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nettime: CyberCities (book review)
Steve Cisler on Tue, 21 Jan 97 14:31 MET


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nettime: CyberCities (book review)



CyberCities by M. Christine Boyer. Princeton Architectural Press.
1996. <www.designsys.com/pap> ISBN 1 56898 048 5

Review by Steve Cisler <sac {AT} apple.com>. No part of this review may
be reprinted or stored, mirrored, on any commercial server, web
site, gopher, BBS, or online service without the permission of the
author.

One of the best exchanges between two interesting thinkers in the
world of business telecommunications was the ASAP magazine bout
between George Gilder and Tom Peters. Peters was insistent that
cities mattered,that the great cultural benefits of museums and
orchestras and literature could not grow in the broadband
telecomms environment that Gilder sees coming. Gilder was
apoplectic in his insistence that the technology of fast switches,
networks,and powerful but cheap workstations would provide a rich
enough environment for  consumers to enjoy all the benefits of the
city but without the headaches of crime and all the other urban
problems most people don't even want to read about. Some of you
may want to read more than a magazine article on this issue: the
effects of communications technologies on the city.
 
Whether its the influence of networks and computers or the short
attention span of many readers, some think the book is dead or that
reading is an impoverished way of acquiring knowledge because of
the "richness" of new media. At the same time we are seeing more
and more book titles every year, including many on what the Net is
doing to us and our institutions as well as what it can do for us. I have
been most interested in how it affects our communities (physical
ones, not online gatherings of Seinfeld fans or Nike customers). After
reading James Kunstler's Home From Nowhere, it is evident that the
automobile has had a far greater effect on our lives and cities than
television, telephone, and now computer networking. Because I
believe "place" matters in a world where the virtual life is becoming
more common, the new work by  Christine Boyer, an urban historian
at Princeton, caught my eye as I was skimming the dust jackets in the
new book section at Apple Library (yes, they still buy a lot of books;
it's not all online).

This is really a collection of five essays, written for conferences in
the 92-95 timeframe and for an anthology that never was published,
plus a short introduction and conclusion. She has a number of goals:
bring the city back into discussions of modern life, explore "the
analogy between the computer matrix and the space of the city", the
withdrawal from the "excesses of reality into the cybernetic
representations of the virtual world of computers." Part of this is
due to "the dematerialization of physical space and chronological
time."

While she recognizes the trend of decentralization, she does not
think this is necessarily a good thing. "And why is our contemporary
era so fearful of centering devices, evident from the fact that we
refer to frequently to the invisible, the disappearing, the
de-industrialized, the disfigured, and the decentered city?"
Postmodern cultural critics have deconstructed the city in many
ways because the think the notion of a unified place is an artifice. She
believes this has happened at the cost of community. Like so many of
us, she feels community is important but declines the challenge of
defining it.

As a historian of ideas, she draws on  many sources: from Norbert
Wiener and Nicholas Negroponte to many of the French postmodern
critics. Without a framework to understand the latter, it is very
heavy going. but she makes interesting links between urban history,
art critics, film noir, science fiction, and nerd visionaries. The central
figure for Boyer is Walter Benjamin who is cited in every chapter. I
found myself more interested in Benjamin's ideas than the problems
of cities in the information age.

Benjamin was a German critic-philosopher who read widely and wrote
prose with so many Gordian knots that even the faculty judging his
PhD thesis were unable to decipher what he was trying to say! Much of
the interest in his work began a couple of decades after his suicide in
Spain in 1940 when he was fleeing the Gestapo.  Many of the
quotations Boyer cites reminded me of Marshall McLuhan. What they
probably share more than some great, enigmatic lines is the inability
of their critics and followers to define them clearly.  Benjamin was an
original thinker in many fields: the Kabal, the effects of new
technology on the arts, dreams, Marxism, the meaning of animated
cartoons, and he spent several years doing radio broadcasts to
children.

I went on the Web to find out more about this man, and it is a good
reality check about the lack of depth of information on the Internet.
Certainly you can find citations in the great online catalogs such as
melvyl and the Library of Congress, but the substantive links only
pointed to a rich world, perhaps even an academic cottage industry,
of criticism related to Benjamin that has not been rendered unto the
god of bits. There were a few quotes, fan pages, and a call for papers
for an annual Walter Benjamin conference in Holland in July, 1997. I
learned of the controversial monument in the Spanish cemetery
where he was buried and the problems Germany had in raising the
money to pay for it, but almost all of his work and that of his
intellectual progeny is offline. I spend a lot of time online, and I see
the main danger at present is that too many people think the world
of information is online. Boyer seems to say that the danger is
turning our backs on the world of the city or only trying to
understand it through a world of simulations and video images.

Although Boyer is writing about the online world and cities,her
audience is presumed to be more at home in the world away from the
computer screen. Like her, many are probably skeptical of the
promises and hype. She spends a fair amount of space explaining the
basics of hypertext, of virtual reality, and how video shifts our
perceptions of the viability of the city. These essays are rich in links
to other writers and critics and layers of commentary on each others
works, but I longed for more of her own thoughts on her first hand
experience with networks and new media, much as Bill McKibben did
in The Age of Missing Information

When she does write about the Internet, it is only an introduction to
the issues of  access, corporate control of the means of
communications, government regulation, and second-hand criticisms
of America Online. She sees cyberspace being promoted as a
substitute for our public urban spaces and urban experience. Part of
this flight from the city is in our minds (we prefer the simulation on
screen) and part  is the disengagement we feel about the city is
because of the view we have on programs like "Cops" and the
constant surveillance of video cameras which are showing up more in
public places like traffic intersections, elevators, and convenience
stores. She buttresses her arguments with discussions of the movie
Blade Runner and the genre that influenced it, film noir, and
especially "Chinatown."

Her conclusion is so brief that it can't tie up the many strands and
issues she has raised. There is no index, so I had to find my way back
to some passages I had not flagged through the endnotes after each
essay. For a different take on the tension between real communities
and cyberspace, see Stephen Doheny-Farina's "The Wired
Neighborhood which was also published in 1996.

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