 1999


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Mr Nicholas (Patience) Negroponte: The evening when the high priest of the digerati was spoken down to!Mr Nicholas (Patience) Negroponte: The evening when the high priest of the digerati was spoken down to! Priya Ganapati

Futurologist and MIT Media Labs Director Nicholas Negroponte is in Bombay. It is evening. A cocktail and networking party is in progress...

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A very senior and very much sloshed executive to Nicholas: I don't think the Internet will impact the future in a big way. The Internet, like radio and television before it, will be used by the government for propaganda. People say that the Internet is the fourth revolution. But I don't think so. It has not made a big impact so far...

A very tired but hugely patient Nicholas: I don't agree with you. The Internet has changed a lot of things. It is still young. Give it time and it is going to make a lot of difference.

Very much sloshed: People say the Internet is the fourth revolution. But I don't know about that.

Nicholas: So what were the other three (revolutions) before that?

Beer Happy: The first was language... script, you know. The second was wheels. The fourth is the Internet!

Flummoxed Nicholas: So what was the third? And where does the printing press fit in all here?

Cheers: Printinnnggg press? I don't know! People have always manipulated it for their own needs...

The embarrassed guests suppress their murderous impulse. Rediff butts in: India has always developed in spurts. It has missed out on historical cycles in the development of technology. How is the Digital Era going to change this?

In a fleeting moment the tension in the room relaxes perceptibly. Next, Nicholas is speaking: "These are things that successful countries like Ireland are worrying about. The jobs are moving to India. And it is not necessarily cheap labour. It is smart labour too. And I think they should be worried. Because being digital is going to give countries like India the advantage they did not have before."

And if you think the party is back on track. Think what? You are wrong. And the evening is young...

A reporter from a national business daily is excited because he has just solved the biggest problem that he thinks modern computers face. You see they have only two digits to work with. So why not make life simpler for the poor machines and give them another digit.

The reporter edges up to Nicholas: "Could we have 10 minutes separately."

Nicholas explains that he is in the country only for a few more hours and it is not possible.

The reporter now wants 5 minutes... separately.

Nicholas: You have already spent one minute asking for five minutes... separately. Why don't you ask me the questions right now?

Reporter: Do you think we need to go beyond being digital? Computers have only two digits to work with. Do you think this needs to change?

Nicholas: Being binary is the most fundamental thing. Three-state machines have been tried and they have been a failure...

Impatient reporter: But there can be only a finite permutations and combinations of zeros and ones. Is that sufficient?

A chorus of very embarrassed but outraged listeners: Of course not! There are any number of ways you can combine zeros and ones.

Unchastened reporter to Nicholas: I meant in terms of transmission (I know, our hairs stood on ends too).

A superbly composed, patient and kind Nicholas: But digital means the representation that is done is in digital form. For example, if some people say you can't drive a car digitally, I say that it can be broken down into fine grains such that you can recreate the analog feeling. Then it does not make any difference that you are digital or not.

Enough of the comic relief ;-)

An executive from an oil company: How will e-commerce impact oil companies that still have to depend on physical entities like convenience stores and gas stations?

Nicholas: I think that e-commerce will definitely impact these companies. There are things like smart cards and many other solutions that traditional companies will implement. E-commerce will definitely touch everyone.

As the evening grew, the strain of the jetlag and the daylong seminar routine showed on Nicholas' face; in sharp contrast to the gaiety surrounding him.

But swallowing guilt, Rediff approaches him again. He has a way to lock your eyes into attention when he speaks: "It is all random energy. There is no particular reason why I decided to come down to India. These things are decided one and half years in advance and probably with a third party. There is no particular agenda with which I came here. After this I am going to Cambodia too. And this is just a part of that series."

Earlier, he fielded questions from the press...

Rediff wanted to know if he planned to write another book after his bestseller Being Digital.

