What do we mean by ‘digital’? In one sense, we simply mean something whose ultimate existence is a string of ones and zeroes. A digital object, unlike the analogue stuff of the world or even of early computing, is a binary pattern.
Out of this simple fact have come some of the most transforming cultural forces of the second half off the twentieth century and, now, the first half of the 21st. For perhaps the most remarkable property of digital objects, – whether their ones and zeroes encode words, music, images, applications, web browsers, or databases containing much of the store of human knowledge, – is their compatibility with each other.
For the first time in human history, it is possible almost endlessly to copy and distribute words, sounds, images, ideas; and it is possible to access, adapt, and create all of these on the same devices.
The history of digital ideas goes back to well before the twentieth century. It is part of the millennia-old story of mathematics, as well as the story of ingenious design preceding the last century’s developments in the fields of electronics and computing.
I have chosen here, however, to focus on the more recent past, – on those aspects of the digital present that seem powerfully to be shaping the future. As a result, this is overwhelmingly a book about and around the internet.
As I write these words, in 2011, around two billion people, – almost a third of humanity and one third of the planet’s population, – have some form of access to the internet. Thanks to the spread of mobile internet access, this figure will continue to soar over the coming decade, as will the use of online services steadily reshaping much of what it means to be a member of a modern society.
The news is not all good: growth, amelioration and freedom are not to be taken for granted, and indeed are not enjoyed by many of the world’s digital citizens. The internet is as powerful a force in the hands of as many of the world’s repressive and censorial regimes as it is in the hands of those using it to liberate, educate, connect, and delight.
Similarly, it is a breeding ground for the best and worst of humanity alike: the scammers and the selfless; the entertainers and the mockers; the entrepreneurs and the predators. But this only makes understanding its history, structures, potentials, and possible futures all the more vital.
“Human wisdom is the aggregate of all human experience,
constantly accumulating, selecting, and reorganizing its own materials.”
- Sending words digitally is its own revolution
- Digital technologies demand common digital languages
- Data is only useful if you can find it
- Interaction and collaboration are a new global standard
- Now anyone can be an author
- A new medium demands a new way of talking
- The internet is becoming a universal broadcaster
- Sharing is only ever a click away
- Wherever you are you can go online
- The web is the world’s biggest shop window
- Data means nothing without analysis
- Technology can help to unite our divided languages
- Ease of mass collaboration is changing the world
- Bringing a world of information into one place