Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2001
William J. Mitchell City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn MIT Press, 1996. 225 pp.; 16 b/w ills. Paper $15.95 (0262631768)

Originally published—in print and entirely online—in 1995, William J. Mitchell’s City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn resembles a relic of early cyberculture scholarship, going back and forth between visionary insight and embarrassing naiveté. As one of the earliest attempts to reimagine and reconceptualize architecture and urbanism in an age of digital information, City of Bits provides a thought-provoking and generous glimpse into the cities—and citizens—of tomorrow. At the same time, the vision, emanating from what may be the most privileged vantage point for the new millennium, MIT substitutes celebratory breadth for critical depth, and along the way all but ignores crucial social and economic considerations.

For Mitchell, Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences and Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, four contemporary developments make necessary a reconceptualization of architecture and urban space: the digital telecommunications revolution; nanotechnology, or the miniaturization of electronics; the commodification of digital information; and the recent domination of software over materialized forms. In addition to the ideas put forth in his brief introduction and conclusion, Mitchell tackles the convergence between these developments, architecture, and urban space in five chapters: “Electronic Agoras”; “Cyborg Citizens”; “Recombinant Architecture”; “Soft Cities”; and “Bit Biz.” Further, in what seemed novel in 1995, the book contains a healthy collection of relevant URLs, leading readers to examples and applications of the ideas discussed.

In “Electronic Agoras,” Mitchell begins by noting, “[t]he keyboard is my café” (7). With an enthusiasm that exposes the book’s date of publication, the author celebrates his ability to work, socialize, network, learn, teach, and gossip through the Net. As Mitchell notes: “Traditionally, you needed to go someplace to [socialize] . . . and where you went pegged your peer group, your social position, and your role. It also framed expectations about how you should represent yourself by your clothing, body language, speech, and behavior and about the interactions that were to take place. Each familiar species of public place had its actors, costumes, and scripts. But the worldwide computer network—the electronic agora—subverts, displaces, and radically redefines our notions of gathering place, community, and urban life. The Net has a fundamentally different physical structure, and it operates under quite different rules from those that organize the action in the public places of traditional cities” (7–8).

To explore these transformations, Mitchell employs a set of dichotomies, dramatically juxtaposing an off- and online manifestation of an action or idea. For example, while traditional urban life is spatial, Net life is antispatial; our urban bodies are corporeal, yet online we become incorporeal; face-to-face communication within cities is focused and synchronous yet in cyberspace it becomes fragmented and asynchronous. In each case, he offers readers a quick example, usually drawn from his everyday adventures at MIT. On the one hand, the comparative dichotomies are useful in that they illustrate clear differences between traditional and contemporary urban life. By setting the two apart, Mitchell is able to tease out critical differences and spotlight some of the key repercussions of new digital technologies. He is also able—at times, yet not nearly often enough—to trace the ways in which the categories of “traditional” and “contemporary” are folding and fusing together.

On the other hand, if the author’s examples appear anecdotal, the comparative dichotomies prove problematic. In case after case, Mitchell shoves complex issues into tidy black and white folders, glossing over his (often admitted) errors. For instance, in the Spatial/Antispatial section, he notes: “(T)he Net’s despatialization of interaction destroys the geocode’s key. There is no such thing as a better address” (10). He then uses a footnote to explain an extremely important point, one that appears to refute his argument: “Sometimes a domain that is closely associated with a particular group-for example media@mit-does acquire a certain cachet” (176). While it may be easy for to say there is no such thing as a better address, try convincing or that his or her email is read by the big wigs in the order it was received. Moreover, the dichotomous divisions simply do not hold. Is a subway passenger talking on her cell phone truly corporeal? Is chatting on instant messenger asynchronous? And since when did our urban experiences stop being fragmented?

In Chapters 3 and 4—"Cyborg Citizens" and “Recombinant Architecture”—Mitchell focuses on bodies and buildings. Again, we find dichotomies—Vitruvian Man / Lawnmower Man; Nervous System / Bodynet; Eyes / Television; Ears / Telephony; Muscles / Actuators; Hands / Telemanipulators; and Brains / Artificial Intelligence—that the author uses to explore the convergence, after Donna Haraway, between technology and human flesh. We witness Mitchell teaching students in Singapore while sitting comfortably in his office at MIT, the fetishized orgy of technology that is Bill Gates’s mansion, and Yo-Yo Ma as cybernetic organism, playing his cello while wired into a mainframe. Though lacking the depth, critical edge, and downright playfulness of Allucquere Rosanne Stone, Mitchell’s point is nonetheless clear: cyborgs are no longer creations of science fiction seen on screen; they are us.

In “Recombinant Architecture,” Mitchell compares—again, with the limiting strategy of dichotomous pairs—traditional architecture with their digital descendents. Engaging, provocative, and at times historical, the chapter would fit nicely into an undergraduate syllabus in geography, urban studies, and American studies. The dichotomies are predictable: bookstores become bitstores; library stacks are replaced by computer servers; galleries have gone virtual; schools and universities transform into websites for distance education; and prisons morph into electronic supervision programs. What is missing, however, is any thought devoted to what happens if and when puts locally-owned bookstores near you out of business, what becomes lost in the transformation of an engaged classroom into a point, click, and type chat room, and what kinds of racialized, gendered, and classist policies inform the development and implementation of the electronic surveillance anklets Mitchell breathlessly celebrates.

Having explored the body and the building, Mitchell moves on to the city in “Soft Cities.” Oddly, his chief metaphor is the frontier, extending for a number of pages and complete with “colonists, cowboys, con artists, and would-be conquerors” (111). Besides mystifying what we know to be a bloody conquest, Mitchell’s use of the frontier motif reveals an unwillingness to explore in more precise terms the underpinnings of his subject. To be fair, Mitchell is aware that cyberspace is not an always-already space, albeit virtual, but rather, one that is socially constructed in particular ways. In an uncharacteristic turn of (cyb)urban progressivism, he acknowledges that those responsible for maintaining the online world, “must consider who gets in and who gets excluded, what can and cannot be done there, whose norms are enforced, and who exerts control. These questions, like the complementary ones of privacy and encryption, have become the foci of crucial policy debates” (125). The same is also true, he grants, in the offline, built world.

To ground his commentary, Mitchell presents a number of community networks as successful models of what online public spaces can and should look like: “The community networks that emerged in the 1980s and the 1990s—Santa Monica Public Electronic Network, Blacksburg Electronic Village, Telluride InfoZone, [Silicon Valley’s] Smart Valley, and Cambridge Civic Network, for example—sought answers by trying to make network access openly available to entire communities in the same way that city hall and the local public parks traditionally have been” (125–126). Yet these models are unconvincing. Had Mitchell looked beyond the press releases issued by the Blacksburg Electronic Village, he would have discovered that it was created, in part, with $6 million from Bell Atlantic of Virginia, and that, beyond its meek civic resources, sprawls a never-ending “town mall.” This, I believe, showcases the most significant—and recurring—shortcoming of City of Bits: the author’s unwillingness to treat, in meaningful depth, cyberwhatever—cyberbodies, cyberbuildings, cybercities—as constructions, cultural artifacts shaped by the social, political, and economic values of their creators.

In exploring the convergences between architecture, urban space, and new digital technologies, William Mitchell somehow forgot to consider politics. And economics. And culture. In doing so, he has written a fascinating yet extremely problematic testimony to what our cities and civic lives have become and are becoming, a book that could be assigned to undergraduates to encourage them to reimagine the future and interrogate it with a critical politics that Mitchell has conveniently left behind.

David Silver
Georgetown University/Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies