c.young@rca.ac.uk (Carey Young) (by way of Pit Schultz ) on Wed, 27 Nov 96 09:54 MET

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

nettime: City of Bits - by William J. Mitchell

Geography as Destiny:
An analysis of City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn, William J.
Mitchell, MIT Press 1996

There are two overused words in Mitchell's City of Bits: 'could' and
'might.' This brief, entertaining and somewhat breathless volume, by the
eminent Dean of Architecture and Planning at MIT, offers itself as an
overview (in sixty short sections) of prescient issues in the design and
construction of, as he terms it, the "capital of the twenty-first century."
Straight out of the (in a very literal sense)  Nicholas Negroponte school of
Net gung-ho-ism, with an ancestry of McLuhaneque global-village cosiness,
the author is resolutely bullish about the positive gains to be grasped by
the newly wired communities, without assuaging the most obvious and
reasonable doubts which would spring readily to a readership  jaded by the
ongoing excesses of media Net-hype.

The subject itself is of a pressing importance if we consider the vital role
of architecture  in shaping and historicising human social experience, and
of the rapidity of the Internet's cultural sweep, in the West at least. The
author presents a broad range of issues connected with modern urban life and
transposes them to a digital equivalent, to form a clear and accessible
introduction to the meshings of analogue and digital structural form: "in
the end, buildings will become computer interfaces and computer interfaces
will become buildings." His analysis runs from reconfigured space/time
relationships, through cyborgian body augmentation (albeit without mention
of  Haraway) to corporate "bit business," briefly covering many elements of
contemporary society- capital, profit,  wages, social & spatial
inequalities. A variety of personal online experiences - MUDding, digital
shopping, global teleteaching - are described along with an overview of
Net-mediated reforms, such as electronic voting, telemedicine, teleteaching,
virtual banking and online trading systems. The book is augmented by a Web
site (http://www-mitpress.mit.edu/City_of_Bits/) with useful links to
related information. Mitchell's informal prose is amusing, and laced with
the odd witty aphorism (humans, for example, are "Monkeys 2.0.")

But the subject deserves more than this. The book suffers  an excess of
brevity: Mitchell shies away from a broad erudition. If the Net is to be
understood by invoking the city then we need a thorough reevaluation of the
ways in which metropolitan form has conditioned human psychology, how it
embodies social ideals, and particularly, how recent urban design has
contributed to collective social alienation. But this City-image is a
metaphor, and metaphors are mappings: according to the psychologists
A.Paivio and M.Walsh, "a memorable and emotion-arousing representation of
perceived experience." (1)  We need to think carefully, then, at this
(presumably) early stage in the neverending spiral of digitisation, about
the language used to interpret these new environments, for it will condition
preconceptions of the Net's accessibility, possibilities and drawbacks.

The problem, however, is not that the Net is not city-like: primed by
science fiction, by the computer's internal architecture and the
increasingly hyperreal (electronic) locales of  contemporary urban
experience, many have used the city-metaphor as an informative structural
match. But what is noticeably absent from Mitchell's book is a sense of
critical distance from the contemporary Western metropolis: unmentioned are
the radical critiques of urban form undertaken by  feminist and postmodern
theorists such as M. Christine Boyer, Marc Auge, Susan Buck-Morss, or
Fredric Jameson, or references  to non-Western cities, in ancient or recent
form. AWOL, also, or barely mentioned, are most of the essential urban
references: de Certeau, Benjamin, Soja, Marx, Berman, de Tocqueville,
Lynch, Lefebre, Debord,Virilio, Williams, Weber, Baudrillard ( yes, he
missed Baudrillard! ) Such an informed  perspective is vital if we are to
design discerning cyb-urban plans: why not learn from past mistakes instead
of recreating the conditions for their repetition?

