Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

Identity (ies) in Cyberspace

Wayne Huang

"When it can no longer connect me to the electronic information environment as effectively as some competing product (even though it still works perfectly well), I shall simply transfer my software and data and throw the superseded carcass away ... my laptop is an emblematic product of the electronic information age."

Mitchell's analysis of the information age as ephemeral also describes the condition of cyberspace, specifically the WWW. Links becomes outdated, sites move from subdirectories into their own domain names, the pages of some sites continually change (e.g., stock quote pages), etc. The laptop's software counterpart is the updates posted on software companies' websites; once installed, the old software can be trashed (or "recycled" in Windoze parlance), although the software may still work, if but for a few bugs.

I can create as many network identities as I want for myself, and others will have no way of knowing that these software-conjured zombies all belong to me.

To bastardize the tag of a science fiction movie -- Aliens, I think -- In cyberspace, no one can really know who you are. Like the replicants in Blade Runner, no one can be sure if you are human or not. As evidenced by the Usenet Oracle and the faked e-mail addresses of spammers, netizens do not necessarily have to be real citizens. And the real netizens can go by all sorts of identities/addresses. For example, I can be reached or identified by,,, or

Not only can you create as many identities as you want, but you can create as many domain names as you can afford ($100 each) and have them all DNSed to the same IP address. You could theoretically have an unlimited number of sites hosted on a single computer. And not just websites too -- e-mail, FTP, NNTP, Telnet, gopher, etc.

The bandwidth-disadvantaged are the new have-nots. It's simple; if you cannot get bits on and off in sufficient quantity, you cannot directly benefit from the Net. The consequences of this are brutally obvious. If the value of real estate in the traditional urban fabric is determined by location, location, location (as property pundits never tire of repeating), then the value of a network connection is determined by bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth.

It is not merely the bandwidth-disadvantaged that are the new have-nots, but also the ones who entered the frontier of the Net too late. "Location, location, location" importance has its counterpart in the domain name. Before the Net ignited in 1995 with mainstream media coverage, domain names were registered for free. Now InterNIC charges $100 per name. But this charge is insignificant in relation to the money companies paid to buy a domain name that someone had registered earlier. C|net reportedly offered $50,000 for the domain. Sites are out there which lists domain names for sale, for at least $6000.

The bandwidth-disadvantaged have to suffer through the cynical version of WWW -- the "World Wide Wait". Users who do not have access to a T1 (Brown has two T3's) have to endure long download times and sometimes cope with toggling images off and clicking to the text-only version of a site, which defeats much of the appeal of the WWW.

On another topic, the net also suffers from a lack of authenticity -- you can not be sure if what you are reading is 100% true and accurate. As in real life, you have to consider the source, but the net poses more of a problem because the source may merely be an e-mail address or website and, as I have said earlier, is very easy to create and you can never be sure of who the real "person" behind the address or site is. The net is also relatively cheap and easy to publish your rants on -- almost no overhead and dissemination is worldwide. To get that in the real world, you'd have to pay thousands, of not millions, of dollars to get your message across -- perhaps why spammers are growing like kudzu.

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