Tech UPTechnologyNicholas Negroponte:

Nicholas Negroponte:

Are you having a good flight Mr. Negroponte?
-Yes, but long, very long. Everyone around me is sleeping or watching their third movie.

The truth is that this is an interview that only a few years ago would seem impossible. You are traveling from Thailand to Milan and I am sitting quietly in the MUY newsroom in Madrid. I don’t see your face, nor do you see me. Do you think classic journalists would consider this a real interview?
-Well, classic journalists tend to prefer a face-to-face conversation, a discussion with the interviewee. Obviously, this has its advantages: you can build your story progressively according to the gestures and reactions of the interviewee. In the traditional method, the journalist is more in control.

But you feel very comfortable doing interviews via email or online via the Internet. Don’t you prefer face-to-face conversation?
-I prefer email. And I usually only give interviews like that. I can take more time to think about the answers. Even if it is not very urgent, I allow myself the luxury of rereading the answers and clarifying them before sending them. I feel that I have more control, although not to manipulate the content, but to try to answer in the most intelligent and useful way possible.

Yes, but you will not deny that this interview also has another advantage for you: anonymity. If we were talking face to face I could guess your intentions, pressure you to answer me what you do not want to answer … However, it is easier for you to deceive me …
-Anonymity is not the exact word, because you (probably) are absolutely certain that I am Nicholas Negroponte and not an impostor. What we are doing is bypassing the traditional channels of information such as facial expression, non-verbal language, tone of voice … It is like sending telegrams back and forth. The message is in the text, not in its medium of expression.

In any case, does it still really matter in the digital world to know who is on the other end of the line?
-Of course. As the use of the Internet grows, the use of encrypted signatures and all kinds of systems that guarantee that we are communicating with whoever we want will increase. Unfortunately, the demand for these systems by the user has not yet been so massive that user-friendly authentication technologies are generated. When the demand increases, very practical solutions will be born, safer even than face-to-face communication, where, by the way, you can also cheat.

Imagine that the famed prosecutor Kenneth Starr, prosecutor in the Lewinsky case, is interested in your private life and is prodding this conversation …
-Obviously, if you want, you can do it … But first you should agree with the government of the United States and the rest of the countries on how you can use the information obtained by this means. It is a very complex matter, because the same technologies that allow secure data traffic over the Internet can prevent the police from tapping into communications from potential criminals. It is true that nobody wants them to snoop into their conversations, but the fight against drug trafficking or terrorism, for example, requires certain interventions of that type.

Now I realize another peculiar thing about my last question. A few decades ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to mention Kenneth Starr, I just wouldn’t know him. The Clinton-Lewinsky affair would not have deserved more than a small note in a Spanish newspaper. Now Clinton, Lewinsky, Starr, Michael Jordan and Ted Turner are famous in Spain. Is this good for the Spanish? Is it just another consequence of globalization?
-It is not a consequence of globalization, but the cause of it. I just left Thailand where they asked me if the globalization of the digital world is the cause of the economic crisis. My answer has been clear: the digital world has not created the problem, it has simply revealed it. In these things, causes and effects are often confused.

Yes, but you will not deny that some countries lost in this game. In the United States very little is known about Spain, for example.
-I don’t think the question is: “What do the 250 million Americans know about the 40 million Spaniards?” We must see things from this other perspective: 1) Would a great event in Spain be known throughout the world? The answer is yes”. 2) Can the inhabitants of the United States who are interested in Spain, or Americans of Spanish origin, find increasingly better information about this country at a distance? Also the answer is “yes”.

Doesn’t it seem paradoxical that the majority of users use the Internet, a global medium, to search for information about our country or our environment?
Well, that’s what adults tend to do, although 50 percent of email traffic is international. But young people are not like that. Digital kids will grow up with a more global consciousness than you and me. The Net will make them citizens of the world to the extent that we cannot imagine.

Will the information rich get richer and the poor getting poorer?
-That is a very important issue. I have great hope in the new generations, but I must also be realistic. To prevent what you propose from happening, a radical change in the economic structure of information technology is needed: telecommunications must be much cheaper and much better. Computers, for example, should all cost less than $ 100 (14,730 pesetas at press time). But we know that this is impossible. The sad reality is that telecommunications are more expensive in those countries where they have the poorest quality and where people need them the most for development.

Unfortunately, on the Web, humanistic analyzes like the one you just did are still scarce. 2b1, the NGO that you have started to promote Internet access for Third World children, is heading in this direction.
-2b1 is an example of solidarity effort. But the social dimension of the Internet has to grow on its own. It must come from the own initiatives of the people who live thanks to the Internet. Using a popular American expression: “one should not urinate on the door of his own house”.

What could be done from the Internet to promote, for example, a peaceful solution to the Kosovo problem?
-Increase the information of the people, make the problems less abstract and serve as a speaker for the parties involved to spread their message.

