Getting granny wired

April 28, 1995

With the average age of Internet users 23 and declining, Nicholas Negroponte has produced a guide for parents lost in cyberspace. Kam Patel reports.

Within minutes of arriving at the Langham Hilton hotel in London, Nicholas Negroponte was online and firing off messages from his computer to colleagues around the world. It is a routine that is now as much a part of his life as getting up in the morning to have breakfast. Whether he is holidaying in Switzerland or visiting London, as he was a few weeks ago to publicise his new book, getting logged on is of overriding importance.

Negroponte is director of the internationally renowned Media Studies Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Media Lab carries out research and development into future forms of human communications from entertainment to education. Negroponte also founded and now writes for the Internet fashion magazine Wired.

His book, Being Digital, is published in Britain this month. It is described rather grandly on the jacket as "the road map for survival on the information superhighway". It was conceived about a year and half ago when he discovered that American children, aged 10 to 15, were subscribing to Wired as a Christmas present for their parents. "That really touched me because what the kids were doing was basically saying 'mum, dad, this is about me'. It really is such a generational phenomenon and so I thought I would write a non-technical book about the digital world for mum and dad." He gets 20 to 30 messages a day in the United States, where the book was published in February, from grandparents thanking him for opening up a whole new relationship with their grandchildren.

At the 300-strong Media Lab, Negroponte and his colleagues have spent much of the 15 years since it opened focusing on the human-computer interface. Looking back, he argues that one half of the interface, namely the half that deals with the output from machine to human, has made enormous progress physically. "So we have sound, colour, video and so on. But the other half that goes from the person into the machine is still absolutely bankrupt. We have the same crummy interface, comprising mainly of the keyboard and mouse."

Over the next 15 years, though, he believes that much more attention is going to be directed at developing systems that operate through human attributes and characteristics such as speech, gesture and by recognising faces. He says that a determined effort to develop this "backchannel" will be launched by researchers worldwide - "it is certainly going to happen at Media Lab".

Media Lab researchers are also aiming to build machines that have "common sense." The machines would, for example, be able to understand newspaper stories and to make subjective suggestions such as deciding the sort of music one might like to hear. Negroponte says that the Lab has just launched a program looking into ways of embedding computing in common objects. "This could be as simple as a doorknob that recognises you as you approach your house and opens the door. It may be able to communicate with other objects inside the home, perhaps even recognise burglars."

For Negroponte, one of the most important defining features of developing cyberspace is that it is a generational phenomena. He explains that in the US, two sectors of the community - senior citizens and the very young - have something that is very precious for getting to grips with being digital: time. "A lot of retired people, believe it or not, are getting on line - they have the time to do it. There is this very odd demographic of wired-up people now where you have this big bulge of youth, this growing bulge in the elderly population and this dimple in the centre for the middle-aged who are not there unless their profession has brought them there or unless kids have brought them there."

The number of Internet services is also rapidly increasing and Negroponte wishes that America Online in the US, for example, would give computers free. "It would be a very clever strategy; for an additional $20 a month, the computer would come free with the signing-on package. With prices rapidly going down, it is not a stupid idea." Negroponte says that people go through a profound "awakening" when they log on to the Internet: "Everybody thinks it is about information but once they get on they realise it is about community."

Being Digital is strong on the opportunities the cyber era offers for empowerment. A key feature of this development will be a flattening of hierarchies. Negroponte says that politicians should be concerned by this and believes that in the long run, the relevance of the nation-state is in question. He has not been impressed by the effort of politicians to get to grips with the IT revolution. He was amused by the recent G7 information summit in Brussels because he knew that "there was almost not a soul in that room who had a clue to what was really going on out there on the Internet."

With the average age of Internetees 23 and falling, Negroponte is concerned that the interests of the users are being ignored. "Politicians around the world are trying to make rules without understanding what is going on." Computer pornography, for instance, is a very hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic. Negroponte explains that in the US, unlike in many other countries, pornography laws are driven by the community. It is rather like Surrey being made responsible for what and how such material is made available to the public in its environs. He says: "The legislators have put it into the hands of the people-which is actually not a stupid way of doing it. And clearly laws are different in Amsterdam from what they are in, say, Oklahoma."

While such laws work in the "world of atoms" - physical places - they are ill-suited for application in cyberspace. Negroponte highlights the confusion between the two "worlds" in the minds of many officials by relating an extraordinary case in the US. A man in Cupertino, California, had made information available on the Internet. Somebody in Tennessee, thousands of miles away, logged on, picked up the material and strongly objected to it. The Tennessee citizen informed the police and the Cupertino man was found guilty by Tennessee law for something that was legal in California. "Now isn't that irrational?" says Negroponte.

He adds that only a few weeks ago, an Islamic fundamentalist demanded that the US extradite Madonna an d Michael Jackson to Tehran to be tried for violating Islamic law. He says: "Of course we all laughed and yet look at what we did to that guy in Cupertino. And there are many other similar cases and they all show we are squirming as a society over this issue."

It all seems to be getting a little out of hand. Laughing, Negroponte suggests that as a first step towards injecting some cool-headed thinking politicians should stop getting into a frenzy and just "relax". He says: "We are talking about a phenomenon that is growing at 10 per cent a week. Imagine a city growing at that rate, think of all the extra crime and violence because the infrastructure cannot cope with it. I think we have to realise that the cyberspace phenomenon is growing so fast it often defies understanding. What we should do is try to be as open as possible and not try to regulate. I think it will develop a self-regulating system of its own anyway."

But despite the legislative problems, Negroponte is optimistic - after all the medium itself has optimism built into it through the access it enables. He himself gets four or five messages a day from children asking him questions and he goes out his way to answer them. "Now there is no chance in hell that those kids could through to me by phone, fax or letter. As it is they get my answer and they feel good about it."

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