Nicholas grinned: "Sometimes there are things in life that you should do only once... Movies do a sequel sometimes but it is not as nice the second time round. Somehow it scares me to think of a Being Digital 2. Besides, I am not so sure I can be as ingenious the next time. I don't think I am writing a book for sometime now."

Nicholas explained that the increased human interaction with computers would translate into an increased interaction between humans too: "It is like television. The reason this is going to be true is that the computer becomes a means to interact with people all over the world, which you can't do today. In fact, it makes people more sociable though this is very counterintuitive."

He elaborates: "In case of autistic children we find interacting with computers gives them more self-esteem so interacting with humans becomes easier. But this is a specialised case and I don't want to consider this as an example of what I have said."

On his job as a futurologist, he told Rediff "I agree that the change of pace in the Digital Era is stupefying. But what has happened is that because the pace of change is so fast we are starting to change our attitude about change. And this is not just a word game I am playing. I find that people are willing to accept that things are going to change faster. In that sense I think that it is going to be harder to predict the future."

He explained: "Ten years ago, I found the industry boring. Nothing new was happening. Suddenly because of the Net I hear of ten different ideas and think a lot of them are very good. So many different things are happening which makes it difficult to see the future."

When Rediff wanted to know if the Internet's power to put mass communications in the hands of individuals would be the undoing of media empires, Nicholas said: "Media empires will get bigger. But they will also get more local. It is fair to say that in countries like Singapore, control is changing because of the Internet. On the Net, no one is in control. And this will mean that media empires too will lose the kind of control that they have."

He shot down Rediff's argument that thin clients on the Internet might be the solution to the computing needs of a poor nation like India.

He said: "In the long term, I don't think you will be able to tell the difference between the network and the computer. But in the short term, I think intelligence should be on the computer. In order to put the intelligence on the network, there should be a network in the first place. If I am disconnected from the network in places like airports then my laptop should have the intelligence on it."

When Rediff insisted that intelligent means expensive computers, Nicholas said: "Expensive? Yes. But it is a trade-off. The network could be unreliable but not the computer. Yes. It means that computers would be expensive but it is a trade-off."

He cleared a popular misconception about bandwidth that it can be measured only in capacity of a data pipe between two points.

Nicholas argued: "People think that bandwidth is all about putting great fibre between your house and the nearest point of presence. But it is not. It is chain of events. A slow link is not just about fibre. It depends upon different factors like the performance of a site and connection between India and, say, New York."

He explained: "Bandwidth, ultimately is a chain of events. In the short haul, we are looking at copper for bandwidth. In the long haul it is going to be about embedding fibres."

The press conference had been called soon after his daylong seminar on 'Face to face with the digital future'.

Despite an entry barrier of Rs 25,000, nearly 200 people attended! Mostly rich ones.

Excerpts from the guest list: Vineet Nayyar of HCL Comnet; Shashi Ullal, president of Hughes Escort; Arun Kumar, head of Hughes Software; Ranadeep Sudan, chief secretary, IT, Andhra Pradesh government; Amitabh Kumar, director, operations, VSNL; Madhukar Mishra, chief of Duncan Agro; F T Khorakiwala, head of Akbarally's department store; Swati Piramal; Hoshang Billimoria from Tata Donnelley; Sanjay Mirchandani, marketing manager, Microsoft; Anand Rathe, president of Bombay Stock Exchange; S Ramadorai, CEO of Tata Consultancy Services; Simon Beresford, managing director, Nokia; Nadir Godrej, head of Godrej Soaps; and V S Krishnan, head of RPG.

Not surprisingly, most people who attended did not have a communications technology background. Nor were they especially enthusiastic about media technologies.

But that also means that they were most unlikely to have read Being Digital. The lecture only underscored the ideas in the book. Yet a majority of the audience were thrilled with the revelations made!

At the end of it all, it was a choice between buying Being Digital for Rs 326 or coughing up Rs 25,000 and listening to the author in flesh.

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