For years, Rick Smolan has been staking out the adventuresome edges of the digital-publishing field, with pioneering book/CD-ROM projects such as "From Alice to Ocean" and "Passage to Vietnam." Having created the popular "A Day in the Life of ..." coffee-table book series, Smolan and his team took their formula -- send out a horde of talented photojournalists on a single day to record a spectrum of simultaneous images -- and translated it to the online world with the book/CD/Web site project "24 Hours in Cyberspace."
Now they are back for something of a reprise with the new "One Digital Day: How the Microchip Is Changing Our World." Where "24 Hours in Cyberspace" concentrated on the transformation of daily life by the power of digital networking, "One Digital Day" focuses on the ways the ubiquitous microprocessor has worked its way into every human pursuit in all corners of the globe. The book aims to go beyond the high-profile world of personal computing and show how hidden chips are changing daily life -- from billboards to toilets.
As with its predecessors, the photographs in "One Digital Day" combine beauty and immediacy to build an absorbing catalog of human-interest stories -- from the digitally enabled astrologer in Bangalore whose storefront reads, "Know your FUTURE through COMPUTER!" to the saffron-robed Buddhist monks peering curiously through the window of a Bangkok computer store to the scientists in South Africa who are using chip implants to track the population of cheetahs and reduce inbreeding among their once-endangered numbers. Wherever human beings are and whatever they are doing today -- in business and entertainment, health care and sports, engineering and agriculture, education and religion -- chips, we see, are there with them.
Yet unlike most of its preceding volumes, "One Digital Day" feels forced, constrained in the tales it is telling. Aside from one mention of digital privacy issues and another of the Year 2000 bug, the book's roster of chip-enabled human achievement hits a uniformly positive note. Microchips work miracles: They don't just power computers and produce profits, they also heal the sick and succor the poor!
Well, no doubt they sometimes do. But are they really -- as an introductory essay by Michael Malone puts it -- "the greatest instrument for achieving freedom ever invented"? Are there no harmful side effects to the digital revolution -- displaced jobs, environmental fallout from chip production, a speeding up of life and work that squeezes out the prospect of leisure?
You don't have to look far to understand why "One Digital Day" is skewed the way it is: The book is sponsored by Intel (which is also hosting its Web site), and its frontispiece is a letter from Intel chairman Andy Grove. Previous "Day in the Life"-style projects have had corporate sponsorships, to be sure, but they've usually been shared among many companies and institutions. "One Digital Day" is the first to have the feel of a gigantic, beautifully produced brochure for a single client.
In the book's press materials, Smolan says, "We never allow sponsors to interfere with the editorial integrity of our projects ... the project was editorially independent." But I can't help thinking that "One Digital Day" would be a very different book had it been sponsored by IBM or Motorola -- or, preferably, some company that didn't have a vested interest in the promotion of specific technologies.
I understand that the kind of ambitious, globe-spanning work Smolan and his colleagues have always pursued doesn't come cheap, and sponsors make these projects possible. But the knowledge that Intel has backed the project winds up coloring your reading of every page.
Certainly, no book about microprocessors could ignore Intel -- the pioneer and market leader in this field. And as you page through "One Digital Day" and encounter photos of the company's leaders -- including Grove, co-founder Gordon Moore (seen fishing) and current CEO Craig Barrett (talking business in his cubicle) -- you might think, "Well, they belong here, since they're part of the microprocessor's history." But by the second spread highlighting the wondrous powers of Intel's ProShare videoconferencing technology, you begin to feel the sponsor's breath down the back of your neck.
If you're interested in the social impact of digital technology, you'll doubtless find plenty in "One Digital Day" to chew on, and lots of arresting images to ponder. Smolan has always worked with top-notch photographers and editors, and their work remains insightful and frequently stunning. But I can't help wondering about the photos that were left out, the questions that weren't asked and the stories that aren't told.
The book's cover features a young Nebraska boy on a swing; the swing itself doesn't seem to interest him, nor does he gaze at the landscape around him -- his eyes are focused instead on what looks like a pocket computer or videogame machine in his hands. The photo raises some disturbing questions about technology's overinvolvement in our lives; too bad "One Digital Day" so rarely acknowledges them.