Geography as Destiny (City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn by William J. Mitchell)

By Carey Young, 10 January 1997

Review of William J. Mitchell's City of Bits

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 the 'capital of the twenty-first century.' Literally straight out of the 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. Mitchell presents a broad range of issues connected with modern urban life and transposes them to a digital equivalent. This provides 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.' The analysis runs from reconfigured space/time relationships, through cyborgian body augmentation (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 [] with useful links to related information.

Though Mitchell's informal prose is amusing, and laced with the odd witty aphorism (humans, for example, are 'Monkeys 2.0."), the subject deserves more than this book. The book suffers an excess of brevity: Mitchell shies away from a broad erudition on the subject. 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 is the City-image a metaphor? According to the psychologists A.Paivio and M.Walsh metaphors are mappings, 'memorable and emotion-arousing representation[s] of perceived experience' ('The Interpretation of Novel Metaphors,' in Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge U.P., 1993). If so, we need to think carefully at this stage in the (presumably) neverending spiral of digitisation, as Mitchell never does, 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 again 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-Morse, 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, Marx, Berman, de Tocqueville, Lefebvre, Debord, Virilio, Williams, Weber, and even Baudrillard. Such an informed perspective is vital if we are to design discerning cyb-urban plans learning 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, or 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. He does finally 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. Likewise, 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. These issues cannot be claimed to have been dealt with simply by voicing their existence, and raising them so late is not to persuade the critical amongst us. Mitchell seems to be 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. Consequently, the image which emerges is of the author as an amiable but secluded technophile whose commitment to real social equality is unconvincing.

Moreover, 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 approbative analysis of the shift to online marketing, retailers 'will find that they can dispense with sales floors and sales staff altogether.' Hurrah! is expected to be 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, of 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 considering Mitchell's educational position. It is to be hoped that City of Bits is not adopted as a textbook for the coming generation of cyber-architects, since the reflections in this book have been constructed on a base of sand, and nothing firmer.

Carey Young <c.young AT>

City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn // William J. Mitchell // MIT Press, 1996