Convince me that a Third World child whose main concern is eating will find it useful to have a computer.
-Probably a few hundred years ago, people would wonder the same thing about books. They would say: “convince me that a poor child needs to learn to read.” Of course, these children do not need technology to work with it, but it is evident that personal development, well-being and quality of life arise from education. With more reason than in the rich world, children in poor countries should have access to the Internet. A connection to the Internet in a rural school allows access to all the libraries in the world, in a place where, perhaps, there is not a single book at hand.

Does the Internet favor the use of local languages, or does it harm it for the benefit of all-powerful English?
-The languages used in technology are of two categories:
1: A French pilot landing his Airbus at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris communicates with the control tower in English. And that suits us all, because that way other drivers who are nearby can understand the conversation. We feel more confident that there is a single language for air traffic control. The same can happen with a Spanish tourist traveling to Greece: it is very convenient to be able to communicate in English with the citizens there. English is the second language in the world, and this situation is reproduced on the Internet.
2: It is different if we talk about specific content on the Internet. Possibly, Spanish will be the second most used language on the Internet after Chinese. The digital world stimulates local content instead of hindering it. Children are beginning to read more than ever thanks to the Internet. Endangered languages may regain strength.

He is seen to be absolutely convinced that children should familiarize themselves with the Net …
-Because they want it that way, and it is good that they begin to play with the information and its multiple uses. Love is a better teacher than duty, as Einstein said. The best way to learn is to want to learn, to be curious. If you can afford to buy a computer for your child and connect it to the Internet, it would be a crime not to.

Is there a way to stop the computer market race towards products that are increasingly powerful, with more memory, with more peripherals, but less practical?
-I hope so, because things are getting out of hand. We are steering computer development down the wrong path. All you do is add options and functions that only serve to fatten an already obese software. My computer is 2,000 times more powerful than the one I had in 1985, it is not cheaper, and instead it is slower. Blame it on a business model that believes the only way to make money is to increase margins and prevent prices from adjusting to commonly used levels. But the computer should be almost a basic commodity.

The truth is that you feel stupid when you buy a computer and the next month it is obsolete.
-It’s not that bad. Today’s newspaper will be out of date tomorrow. Unlike with the newspaper, you can reconfigure your PC, add new software … But it is true that, if manufacturers were more sensible, we should all have versatile and modular machines, capable of growing over time, instead of having than to throw them away and start over.

Will the computer be the future tool for accessing the Internet?
-As we know them today, computers are condemned to disappear in favor of a more ubiquitous support, more adjusted to the needs of the user. It is what I call objects that think and that connect us (in English, things that think and things that link). In the future we will feel the computer as the air: we will not notice its presence until the day we miss it, because it will be everywhere.

And will they definitely be easier to use?
-Only when made with common sense.

In Spain we have experienced a great public debate about Internet access rates. What is your opinion?
-If a government wants to stimulate its economy, it should not charge to enter the Internet. Current telephone billing models are unfeasible for the future. The payment per minute spoken, per unit of information sent or per kilometer of motorway traveled will be replaced by flat rates, services added to the transmission and financing through advertising.

What does a website have to look like to capture the attention of Nicholas Negroponte?
-One that I don’t need to visit, that my computer can do it for me.

A few decades ago in my house we could only access 2 TV channels and we loved them. Now we have hundreds of digital channels at our fingertips, and it is difficult to find a spectacular one. What’s going on?
-Maybe we’re getting old. As a child they used to tell me bedtime stories … now no one does. When we were young we had reading groups … not anymore. But to be honest, everyone says that sports broadcasts are much better now than before, although I don’t follow sports on television.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard declared to our magazine (see VERY October 1995) that today’s science is hardly done on the ground anymore; most scientists work with simulated models on the computer. That is good?
– In a sense that allows us to do better science. The researcher has the opportunity to simulate situations that would otherwise be impossible to observe. You can see the behavior of a molecule from points of view not achievable in real science. Denying this is like saying that you are not a good journalist because you no longer write your chronicles by hand, or a good mathematician because you do not use the abacus.

Can you imagine a world without bookstores?
-Yes. And a world without car dealerships, pharmacies, grocery stores … Commerce is going to change completely. Nowadays it is easier to buy a book over the Internet than in a physical place: you know in advance if there are copies left, it is cheaper, you do not have to travel and transport it and, in many cases, you save taxes.

You travel the world advising companies, governments and individuals. Not a bad way to earn a living!
-Of course. I have reached a state where I can allow myself to share with people some of the fortune that I have enjoyed throughout my career. The work is simple, and if I can help things go better, that’s great.

How long do you spend connected to the Internet?
-I spend at least four hours a day in front of the computer screen, 365 days a year, for the last 20 years. But I don’t spend all that time connected to the Internet. I try to save connection time by downloading what I need to my computer. Especially since I have to connect in very different places in the world, where Internet access can be expensive and of poor quality. When I go online, I rarely spend more than an hour browsing the web.

Please be honest: When you are alone, no one can look down on you and you want to have a good online experience, what websites do you visit?
-Do you really want me to be sincere? Neither!
Jorge Mayor


This interview was published in April 1999, in number 215 of VERY Interesting.

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