2B OR NOT TO BE DIGITAL
Hamlet's famous and anxious existential question has nowadays a dramatic new variant. For writers, creators, scientists, entrepreneurs, traders, politicians, and so on, the dilemma has become: to invest or not to invest in digital technologies, computers, software and the Internet, and if so, how much? Is it a necessity for survival and growth, or could it be a costly mistake?
I am one of those who believe we are entering into the Digital Age, a turn in the human adventure as decisive as the ages of fire or iron in the past. Does this mean that everything is becoming digital? Yes and no. Everything was not changed by fire in the old days. Matter and atoms will still exist alongside bits and bytes, whatever Nicholas Negroponte said in his famous book Being Digital. But who knows? Matter and energy are two aspects of the same thing and may easily change into each other, according to quantum physics! The final answer promises to be Yes much more than No.
Consider our attempt to better understand nature, the universe and our own human body. Nowadays we should speak of digital-techno-science instead of science alone. Science today, be it astrophysics, ecology, genetics, or medicine, depends extensively and almost exclusively on computers and software. We speak of biotics, because biology without computer science can't progress any further. The Genome, the book of life, is giving away its secrets to powerful computers. With Bluegenes, IBM has announced a computer able to analyze in real time the chemical changes along a DNA strand. And DNA's language, with its four letters A, G, T, and C, sounds so like binary computer language in its elementary structure as to suggest that Nature was originally programmed by divine Software, rather than built by a divine Watchmaker. Because all we know or discover now is on computer screens, digital files interpreted and translated into images by software, we can almost believe that the world is digital and that the way to control and change it is, again, and exclusively, by computer. Science in its whole is computer-driven. If you doubt this, just remove every computer from every lab, and watch science grind to a halt.
Let's consider now business: not only do we invest heavily in e-commerce and the Net economy, but we even manage the old economy with computers, not to mention finance, which has become the digital blood of the Information Society and New Economy. Banks are all offering more and more services online. There are digital development scenarios and analysis models everywhere. Even on a farm you find computers. The economy is computer-driven and would also collapse, if computers were to fail.
What about culture? Does our most noble human activity escape the conquest of the digital? Film-making and distribution are turning digital, completely and without possible return. Digital cameras, sound and postproduction studios, and special effects, and broadcasting by satellite and the Internet (streaming) have started a revolution which is becoming a difficult challenge for the old Hollywood industries. Television? It is now by law digital in the US: a change soon to be inevitable for Canada. Radio and photography are also becoming digital. Ask Polaroid if you are still in doubt. All big museums offer virtual tours, including their works in storage and their gift shops. The video game industry has surpassed the turnover of film production in the United States! E-books have proved successful in specialized uses, such as encyclopedias, utilities, and professional and linguistic training. And even books printed on traditional paper depend now on digital writing, production and distribution management. All urban planning, architecture and interior design is computer-assisted and controlled. You learn how to pilot a submarine or a plane in a simulation cabin. Planes are now like flying computers; your car is becoming more and more computerized, Internet-diagnosed and even - driven.
Do our psyche and spiritual life escape the digital? You can get your psychoanalytic therapy online, and online churches are so successful that even the Vatican recently felt obliged to remind the faithful that digital sacraments are not yet available. You still have to regularly visit real churches to meet real priests, but all mainline churches and smaller sects, not to mention NGO's, associations and clubs, have very active virtual portals.
Organized crime (including the Hell's Angels and the Banditos) is flourishing online, secretly or with official web sites recruiting and promoting their activities and values. And you can also find now on the Internet police offices, cyber-courts and lawyers. International committees are working urgently on new laws and regulations which will apply to cyberspace - till now a kind of Wild West without sheriffs. Terrorists also have learned how to effectively use Internet, as we have discovered every day since September 11th!
Our private communications have changed and incomparably improved thanks to e-mail (including the sending of family photos and videos), chat, and forums, although at the same time our privacy is put at risk. We can navigate freely everywhere on the Internet, finding whatever we want, as if in an inexhaustible metropolis. Not to mention virtual sex, which is exploding and not so safe as claimed if we consider also the miserable success of sexual exploitation networks. There are new possibilities for buying or selling things from our attics, rare old books or the newest gadgets, through electronic auctions or virtual boutiques. Pervasive smart objects linked by digital networks transform our homes into user-friendly computerized environments. The latest fridge is Internet-connected and able to order eggs or butter from the grocery store when needed, automatically.
