Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

Calm Down, Mitchell...

Dan Rosen

I feel I've spent my fair share of my time on the Internet. Some would attest that I've spent more than my fair share, but that's a different argument. But with that in mind, Mitchell's argument that "there is no such thing as a better address" (10), and that the despatialization of the net tears down the differences between people from the "right" and "wrong" sides of the tracks, disturbs me. There are many online communities, and within these communities everybody is indeed equal to a higher degree than "real life" expectations of class would allow; however communities as a whole develop superiority complexes. This is inevitable -- human nature is not lost in the wires. There are such online communities such as GeoCities and smaller ones such as Angelfire which act as virtual Ellis Islands to the huddled masses of limited-access netizens. These are a public service and are indeed quite useful to some. People meet people through these services, find cyber-friends or whatever buzzword sounds best. But when a user of these services comes face to virtual face with a member of a more "elite" community, for instance, an exclusive IRC chat group or special-interest group such as Swanky or Flabjab, there can sometimes be a very "have versus have-not" feeling in the air. The "bandwith-disadvantaged" (17) user with limited access, perhaps a CEO in real life, gets billed as a "luser" (loser user), or a "lamer," while the more elite user doesn't get called names and simply gets to gloat. This attitude admittedly isn't prevalent, but it is a very real phenomenon; the Internet is far from a utopian place where class distinctions are nonexistent.

Mitchell seems over-eager in other ways as well. He goes beyond the concept of something relatively simple like internet pizza delivery, straight to virtual whorehouses. I'm sorry to say that the concept that "network pimps will offer ways to do something sordid (but safe) with lubriciously programmed tele-hookers" (19) doesn't even remotely appeal to the Negroponte in me. It would make an interesting movie, but so would anything with futuristic-looking "intelligent exoskeletal devices." Sure, the line between science-fiction and science-fact is blurry; and sure, the situation Mitchell describes is in the realm of the possible, but who would want to bother? The wetware in this cyborg wants something with a more personal feel. And while it is fun to think about an age where "you will have acquired a collection of interchangeable, snap-in organs connected by exonerves" (29), how would this be reasonably accomplished? The analogy of telephone service -- an information provider service with monthly rates and such -- isn't as wonderful as he suggests. He ignores the entire reality that this is expensive. Technology like this would only ever be applied to the military, because the general public simply doesn't have enough money to keep the vast number of bytes required flowing. Laws and regulations governing and limiting civilian use of these technologies would be applied, just as they always have in the past with such technologies as Global Positioning (GPS) which Mitchell even mentions as one of his implants-du-jour.

It's fun to think about the possibilities of technology, because everything is possible, leaving your imagination as the only apparent limiting factor. But there are limiting factors that Mitchell almost invariably ignores such as human nature, money and government. In some sort of functional technological communism or anarchy, maybe the City of Bits he proposes could someday exist; but since humans hate and fear change, our backwards and distopian status quo is not going to be very accommodating. A new revolution would need to take place, and some might even claim it already is taking place, but that's a revolution that the lower classes (and I don't mean low-bandwidth, I mean low-income) wouldn't give a damn about anyway because computers don't help them -- food does. And without the support of that very large bracket of the population, such a revolution would go widely ignored. So calm down, Mitchell, we're stuck for a long while.

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