Date: Thu, 22 Jan 1998 18:15:02 -0500 Caveats and Qualifications: Commentary on Mitchell's City of Bits Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

Caveats and Qualifications

William Pena

My main question about this book is it's tone of looking back on the development of the digital infrastructure. Mitchell continuously uses the past tense to refer to events in the 1990's, when he writes, giving himself an air of omniscience. However, this makes even more glaring the errors and omissions that abound in his analysis of how the effects of emergent digital techonologies play out:

1. The first chapter continues on an assumption that a digital/extended self (I say extended because he seems to be almost directly quoting Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" and merely adding examples) will be a ubiquitous condition for inhabitants of the coming decades. Unfortunately, save for some reference to high- vs. low-bandwidth issues, he doesn't pay much attention to how much the economic pressures of these high-cost technologies, unless they do become heavily federaly subsidized, will stratify those who can afford all this hardware (the computers, PDA's, cell phones, etc.), and those for whom such investments are superflous or impossible (will every person on welfare be given a laptop? Will the Midwest care about Silicon Valley's every hiccup?) This in turn can cause large shifts in the physical and cultural architecture between the increasingly widening upper and lower clases.

2. In the online version of his book, Mitchell's introduction mentions being a flaneur through cyberspace. However, reading his take in the second chapter on cyborg and the interconnectedness of the self, I wonder whether on could ever leisurely walk the streets, data lines, or in one's own home, without purpose and pressure always being exerted. I'm thinking about Foucault's "Discipline and Punish", a book that Mitchell should be familiar with, and whose most salient image, the panopticon, he often mentions. In this age of highly interconnected being, where one exists so inextricably from billions of bits of information about one's place, needs, thoughts, queries, etc. being circulated through vast networks, what happens to a simple life lived? In other words, do we *want* to be cyborgs, for whom "the border between interiority and exteriority is destabilized"? (pg. 31) As humans, we need private thoughts, moments, an illusion of free will, but in surveillence and discipline, especially so highly charged and inescapable as Mitchell describes, where do we go, and how can we be, without the pressure of society, laws, commercialism, *eyes*, extinguishing our sense of creativity, individuality and freedom? We have to imagine that all this hardware to fuel the system of cyborg life is coming from somewhere, and someone is making it, buying it, and setting its rules ... so who sets the rules, and do they acquire to much power, beyond even the power of nation-states, family, and privacy?

What's a little unsettling about this part of Mitchell's book is that I wonder whether he's taken the time to consider what he himself claims to know about, and instead has opted for the Media Lab's unabashed techno-glorification. In talking about CNN being a window to the world, allowing us to see all different places from our own homes, he says "Ted Turner has succeeded in electronically organizing them into a gigantic, inverted panopticon." I have to disagree! Mitchell is talking about the idea of the "spectacle" here, where the many are passively watching the few, a *very* radically different situation from the panopticon, where the many are watched by the few, and made to reform their actions by some unseen seer, and a nebulously felt threat. Foucault opposees these two different ideas in "Discipline and Punish", and Mitchell rather sloppily conflates them.

3. Lastly, in the third chapter, I wonder what Mitchell's stance on what he's speaking about is. It seems to be in defense of these new forms of digital architecture, or possibly his stance is that they are inevitable, just how things are happening. However, he never seems to take that step, and to go further and propose the circumstance of his portrayals. He talks about the aura that's lost when you can't say where the next Marx sat, but we never know if he laments that that aura is lost, if he believes that this aura being lost is going to open new space for the dissemination of the texts, etc. Mitchell has probably also read Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" at some point, and it makes me wish that he, if throwing out that idea over and over, would take further what he believed the effects and pros/cons of this where.