PRINT September 1995


Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital, the Corporation, Emily Martin's Flexible Bodies, John Naisbitt's Global Paradox


Not the sort of rallying cry you’d expect from Nicholas Negroponte, the director of MIT’s fabled Media Lab, the massively funded concept and design factory that prides itself on manufacturing the multimedia future. Negroponte entered the popular imagination as a gurulike figure in Stewart Brand’s 1987 chronicle The Media Lab, in which he starred as a kind of postliterate Renaissance man for the coming millennium. Being Digital, which grew from Negroponte’s regular back-page column in Wired magazine, is his first full-length exposition of his vision. The book covers a range of technical matters, from bar codes to high-definition TV, in studiously accessible language. But readers looking for detail on appealing gadgets-yet-to-come are likely to be disappointed: the book is short on technotitillation and long on the human-machine “interface.”

“Face” is perhaps the key word throughout. This becomes clear in the opening pages, which include one of the relatively few starry-eyed future-gadget images found here. It is strangely off-the-cuff, and all about face: “Early in the next millennium your right and your left cuff links or earrings may communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites and have more computer power than your present PC.” Have you ever wondered what your earrings would say to each other if they could have a confidential conversation? I have to confess, I hadn’t. One of the endearing things about Being Digital is that Negroponte hasn’t either. What fascinates him is the possibility of the connection. He doesn’t seem to notice that the earring “inter-” bypasses the “-face” (not to mention the brain behind it). Now I know: if Negropontean earrings could talk, the left one would say “Make me redundant.” To which the right one would retort, “No, make me redundant.” The face would beam an oblivious smile in the general direction of a satellite.

For Negroponte, utility is never the question. He never asks what for. Why bother with gossipy cuff links? Because they would connect. The titillation is less in the gadget or the goal than in the connection. Being Digital expresses a connection fetishism that is refreshing in its lack of moralizing about what we should do in the future Negroponte is so busy manufacturing for us. But the book also gives pause. Its subject matter is less technological revolution than an evolution in the way technologies that are for the most part already in existence may be reconfigured to interconnect into an all-encompassing machine environment. The stated reason for the digital surround is to “personalize.” The funny thing is that what Negroponte means by “personalize” is the same as what he means by being “redundant,” and he doesn’t seem to notice. It boils down to delegation. The machine interface he evokes would simulate human-to-human contact as much as possible, favoring voice command and integrating recognition capability for nonverbal cues. Each human body would extrude a custom-tailored machine double, an intelligent network of “digital butlers” attuned to all the particularities of its “master’s” moods and movements. The “butlers” (guess what Negroponte’s economic background is) wouldn’t just mirror my human “me” back, they would act for “me.” For the digital future is one of bountiful information; more data and entertainment will be at the tip of our ears than we could process in a lifetime. Leave it to the butlers to search, sort, and select for me.

The connect-a-fetish is driven by a vision of unlimited selection. Negroponte presents an externalization not only of intelligence but also of personality and choice made infinite. What he doesn’t say is that such a thorough transfer of properties from the human to the machine could not be one-way. The transfer would go both ways, blurring the boundaries between master and servant, human inside and machine outside, in a continuous feedback loop: “Your face is . . . your display device”; “Being digital is almost genetic.” You human, “me” machine. Choice might indeed become infinite—but it would also be automatic. Who is in control in a redundancy of doubles second-guessing each other? The “personalization” described in Being Digital is in fact a defacing, a post-humanization: the subsumption of the human in a self-organizing complex system. On the one hand, your cuff link might wonder where being human has gotten anyone anyway in this century of genocide. So why not try something else for the next millennium? But on the other hand—unlimited choice, what for? For whom? (Me, me, make me redundant.)

