Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

A Few Notes on Mitchell

Katherine Sibley Angus

"You get from place to place in cyberspace by following logical links rather than physical paths" (23). The architecture of cyberspace is fascinating. Rather than "real world" architecture, where one follows a design set up by either a single architect or by a long line of city planners, in cyberspace one forms one's own individual paths from here to there based on what one finds interesting. Moving from linked website to linked website, one choses to follow a line of inquiry to its end. Much like the circuitry of the brain as it completes a line of thought, cyberspace wandering is dictated by the mind and inclination of the user.

The first full paragraph on page 10 (too long to quote, and it is effective more in a culmulative sense than for any specific phrase) discusses the manipulable net-identity of the user. Without visual or auditory clues to give one's offline identity away, one can chose one's own age, gender, race, sexual orientation or class. Basically, one choses one's own mask, and the masks can be as numerous as the net-user wishes -- the user can be a thousand different net identities, if she so desires. The text (text in the sense of whatever is placed into the system, and not in the narrow sense of words) is all. This raises certain fundamental questions of identity--is it a fixed form or does it flow? What is more honest, the faceless identites encountered on the net, or the people we interact with offline? To what extent are we the constructs that define us (gender, race, age, etc)? And, as net-identity can be so nebulous, how does that effect our interactions with others on the net--since we can never truly trust that they are who they say they are, how can we view our interactions with them except with some essential level of distrust? One cannot take anything at face value while on line, as their is, in fact, no face value at all

Throughout City of Bits, Mitchell continuously discusses technology that is available (or that, in all likelihood will soon be available) as if it will seamlessly be integrated with our daily lives. Mitchell seems to believe that that which is possible will become normal. I do not share this view. Mitchell fails to examine (or, indeed, acknowledge) certain obvious practical reasons why much of the technology he describes will most likely not become a part of our cultural landscape. Simply because something exists (or can exist) does not mean that it will be widely used (for example, electric cars, nonrefridgeratable packaged forms of milk and juice--widely available in Europe but unappealing to the American consumer). Mitchell discusses handheld navigational devices that would enable those unfamilar with an urban area to orient themselves (43). Although this may sound in theory an extraordinarily practical idea, in practise it might not prove so wise. Most large urban areas have crime problems and those who visit them are advised not to advertise (by maps or asking directions) that they are unfamilar with an area. To walk around with an electronic (no doubt valuable) device is to advertise oneself as a tourist and, therefore, fair game for any criminally-minded local.

Another claim made by Mitchell is that entertainment mill eventually be interactive (63), allowing the home viewer to determine the course of events unfolding on his/her video screen. To my mind, this seems unlikely. Beyond the obvious financial disadvantages of this for those who produce such entertainment (Hollywood budgets having already reached an astronomical level, and this while they shoot only one possible course of action for each script), there are other human reasons why I believe this is theory is unsound. I suspect that most people approach entertainment for one of two reasons (or, perhaps, a combination). The first reason why I believe this is implausible is rather a cynical one: entertainment is generally an escape--people chose to watch films or television programs. They sit, and they watch. We are relaxed by entertainment because it allows us not to think. How can one sink mindlessly into a program if one must, in fact, make decisions about what will happen on screen? It interrupts the flow of what one is watching. The second reason why I believe interactive videos (controlled by the home viewer) are unlikely is that many people enjoy watching the individual vision of a director (screenwriter, actor, etc. ) unfold. Many people go to a Woody Allen movie because it is a Woody Allen movie--such people have nothing to look forward to in a world where films are not held together by a single cohesive vision. And, more practically speaking, where is the element of suspense in a suspense film or mystery in a mystery program if I myself, as the viewer, simply click buttons on a remote to determine whether or not the butler did it, or if the killer is hiding beneath the stair?

Mitchell proposes that prisons may become obsolete (78), as criminals are increasingly released back into the "free" world, to be controlled and monitered by an electronic bracelet or some such technology. While this certainly would make economic sense for the tax payer, it also seems unlikely. Mitchell underestimates the extent to which many people distrust technology. While a physical prison (despite prison breaks, etc. ) seems to promise security to those who are not imprisioned within it, the idea that a violent criminal could be seated next to one on the bus--prevented from doing harm only by a possibly malfunctioning electronic restraining device--is unsettling indeed.

Mitchell also claims that, as online technology refines itself, department and grocery stores may become a thing of the past, and that people will make their purchases by selecting items on a screen. While the conveniance of the large backlist of an online bookstore such as amazon cannot be underestimated, there are still sound financial reasons for stores to stay offline as well. Many purchases are made by consumers on impulse (candy bars or tabloids while waiting in line at the supermarket, for example). Also, a smart salesperson can convince many a shopper to walk out of the store with far more purchases than they originally planned. One should also never underestimate the financial advantage stores derive from purchases made after browsing. These are sound reasons why a "real world" store makes more sense for those who own it.There are also sound reasons for why customers might prefer an offline store. Certain items, such as clothing or perfume, one does well to try out (and on) in actuality before making an order. And many other people might balk at the idea of a store employee chosing their groceries for them, rather than being able to pick their own produce out for themselves. Also, as Mitchell fails to comment on, many people enjoy shopping because it is an excuse for them to leave the house. This, in fact, may prove to be the most important reason why online stores are an unlikely occurance. So, there are certain practical reasons why the consumer might prefer shopping in the non-digital world.

Though Mitchell draws attention to interesting available technology, and makes plausible cases for the future existence of other technology, at the end he fails to differenciate between technology that may be embraced by the majority of users, and technology that is possible but that will probably prove unpopular. History is full of many workable inventions that have fallen by the wayside not because they didn't work, but because no one wanted them.

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