Wars are run more and more like video games, with joysticks in the boats and planes and computer-controlled laser beams. However, not only have bombs become smart, but schools as well! We speak today of e-learning, virtual universities, virtual communities, electronic governance and democracy.
As we have realized how huge this leap in our evolution is, rich countries are all founding R&D labs on the model of MIT Media Lab (with its satellites in Ireland and India), which employs interdisciplinary research teams gathering artists, scientists, philosophers, programmers and entrepreneurs, promoting innovation and creativity. For example, in Montreal a new Quebec Media Lab called Hexagram, formed by Concordia University and Université du Québec artists/researchers, was launched a few weeks ago to develop innovative digital content for the arts and media industries.
Jeremy Rifkin, analyzing the new model of society in the age of the information economy and digital networks, emphasizes the importance of "hypercapitalism based on producing, selling and buying cultural experiences", and Bill Gates promotes the Internet as a new way of life and work. And after a crazy enthusiasm of venture capital for the digital industries, which has given a strategic impulse to its fast development, the implosion of the speculative bubble has allowed a promising restructuring and consolidation of the digital industry.
Should we therefore believe that in our struggle for success in life and business, we all have to get digital or die? Again, yes and no. In the rich Northern civilizations, there is probably no other choice but to embrace its novelty, creativity and power. But in Southern civilizations, it will be a big challenge, even if the Internet over time supports development and favors cultural and linguistic diversity.
We should remember that only six or seven percent of humanity has access to computers and the Internet. More than 90% doesn't. Digital technologies may offer poorer countries access to better wireless communication, education, health and commerce, but on the other hand we have observed an increasing digital divide, a gap dug deeper and deeper between the info-rich and the info-poor, which we should all take seriously. This will be the theme of the Internet and Multimedia Summit organized by the International Federation of Multimedia Associations (www.fiam.org) in Montreux, Switzerland, next October.
It is our hope that cheap (about $200 US), high-performance computers, like the Simputer in India, which runs on ordinary batteries, accepts voice commands in that nation's 16 official languages, and offers wireless Internet connection, will soon be available in the Third World. Their price may fall even further with mass production; we already have disposable cameras, and will soon have disposable mobile telephones.
It is for a rich country like Canada a priority not only to develop our digital networks and activity in all fields to their full potential, to remain competitive among other powerfull nations and to secure our identity, creativity, values and standard of living, but also to meet our obligation to support a new model of rapid digital development for poorer countries.
Still, the question remains: how far should we or shall we get digital? Over time, we will very probably observe a new state of complementarity between virtual and real productive activities and social life, which may bring us many exciting new challenges and offer us promising results in our efforts to improve our economy, further our science, and secure our privacy. The question is not one of reality's resistance to, or its vanishing into, a triumphant virtual parallel world, but of the close and creative hybridizing between reality and its powerful and expanding digital simulacrum. Here is the foundation of an innovative society. For example, allow me to prophesy that virtual shopping centers like Amazon.com will soon open real urban boutiques which will support each other and enjoy the best of both worlds, for our convenience and therefore its own financial success, if it is not so proud of its original radical vision that it is blinded to the advantages of this strategy. In the beginning of the computer image, creators defended 100% pure computer-generated graphics without any video capture; but nowadays, we aim to combine real and digital production. It is easy to prophesy the same evolution in our spectacular digital conquest. Still, it is not just a revolution, a change of civilization, but a definitive change of era, because it will affect all civilizations without erasing their differences or preventing the increase of diversity, just as the universal extension of the technology of fire did not prevent the rise of vastly different cultures. The digital will not provoke any civilization shock, as predicted by prophets of catastrophe. On the contrary, depending on human values and the uses to which it is put, its success may be good news.
*Hervé Fischer (www.hervefischer.montreal.qc.ca) holds the Chair Daniel Langlois for Digital Technologies and the Fine Arts at Concordia University, Montreal. Author of "The Digital Shock- Le Choc du numérique", VLB Édition, 2001.