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The “city” in City of Bits is that created by online “architecture.” Author William J. Mitchell, then a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explored the multiple ways that spatial and location analogies had been used (as of the 1990s, when he wrote the book) for online phenomena. These include the broad use of “cyberspace” and brick-and-mortar “cafes,” “chat rooms,” and, as the subtitle indicates, the “infobahn" that the internet was often called twenty years ago.

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More broadly, writing in the time when the Internet had just been firmly established as a major mode of communication, Mitchell looked both around, surveying media contemporary to him, and ahead, speculating about future uses. Drawing on his architecture and urban planning expertise, one overall idea he promoted was that urbanism would be intensified through the expanding access to digital technology. Mitchell predicted numerous developments that did arise, such as the increasing importance of software and the ever-smaller size of electronic hardware.

Each of the seven chapters of this book explores significant aspects of the importance of environments in which electronic “mediation” occurs, and of adequate planning so that such environments will facilitate genuine human social interaction rather than wall people off. The chapters are titled "Pulling Glass" (concerned with laying fiber optic cables), "Electronic Agoras" (focusing on digital forums, such as cafes), "Cyborg Citizens" (focusing on the privileges and responsibilities of “netizens”), "Recombinant Architecture" (exploring building design, including office space and retail), "Soft Cities" (describing social media and networks), "Bit Biz" (focusing on ownership, control, and management), and "Getting to the Good Bits" (focusing on access to, sharing, and restricting digital information).


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In City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, William Mitchell, a professor of architecture and media arts and sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posits some of the social, legal, and philosophical consequences of revolutionary advances in electronic communication and computer technology. Using the specialized vocabulary of telecommunication and computers, Mitchell addresses the impact that the electronic information highway is making on traditional definitions of space, time, and human interaction. The Internet challenges old ways of viewing “workspace,” “homespace,” and “cityspace” and demands a redefinition of architecture and urbanism for the twenty-first century.

Mitchell illustrates the tension between traditional and electronic forms of human relationships and civic structure through a dizzying series of wired urban metaphors. The computer keyboard is seen as an electronic café, a place to chat with others around the world. The Internet itself is an electronic agora, the modern equivalent of the ancient Greek city center. Despite the real distinctions between keyboard and café, city center and Internet, these metaphors lead Mitchell to observe several basic cognitive transformations resulting from electronic communication.

One such transformation concerns human perception of space. On the Internet, spatial becomes antispatial. Face-to-face contact yields to forms of communication in which location does not matter. Unlike a postal address, an e-mail address is an access code usable from any physical link into the electronic world. In such an environment, geographic and social distinctions between palace and ghetto, between Beverly Hills and Watts, are, to a certain extent, blurred. Where a person lives and works no longer determines who the person is.

Communication via the Internet is also incorporeal rather than corporeal and encourages disengagement of physical individuals from their electronic identities. No longer is acquaintance defined by looking people in their eyes, shaking their hands, and hearing their voices. The eyes, hands, and voices of people communicating on the Internet are distant and not part of their bodiless Internet identity. Furthermore, this identity is sometimes disguised and distorted via easily assumed electronic aliases, the use of someone else’s identity, or the creation of programmed agents. The result is a persona that is no longer unified or focused but fragmented.

Such antispatial, incorporeal, and fragmented modes of communication make physical proximity less important. Communities of bankers, lawyers, or teachers no longer have to live or work in close quarters. As Mitchell observes, geographic contiguity becomes irrelevant in an electronic world where information travels by logical electronic links rather than via physical paths.

Another area of transformation is temporal. Mitchell suggests that communication becomes less synchronous in an electronic context, where time of day no longer matters and both sender and recipient can manipulate the timing of the message. Such changes in communicative techniques break down the rhythms of the natural world and social convention.

The computer network creates new human cyborgs, physically wired to their surroundings via a network in which electronic agents perform some body functions. Electronic actuators can serve as mechanical muscles. The video screen is an extension of the human eye, an electronic eyeball connected to a worldwide optic nerve called the Internet. Human ears hear sounds via telephony, as Mitchell contrasts a traditional live musical performance with electronic performances in which vocal partners in different cities perform together. Telemanipulators replace or extend the hands of distant surgeons. The human brain is assisted by artificial intelligence which chooses traveling routes and speed control for human drivers. Joggers run with electronic compasses and tachometers. Human organs can be replaced by electronic ones, both internally and externally. The result is a human body surrounded by a wired network in which interior and exterior, self and the external world, become blurred.

From body spaces Mitchell moves to building spaces. Architectural designs serve various social and institutional purposes, based upon the Vitruvian principle of decorum, form adapted to function. In the world of telecommunication such institutional and social functions are being severed from physical architecture. Floor plans are used in City of Bits to illustrate the obsolescence that several standard building types face in the electronic world. The design of the British Museum in London, centering library stacks around a large reading room, does not allow for electronic information servers of the future or the evolution of reading material from paper to the computer screen. Mitchell anticipates that art galleries such as the Pinakothek in Munich must become virtual museums in which the physical, spatial arrangement of artwork is replaced by a temporal sequence of images on video screens. Similarly, performance spaces such as La Scala in Milan are based on acoustic and social needs that are less relevant in a world in which electronics has vastly expanded the circle of spectators and brought performance into homes. Even the design of future athletic stadiums must reflect the possibility of spectators’ becoming virtual participants in competitive games in which physical presence in sports arenas is supplemented by connection with satellite facilities or private homes many miles away.

