Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

Visions of Tomorrow . . . Again

Glen Sanford

Voyager put out a laserdisc about seven years ago called "Ephemeral Films," which contained a number of short industrial films. (It was also released about three years ago as a CD-ROM.) One of the films on the 'disc was made for the 1940 World's Fair, and was titled something like "Visions of Tomorrow." It was one of the first industrial films made in Technicolor, and detailed all the new technologies that would exist in "The Wonderful World of 1960." One of these amazing technologies was high-speed radio-controlled automobiles, operated by machines, that would no longer require a driver. The whole film glorified the future in a very typical way and, needless to say, celebrated technologies that still are beyond our reach. I was reminded of this film when I read the following passage from City of Bits:

Not only may vehicles sense where they are in the road system, but the road system may also be equipped with electronic sensors enabling it to detect where vehicles are... In the future, travel between cities will involve continuous information exchange between smart roadway vehicles and smart roadway systems... When they get smarter still, the horseless carriage may evolve into the driverless automobile.

This similarity is an example of what disturbs me about Mitchell's book. While it is awfully uplifting and wonderful, it is also somewhat unlikely. Mitchell has this idea of what the future will be like, and while there are a few "maybe someday's," there are a surprising number of "the future will be's."

When you filter out the speculation from City of Bits, you end up with two books: the first is about how things are to William J. Mitchell right now, and the second is a SciFi piece without the character development.