Prof. Gregory Sporton MA PhD, Professor of Digital Creativity

In the late nineties, Nicholas Negroponte, found himself staring at bottles of mineral water on the conference tables he was spending so much of his time sitting around.  Negroponte, of Wired fame, MIT Media Lab, tech entrepreneur and one of digital technology’s most enthusiastic boosters, wondered how it was that a large, heavy object like this could be demanded and arrive so easily from a remote French village, when the intangible bits he was working with were struggling to find ways of distributing themselves and turning a profit.  Negroponte, an energetic booster of the world of bits, believed in their possibilities as an alternative growth strategy for developed economies, and convinced large numbers of investors that this was the future.  He was stoking up a bits-based economic bubble, that became the Dotcom crash.

He recognised the difference between a trade based on commodities to one based on invisibles, but failed, like so many others in the nineties, to understand the flaws of an economic system based on the potential that the bits might be worth something.  It was a question of trust.  The businessmen whose models so confused Negroponte in their efficient capacity to distribute heavy, if commonplace, commodities across the world, did not yet believe that the exchange of bits contained within it the potential to support the global economy without the hassle of trading actual things.

Knowing the potential of the technology was one thing; converting this into business models that would turn a profit was another, but also crucial in attracting the investment required to bring the technology to a market.  The diverting of resources into this new market could be a key component of future affluence, if only we could find a way to believe in the story of how bits could change who we are and what we have.

In the decade that has followed, the technology industries have come to dominate our thinking about economic growth.  Governments and industries have been taught to put their faith (and their money) into technology projects.  Individuals have created businesses (and sometimes fortunes) on their exchange of bits in a so-called knowledge economy.  The ambitious failures of technology have rarely hampered the insistence on this story of economic development, a world without things, an economy based on delivery systems of information.

It is time for a critical look at the validity of the claims of technology to have brought us the improvements they have promised.  This is especially true since our technology-driven failure in the financial markets. The most evolved part of the bits based economy, where obscure financial instruments are possible because of the capacity for their creation and redistribution of their risk could be conducted on the global scale provided by the Internet, the free flowing market for capital has failed.  Ultimately, as I will argue in my lecture on November the 1st, this is because for all the cleverness of digital technology and its astonishing ability to create a apparently connected world, the human imagination can’t yet extend itself to truly believe in the value of bits.

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Gregory Sporton

Gregory Sporton

MA PhD, Professor of Digital Creativity
Gregory Sporton

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