Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

You Will No Longer Have to Go Outside?

Jesse Chan-Norris

Apparently, in the city of the future, you will no longer have to go outside. You will no longer have to walk down the street to go shopping, for you will be able to get everything you want from your computer screen through virtual catalogs. You will no longer have to go to work, for you will be able to telecommute from the comfort of your own home. A trip to the pizza store will be reduced to watching some toppings on a screen and deciding which one looks particularly appetizing tonight. And going to the theatre will be reduced to opening up tonight's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream on your computer and watching as the actors prance around your screen.

The problem that Mitchell runs into, leaving aside the arguments of whether or not we're going to have enough money to create this society, is whether or not people are actually going to want all of this.

The great house of theatre condenses into an electonic box with a screen and a video camera. When you want to be a spectator, the bezel of the screen becomes your proscenium -- framer of the action. When you want to become an actor, the camera provides access to an audience and the entire network is potentially your auditorium. (64)

While the idea of everyone being an actor and everyone being a spectator is appealing to me, in much the same way that the web allows everyone to become a publisher in their own right, there is just something wrong with the idea of acting to an empty house. Or rather, acting to a camera. There is a distinct difference between acting to a camera as one does on television and acting to a full house, where you can hear the echo of your words, and you can see the eyes of the audience watching, waiting, wondering what your next move will be.

Mitchell does discuss this phenomenon when he talks about the introduction of radio and television. "Since performers could no longer hear their far-flung audiences laughing, groaning, muttering, hissing, heckling, cheering, and clapping, the flow of information became almost entirely unidirectional." (62) And yet he goes on to talk about replacing theatres with cameras? Why do people go to the theatre now when they could stay at home to watch television? They go for the human interaction. They go to see a live person standing up on stage. They go to add themselves to the experience. They go to turn the flow information around and send it back up on stage to the actor. They go to laugh, they go to cry. They go to forget about everything else in their lives and to enter this fantasy world. They go to get away.

And Mitchell wants to bring that to them, to the very place that they are trying to get away from?

This just can't happen.

Now granted, this is attacking one very specific aspect of Mitchell's vision of the future. However, as we examine this vision, we must keep in mind that just because it is possible to do something doesn't mean that it is practical.

After all, what's the point of keeping a goldfish if your goldfish is merely a computer generated figment of someone's imagination, swimming mindlessly on your computer screen?

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