Michael Hammer and James Champy, authors of Reengineering the Corporation, do not share Negroponte’s reticence about goals. Versatility, what for? For profit, what else? Reengineering is the biggest thing in corporate philosophy since Total Quality Management. Whereas TQM stood for improvement of preexisting organizational structure, reengineering presents itself as nothing short of a “reversal of the industrial revolution.” This postindustrial “revolution” in corporate structure bears an uncanny resemblance to Negroponte’s “personal” evolution. The same catchphrases recur: delegation, parallel processing, the virtues of redundancy, and the infinitude of choice in a complex self-organizing system. One difference is that the perspective on choice is reversed: here, the choice is seen as starting on the outside. The need for revolution comes from the rising expectations of the ever-choosier customer. In order to survive, the corporation must develop the ability to mirror the choosiness of its customers back at them in the form of new products and services. The corporation must in a sense internalize its outside through feedback functions that make the market itself into the company’s product-design department. The response must be so versatile and so automatic that the customer’s needs and desires are filled before they are perceived. Need and desire become redundant, thus solving the bountiful-choice dilemma. (Choice, what for?; “my” desire has been delivered.)

The exchange with the outside is two-way. In “outloading,” tasks formerly undertaken by company divisions are delegated to outside providers, who are given exclusive contracts and unprecedented access to company information in return. The overall result is a “flattening” of the corporate structure in a complex horizontal network, integrating external agents into the internal workings of the company to the point that the outside (choice) and the inside (versatility) fuse into a continuous “process” (automatic delivery). The only way to tell who is in and who is out is to look at where the profit flows: if you merit a bonus, you’re in; if you don’t, you’re made “redundant”—in more human terms, you’re sacked. This is considered a reversal of the industrial revolution because it ”deconstructs“ the pyramidal structure and division of labor characteristic of the classical corporation, replacing the old hierarchies and separations with general-purpose rapid-response teams that function like multidirectional connection nodes operating at every point in the network (another meaning of ”redundancy").

If you put Negroponte together with Hammer and Champy, you get a higher-order mirroring of the “personal” and the “corporate.” Add global trend-hounds like John Naisbitt and you get a conformity between the person, the corporation, and the state. Naisbitt is an overpaid clipping service. In Global Paradox, he cobbles together selections from the last five years of news in order to come up with predictions about the fate of the nation-state in a deregulating global information economy. The vocabulary is familiar. Now add recent art and cultural theory, and you get a homology between the person, the corporation, the state, and “resistance.” Readers of magazines like Artforum will not find the vocabulary of “being digital” and “reengineering” and “global paradox” that foreign, not least because it mirrors in only slightly different terms the vocabulary of academic post-Modernism. Should we be worried?

Emily Martin is. Flexible Bodies asks the all-important question, “What new images and forms of the body . . . are coming into existence contemporaneously with the dramatic shift in political economic organization that is being brought about by flexible specialization?” Add “body” to the list of homologies after “resistance” (the meaning of which changes in the new context). Martin studies mass-media constructions of the immune system, from mid century to the present day. She sees a shift taking place from a defensive-fortress image to a complex-system image of flexible adaptation. Mass-media analysis is supplemented by material culled from hundreds of interviews exploring individual appropriations of immune-system imagery. Flexible Bodies convincingly diagnoses a shift in perceptions of bodily boundaries. But for all its richness, the book doesn’t go much further than asserting that the shift has occurred. The strategy of limiting the source materials to media representations, and to individual representations derived in large part from media representations, fizzles in the end. Not much more can be accomplished than setting up a metaphorical relay between the two levels of representation. Differences are catalogued but don’t add up to distinctions that can be put to work answering questions about how the levels of the mass-mediated and the personal concretely work together, and how concretely they connect to other levels (for example, the digital or the nation-state).

Martin evades these questions by saying that the aim of the book is not to speculate about causes (even as she assumes that it is flexible specialization that has “brought about” political and economic change). This misses the point. The question is one of cofunctioning, not causality, which in a complex system is never localizable. Rather than getting models of cofunctioning, the reader is left with a general description of a new body. We get a fuzzy portrait of flexibility oscillating vaguely between two levels, with no tools for placing it with any specificity. The corporate reengineer knows very well where to put the very ungeneral bodies he either outplaces or retains and “reeducates.” The flexibility his revolution achieves is painfully specific in its interconnections with other levels, including the personal and the mass-mediated. Cultural and social theory would do well to look beyond its accustomed frontiers. There is much to be learned from the digerati, and the management specialists, and maybe even from overpaid news clippers.

Brian Massumi is the author of User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, and, with Kenneth Dean, of First and Last Emperors: The Absolute State and the Body of the Despot, New York: Autonomedia, 1993.