Mitchell, ever upbeat, appears almost frustratingly stubborn in his refusal
to address the negative possibities of Net technologies. Electronic tagging,
wearable or sub-cutaneous, is proposed only as a positive move- with
potentially lethal drug-implants to be remotely activated should high-risk
criminals reoffend. He suggests that schools have tag-detectors for
paedophiles. But is it too much to ask whether the paedophiles will instead
plague the poorer -and probably already deprived- schools? And who,
precisely, is to foot the considerable bill for these 'improvements'? What
of  technological tinkering to block the electronic charge, of some form of
hacking, viruses, or of the considerable likelihood of these tags falling
into criminal circles? These reasonable doubts are left unvoiced by anyone
except the reader. In fact, dissenters would find it easy to disagree with
Mitchell at almost every turn. Finally he does outline a few potential
problems: "in cyberspace, as elsewhere, the means of maintaining power are
also the means of resisting and usurping it." But generally these arguments
come at the end of the book: he cannot claim to have dealt with these issues
simply by voicing their existence, and to raise them so late is not to
persuade the critical amongst us. The thorny issue of surveillance
-'dataveillance'- and its capability to produce the "the ultimate
Foucaultian dystopia" is left until the final chapter, although this is
essential information for each Net-user. Since each Net-journey is logged
onto a remote supercomputer, somewhere, each Net-participant should
increasingly question the changing, privacy-encroaching uses which can be
made of this form of electronic tagging.  Dataveillance is a hydra of
too-numerous heads to be dealt with so swiftly. Rather, such analysis should
be fully incorporated into the entire book in order to construct a
watertight polemic. It appears, this way, that he is raising the question
only to limply hand the baton over to some future author. For a scholar of
his position, this is quite simply not good enough.

His own life comes often into the picture.  Although this does provide the
odd  refreshing interlude, we can also deduce that Mitchell, despite his
many references to global travel, breathes only the rarefied air of
Cambridge, Massachussets (presumably he carries an  aqualung .) Examples of
advanced videoconferencing or expansive online library systems available to
the universally-laptopped academic community at MIT cannot, realistically,
be used to convince the rest of us that such technologically utopian fruits
will ever be available on a wider scale, given the unaddressed practicality
of cost. The image which emerges is of the author as an amiable but secluded
technophile whose commitment to real social equality, if we can judge by the
late placement of these issues in the book - is unconvincing.

Mitchell's hand reveals itself as that of a right-leaning free-marketeer,
whose idea of the positive social benefits of the Internet consistently fail
to be grounded in a demonstrable sense of social fairness. ('Community'gets
the occasional mention, but can we trust him if his idea of 'community' so
persistently seems to be that of MIT?) For example, in his praiseful
analysis of the shift to online marketing, retailers "will find that they
can dispense with sales floors and sales staff altogether." Hurrah! -is
expected as our reliably knee-jerk reaction- That means more leisure time
for those workers, right? Groceries and cars, in an Orlando trial
uncriticised by Mitchell, will be dispensed by none other than entertainment
supergiants Time Warner. Great- now they can keep a reassuring eye on our
tastes and habits right across the board. "Credit details will be verified
automatically." Fantastic! The credit-unworthy -a fairly wide cross-section
in the aftermath of the eighties- will be out of our hair forever! It is
almost too easy to make light of Mitchell's proposals, and their hermetic
them-and-us cosiness, for the simple reason that they appear so worryingly
naive. He underestimates his audience, and more importantly, he
underestimates the Net. Such sloppy reasoning is worrying in Mitchell's
educational role: it is to be hoped that City of Bits is not adopted as a
textbook for the coming generation of cyber-architects, as such  thought has
been constructed on a base of sand, and nothing firmer.


(1) A, Paivio & M.Walsh, 'The Interpretation of Novel Metaphors,' in Andrew
Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press 1993

- Carey Young c.young@rca.ac.uk

To be published in Winter issue of Mute magazine
also at http://www.metamute.co.uk/

*  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
*  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
*  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
*  more info: majordomo@is.in-berlin.de and "info nettime" in the msg body
*  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@is.in-berlin.de