Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

Realizing the Virtual World

Francesca Wodtke

Call me old-fashioned, but Mitchell's perception of the future makes me nervous. I can't conceive of a world in which medications are administered electronically, where a mother's touch might simply be the virtual stroking of her child's virtual hair, in which friends are nothing more than code-names, a mass of pixels for a face and a virtual handshake. It makes me shudder. I'd rather experience the pain of a real injection needle, or the sweaty palm of a real handshake.

Mitchell attempts to promote the Internet by discussing time saved. I don't need to go to England to visit my friends: I can simply logg on remotely and find myself in the common room of Jesus College, Oxford. I no longer need to go to the supermarket, because the supermarket now comes to me. Over the summer, my friends Chad and Bob tried out (online grocery shopping--"Smart Shopping for Busy People.") They clicked on items and had them delivered to their door. According to some happy "shoppers," you don't have to stand in lines, you don't have to push a cart around, you can catch up on other things you need to do (like writing mail to!) But is this really a healthy way of living? I personally like going to the supermarket. I like the smell of fresh bread. I want to prod and poke ever wedge of brie in the store to determine the ripeness. I feel that with the rise of Internet activities such as these, I will lose my own freedom. Don't do anything, have it done for you...

In my world, the Internet is simply a communication device, and I communicate with people in order to arrange a meeting. I want to look people in the eye, hear them breathe, exist in the same sphere as they do. And why do I find this so important? Because communicating via e-mail and the Internet seem--to me--to be nothing more than a semi-existence. Let me give you an example. Over Christmas break, I bought a copy of pf.magic's catz (your computer petz). I installed the software and adopted a gorgeous kitten. I named him Pickwick. I fed him, I pet him, I tried to make him purr. I grew attached to him (computer petz are very endearing) but it suddenly struck me that this was not a real creature. It was a fake pet. Nothing more than an image, with several programmed behaviors. I felt stupid that I could be so taken in by this gimmick. So where does that leave me? I find myself staring at nothing more than an illuminated screen with bright images bouncing up and down. Somehow it's just not enough.

The Internet allows its users to hide behind barriers of illusion. As Mitchell declares with enthusiasm--and I can't quote the book, because I read it online and I have a problem finding things which aren't tangible--we can create a plethora of personalities. We can have hundreds of user-names. I might be "Devoted Daughter" with my parents, "Conscientious Student" with my professors and "Sexy Blonde" when I enter a virtual bar. I'm not sure I'm any of these. And I don't want to have to don these "personalities" in order to survive in the virtual world either. I would rather people accept me at face value.

In Benjamin's famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," he mourns the loss of the Aura. The Aura according to Benjamin is not just the existence of an object in time and space, but the authenticity of that object. Let's take, for example, a painting. When looking at the "real thing" we can analyze it's chemistry, we can smell and touch it; and moreover, we can be convinced of it's existence: we know that it really is. I didn't fall in love with Botticelli's work on viewing reproductions, I fell in love with it when I visited the Uffizi Gallery and saw the real paintings, experiencing Aura and all. With the increased use of the electronic world, the Aura necessarily falls away. If artwork is created, it is created on computer: there is no original. If words are written they are put together in a word-processing program: there is no tangible manuscript. Computer-generated images and text will be created that can never be grasped; the memory being preserved only as unintelligible strings of bits and pieces on my hard drive.

The other day I went to the cinema to see "Good Will Hunting." The theatre was packed and I was compelled to sit in the front row. At one point during the film, I turned around to look at the audience: rows and rows of motionless people, the blue reflection of the film on their faces. They stared, and I stared. It suddenly occurred to me how shocking it is that these people could be captivated by nothing more than the projection of images on a white screen. If one remains behind in the theatre at the end of a film, and the lights are turned on, he will find that he has simply been staring at a white screen for two hours. I don't want to wake up at the end of my life, surrounded by screens, speakers and microphones, encapsulated in protective, monitoring armor and find that I've lived out my entire life through an avatar. I'm happy to use the Internet as a communication device--note Netscape's name for their new browser--provided communication does not imply the disintegration of real cities and real places. I don't want to live in space, I want to live on earth.

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