Introduction: Being Digital

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, concluded his influential book Being Digital with the observation that the advent of digital technology was no ordinary phenomenon. “Being digital is different,” he said. “We are not waiting on any invention.

It is here. It is now. It is almost genetic in its nature, in that each generation will become more digital than the preceding one.”

Indeed, with each passing year since those words were written the world has become more and more digital. The pace of change has been swift. Entire industries have been transformed by the new digital reality.

Whether it is in the field of music, photography, publishing, journalism, banking, finance, manufacturing, health care, education, entertainment—no segment of industry or government is untouched. Today digital technologies pervade almost every aspect of life in modern society.

If there is a first law of digital technology, it would be this: whatever can be, will be transformed to bits.

In this course we explore the transformation from “atoms” to “bits” that Negroponte aptly described. We examine a variety of business, technical, legal and ethical issues and seek to identify the opportunities and challenges managers face in the incessant movement toward being digital.

We also look at a number of enterprises spawned by digital technology to learn about how they function. Among these “digital enterprises” are some of the world’s most-recognized names—Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Yahoo! and Google.

But we also learn about less widely known enterprises that each in their own way are making a mark on the digital frontier.

At the core of the digital revolution is the remarkable and far-reaching Internet, which serves as the circulatory system for the torrent of bits flowing through cyberspace.

The Internet is the vast network of networks that ties together millions of computers in such a way as to allow us the unprecedented ability to interact with each other. The Internet is surely a technical marvel, but it is much more than silicon and fiber.

At its core is a protocol that allows a multitude of digital devices to speak the same language and thereby exchange bits of information. In this way, the Internet is glue that binds the digital world together.

Each day countless individuals—perhaps as many as one billion—around the world enter the digital realm via the Internet to do various tasks from the mundane to the masterful.

What brings people of all ages and every walk of life to the Internet in such numbers? The ease of communication is surely one reason. The inexpensive and easy ability to send e-mail and instant messages to anyone else connected to the network is a clear advantage.

Beyond basic communication, people search for information about every thing imaginable that is of interest to them. People also engage in various kinds of transactions: to buy and sell goods and services, pay bills and taxes, to find a place to live or a new job. In this course we look at all of these things and more.

If the past is an indication of the future, the digital revolution has only just begun to make its impact felt. Those individuals who will lead us in the next generation must cultivate an understanding of digital technology and where it is heading.

While there is much to be optimistic about, not everything about being digital bodes well for society. It is only through knowledge that we can avoid the pitfalls. The goal of this course is intended to help guide the way.

Questions to consider:

  • Who uses the Internet and for what reasons?
  • In thinking about your own usage (aside from this course), do you consider the Internet more a convenience or a necessity in your daily life?
  • When connected to the Internet, what products or services do you use most often?
  • What is it about the Internet that is fundamentally different from earlier methods of communication?
  • Looking ahead to the next decade, what do you forsee emerging as a direct result of the continued evolution of digital technology?