Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

After a Good Beginning . . .

Noah (the Dharma Bum) Raizman

And they argue that the most crucial task before us is not one of putting in place the digital plumbing of broadband communications links and associated electronic appliances (which we will certainly get anyway), nor even of producing electronically deliverable "content," but rather one of imagining and creating digitally mediated environments for the kinds of lives that we will want to lead and the sorts of communities that we will want to have.

Yes, yes, yes! This is beautiful and correct and appropriate and right on the mark. But after this, Mitchell starts sounding like Nicholas Negroponte with his unbelievable optimism about how wired everyone and everything is and is becoming and will be, and he becomes incredibly descriptive of elements of technological culture and includes lots of marginally interesting links, but he never really tells us what kind of lives we will want to lead. His book lacks real analysis of the implications of the burgeoning technological culture, the cyborgization of people, the fetishization of connectivity and access to information and how this relates to issues of temporality, spatial relationships, urban planning, the idea of community, the idea of identity...

What does it matter? Why should we care about this new kind of architectural and urban design issue? It matters because the emerging civic structures and spatial arrangements of the digital era will profoundly affect our access to economic opportunities and public services, the character and content of public discourse, the forms of cultural activity, the enaction of power, and the experiences that give shape and texture to our daily routines. Massive and unstoppable changes are under way, but we are not passive subjects powerless to shape our fates. If we understand what is happening, and if we can conceive and explore alternative futures, we can find opportunities to intervene, sometimes to resist, to organize, to legislate, to plan, and to design.

Yes, yes, yes! But how? There are enough theorists and pedants out there who are capable of telling us that Everything Will Change. Literary postmodernists tend to be more negative and dystopian, and computer scientists tend to be more optimistic, but too much emphasis in their works is placed upon describing the technology and giving us only the vaguest intimations of what effects they will have on the way we interact and live our lives.

Mitchell writes about fragmentation but City of Bits is surprisingly linear. The lexias seem meant to be read sequentially, as the bottom of the screen after each segment has a link to the "next section." This is a relatively minor point, but it typifies the contradictions I find in the text. Mitchell writes conventionally about fascinating ideas and doesn't explore them. He seems quite concerned with the idea of space and what technological advances are realizing a change in our perception of it, but still, I think that there are new paradigms coming into existence, new ways of thinking, which are related to the ascendency of personal computing and the internet. Many of these new paradigms are still being constructed. It's interesting to see how people involved in the world of computing like John Perry Barlow and Nicholas Negroponte are heralding all of these new paradigms like they're listing the components of the future except that only some of them will actually work their way into society as a whole. Reading science fiction seems like a much more interesting enterprise because you see an author take one relatively small set of ideas about how the future is going to order itself and which ideas take over the consciousness of a society and then create a world around these assumptions. I wish Mitchell could have fashioned for me, as a reader, a picture of what society was going to be. I mean, I have my ideas and speculations, and I'm not nearly as aware of the technological advances taking place before my closed eyes. Maybe that makes it easier. Well, to go back to the beginning of this paragraph -- I guess that while the structure of the website itself was surprisingly and disappointingly linear, the view of the future provided by Mitchell was itself fragmented into bits and pieces. Maybe that is the future. I somehow don't buy it. I don't think most people can handle experiences so fragmented yet. People crave coherence and stability and the linearity of the website can almost attest to this - despite an ostensible fragmentation, there is an underlying straightforwardness of structure (or vice versa as the case may be).

There is no such thing as a better address, and you cannot attempt to define yourself by being seen in the right places in the right company. (5)

I disagree. People draw conclusions from email addresses nearly as quickly as they do from clothing in the physical world. People from *.edu tend to be students or professors and the name of the institution is enough to make judgements. Most people familiar with usenet newsgroups have an inherent dislike of anyone whose email address is at Companies, well-known ISPs, specialized domain names - all of these provide fodder for superficial judgement. Where you hang out, where your address locates you, even your .sig file is linked to identity. Of course you can craft it, but you can fashion a wardrobe to make you fit into any environment...

City of Bits discussion Cyberspace OV Main Overview for Website