The Media Laboratory at MIT was conceived by Professor Nicholas Negroponte and the then President of MIT in the late 1970s. It was completed in 1983 with funding from many philanthropies, corporations involved in multimedia communications, and private individuals. At the time, most faculty at MIT were involved in studying technologies for computer operating systems, programming languages, and disk drives. Negroponte predicts that all programming for television, radio, and cable TV; all information currently printed in newspapers, magazines, and books; all interactive entertainment in video games and personal computer software; and all personal communications by standard and cellular telephone service will convert to digital format and will merge into one digital stream that intimately incorporates the emerging personal computer as the translator and router. Producers of information proggramming will have many digital avenues for distribution of their products, but all of it will be in digital format and will flow through the successors to the personal computer to your attention. But being digital means much more than receiving the same type of information in a new, and transparent, format. It means receiving services and products hitherto impossible in the analog format. These new products and services will transform the ways we practice medicine and the ways we manage health care.
There are many differences between analog and digital communication, but two stand out in importance. Digital communication permits the recipient, or an automated agent, to interpret and edit a received bit stream before viewing what the bit stream brought. And digital communication fits comfortably in a smaller electromagnetic spectrum than analog signals require, meaning that senders of information can pack more information into the signals they use to convey information to customers. The consequences to us, in terms of new functions and services we will enjoy, of the powers of data correction and data compression on digital data flowing into our lives are not defined in most publications about the information age. Negroponte makes them very clear. He argues that they usher in the "post-information age," defined by our ability to act on, modify, and change the information streams coming to us and to make them uniquely suited to us. In the information age, we were washed by floods of mass-produced information that everyone received in the same format and at the same time. Again, the implications of these changes for patient care are profound. These technologies will free us of the homogenizing influence of so much mass media and give us our schedules and our preferences back.
When an analog television show is on, you must watch it then, or program a VCR to catch the show in analog format to watch later. The VCR is cumbersome to use, and only about two hours of programming fits on one tape. Most of us schedule our time in front of the "tube" to attend to programs we want to watch. We watch them passively, as countless social scientists have reminded us. We modify our schedules to fit the schedule of...