The Paradox of a Book

Being dyslexic, I don't like to read. As a child I read train timetables instead of the classics, and delighted in making imaginary perfect connections from one obscure town in Europe to another. This fascination gave me an excellent grasp of European geography.

Thirty years later, as director of the MIT Media Lab, I found myself in the middle of a heated national debate about the transfer of technology from U.S. research universities to foreign companies. I was soon summoned to two industry-government meetings, one in Florida and one in California.

At both meetings, Evian water was served in one-liter glass bottles. Unlike most of the participants, I knew exactly where Evian was from my timetables. Evian, France, is more than five hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Those heavy glass bottles had to traverse almost one-third of Europe, cross the Atlantic, and, in the case of California, travel an additional three thousand miles.

So here we were discussing the protection of the American computer industry and our electronic competitiveness, when we seemingly could not even provide American water at an American conference.

Today, I see my Evian story not so much being about French mineral water versus American, but illustrating the fundamental difference between atoms and bits. World trade has traditionally consisted of exchanging atoms. In the case of Evian water, we were shipping a large, heavy, and inert mass, slowly, painfully, and expensively, across thousands of miles, over a period of many days. When you go through customs you declare your atoms, not your bits. Even digitally recorded music is distributed on plastic CDs, with huge packaging, shipping, and inventory costs.

This is changing rapidly. The methodical movement of recorded music as pieces of plastic, like the slow human handling of most information in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, and videocassettes, is about to become the instantaneous and inexpensive transfer of electronic data that move at the speed of light. In this form, the information can become universally accessible. Thomas Jefferson advanced the concept of libraries and the right to check out a book free of charge. But this great forefather never considered the likelihood that 20 million people might access a digital library electronically and withdraw its contents at no cost.

The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable. Why now? Because the change is also exponential - small differences of yesterday can have suddenly shocking consequences tomorrow. [.....]

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Updated on May 14, 1996