Mitchell's City of Bits: Commentary and Discussion

How Those Changes Will Affect Who We Are

Ruiyan Xu

As I read through City of Bits the first thing which struck me was Mitchell's endless optimism. With the exception of a few cautions, he's ready for the technological revolution to take place.

Mitchell has this terribly wide vision of the way in which we live in the future. He has already forseen how technology and networking will change our lives, but what he never addresses is how those changes will affect who we are. That is, he sees the physical changes, the financial, the temporal, but he doesn't quite address the psychological or sociological conformations/adaptations of the human being in a society of bits. When he states that " is [his] name ... and [his] address" (p8) and touches upon the fact that on the net , "where you are" does not tell "who you are" (p10), he doesn't go further to explore how technology erodes the identity until the cyborg is increasingly composed of machine and decreasing in its "human" content. Our environment is no longer just influencing us, it is becoming a part of us. Mitchell seems to celebrate the fact that "there is no better address"(p10) as an exorcism of prejudice, but doesn't take into account the implication that it may cause the erosion of individualism.

Of course, that particular tangent i followed was soon contradicted by other thoughts further into the book. As Mitchell wrote about attempts at a public space by free-nets, he seems to be hopeful that public spaces and communities can exist on the web given that they are "pleasant and welcoming to a diverse population"(p128). Such hope seems unlikely to me based on my own experiences on the web, usenet and chat rooms. Because there is so much information and exchange availble on the web, everyone looks for something which interest them particularly - whether it be popular or esoteric. This leads to the specialization of information - there seems to be something for everyone. As a result, people are divided by their interests and where they frequent - it would be difficult to have a convergence of individuals by geography or anything else. Whether this specialization is the opposite of the loss of idenity i talked about earlier, i don't know.

More thoughts and seeming contradictions. As the web and networking grows - we are able to communicate with more and more people where geographical space and time has little effect - a fact which mitchell addresses. however, though our potential for communication increases - the actual amount of contact we make - especially intimate contact - decreases with the evolution of communications technology. I think Mitchell's right in his joy that people all over the world will be able to be more informed and "connected", but at the same time, it doesn't seem unreasonable to succumb to the fear that we are moving from human to human interaction - to cyborg to cyborg interaction - to machine to machine interaction. The net can bring people together, but it can also be used as a tool for isolation.

How one choses to think of the web, i think, may determine what role it plays in our lives. Above, I referred to the web as a tool, but Mitchell sees it as a structure. He sees it as a scape of architecture which composes cities and communities. It is a backbone on which we live instead of a tool which we wield. His premise seems to make sense, only intuitively I don't necessairly see it as a positive while he exalts its potential.

City of Bits discussion Cyberspace OV Main Overview for Website