Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

Looking behind Mitchell's Figurative Language

John Crews


Mitchell has a way of implicitly making his ideas work in different directions by the way he creates a 'language' or forms metaphor. He is very fond of reminding the reader of City of Bits that (if I may take this liberty) informational devices and their corresponding ideologies seem to conform to some very reasonable, transformative logic.

So that you understand what I mean... Mitchell constructs ideas about emergent information technology and its ramifications into polarities. Most of the subdivisions in his chapters are sets of oppositions (and as a general rhetorical strategy this is his favorite tactic). There's a certain internal logic to this approach - it is very 'direct' in that it fashions relationships of ideas in a simple way. It reminds me however, of the pitfalls of using such a tactic, of the ideological borders created when one does this, and the possible ramifications of using that tact. The most obvious strange fruit: it seems to me strange to talk about a technology that foil's any one to one relation, yet speak of it in those terms.

When I say that there is implied in Mitchell's talking about information exchange a 'transformational' quality I mean he sets up metaphors that follow a gradient. "Work now came to me," seems to value a 'new' concept of work as being able to follow you around. In contrast to the statement 'Before I went to work.' Work can now come to me. That is valuable? Hmmm. When I approach work, I'm choosing to apprehend it, perform it, and complete it. When work comes to me...

Work being confined to some socially, geographically delineated place (office, library, computer cluster) has its advantages. It is limited by physical and social constraints. I certainly do not crave a 'pager' that also combines into workstation, communicates or acts as analogue to 'boss' or assign tasks to me, allows my activity and location to become irrelevant in its use. (This also has connotations of a controlling and hegemonic "surveillance" .) This is not always convienience. This serves an ideology of 24-7-365 capitalism - because if you have work that comes to you, are you powerful enough to refuse it? This is like fantasy genre spell-casting of compulsion. This reeks to me. Time's dictates are a strange construction. Being 'on the clock' as the folks say at home would become (in any optimistic sense) a strange panopticon.

Not in all ways... Mitchell is hip to the drawbacks of this. I'm not so sure he really values 'portable work' in the way that I imply. But he is very unclear as to stating when such information exchange is a bad thing- and when such exchange is a good thing. How is another question which is useful, therefore left as an elided subject I must consult technical experts on. As someone who is everyone for whom interaction with information is reality, his optimism is dangerously uninterested in explaining how it works... unfettered by his apparent need to propagandize for 'THE INFOBAHN' .


There seems to me a borderland of meaning created by how Mitchell describes 'real' and 'virtual'. An in, between, to, mediation of and conflation about how we might express our ideas of the nature of physical existance and perception. Mitchell's difference between 'real' and 'virtual' maps ideas onto physicality and processes of exchange. I always thought between ideas of 'real' and 'virtual' there was very little diference. Unless we put 'it' there. What is it?

It is what we use/ build/design to mediate exchange of information... Such a mechanism, be it eyeglass or screen are tools we create to serve our desire for inhanced perception. A manuscript of the bible in the 13th century mediates one scribe's commonly conceived way of conveying information to another, who shares the convention- literacy. There is not going to be a difference between 'real' and 'virtual' unless we place it there, create it, or define it. Now how we define distinction, relation, use of these mediators is what Mitchell will not consider deeply.

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