These new definitions of human interaction change the architecture of schools and colleges, as classroom walls become invisible and virtual campuses can be located anywhere. Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia, based upon intimate, face-to-face association of professors with small numbers of students, is replaced by the modern campus computer network, wired to itself and to other campuses. Traditional classrooms and seminar rooms can be accompanied or replaced by videoconferencing and desktop-to-desktop communication.

Hospitals are also challenged architecturally. Mitchell notes how Filarete’s plan for the Ospedale Maggiore in Rome, with its rooms arranged around a series of courtyards and central altars, was based on fifteenth century Catholic concepts of hygiene and religion. Modern hospitals can be more disparate in design. Physicians often no longer need to be present, thanks to telemedicine, video diagnostics, and remote robotic surgery.

An electronic, increasingly cashless society challenges the banking world. John Soane’s plan for the Bank of England building in London, with its separate halls for different types of transactions, yields to the mobile and versatile ATM machine. Traditional trading floors for stocks and commodities, such as that of the New York Stock Exchange, are transformed by electronic trading systems such as Globex, used by Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade.

The floor plan for a large downtown department store, such as the Carson Pirie Scott building in Chicago, becomes less convenient in the context of the cyberspace marketplace. Electronic shopping malls make unnecessary the traditional trip to the market. Interface between customer and computer screen replaces direct contact with sales representatives. So, too, large office buildings are endangered as work traditionally done in city centers can now move to networked suburban or rural satellite stations or to workers’ homes. Private space is also affected as the domestic living room is transformed by the presence of information appliances that bring an electronic front stoop within the house. Such spatial and temporal changes make possible quick transitions from one type of task to another. Everyday activities can be superimposed on each other as the boundaries between work and play, home and office, disappear. Cottage industries of the past, resuscitated by advances in telecommunication, may offer some nostalgic appeal, Mitchell warns, but they also threaten twentieth century social advances such as the forty-hour work week and child labor laws.

The city of bits is a soft city in which cyberspace becomes real estate and the computer network a street grid. Step by step, Mitchell identifies the electronic city with its physical counterpart. Electronic bulletin boards and forums are the new neighborhood gathering places. The World Wide Web (WWW) is an electronic network of streets providing access between one building and another, between one activity and another. Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) are electronic neighborhoods in which residents create their own personas or characters in order to participate in on-line role-playing games.

Mitchell suggests that the primary architectural issue of the twenty-first century will be privacy, not shelter. Traditional vehicles of privacy—receptionists, doors, gates, and windows—take on new meaning in an electronic city with its own distinctions between public and private domain and its own authentication system based on passwords and encryption software. Concerns for public space become issues of public access. The telecommunication highway needs the equivalent of public parks and squares, such as the Cleveland free-net model, providing points of access for the general public.

The highly urbanized environment of the Internet is an electronic frontier, a futuristic Wild West where traditional concepts of person, property, movement and identity are being redefined. Computer codes confront civil law, and control of computer code is power. Local community customs, mores, and civic jurisdictions are threatened by a network that crosses local, national, and international boundaries. Whose criteria for censorship and appropriate behavior on the Internet are binding?

Traditional legal definitions of tangible goods are not exactly transferable to computer bits, a new form of intellectual property. Unlike real estate, electronic property can be reproduced indefinitely at trivial cost and instantaneously distributed around the world. It takes up little storage space, can be easily changed or modified, and is usable by several “owners” simultaneously.

Arguing that cyberspace communities play a specialized role in a complex new economic order, Mitchell predicts contradictory trends toward decentralization and centralization of economic activities. Managerial functions will disperse around the world at the same time that information centers will concentrate around existing urban centers. Mitchell applies standard economic terms and concepts to the Internet city with its own economic sectors of production (raw bits and databases), transformation (application software), distribution (wire network), and consumption. Physical economic transactions become electronic exchanges where sellers need only the appropriate mailing lists and customers the right on-line catalogs. Electronic cash may replace banknotes as the financial world develops safer methods of transferring funds on the Internet.

The Internet reintroduces slavery in the form of software agents designed to accomplish tedious, mundane, systematic tasks such as sorting mail or finding the cheapest place to buy something. Representative democracy can be radically changed by the possibility of instantaneous electronic polling of the electorate. The Internet opens up the possibility of virtual political assemblies, of the systems operator (sysop) blacklist as a new form of civic banishment, and of flaming as a form of public censure. Governmental seizure of electronic property (for example, computerized files) may prove more devastating than confiscation of tangible goods.

Visions of huge databases accumulating vast amounts of information about everyone raise fears of electronic surveillance and governmental access to private information. In the end such erosion of privacy may have to be balanced against the distinct social and architectural benefits of the city of bits.

Sources for Further Study

Architectural Review. CXCVIII, October, 1995, p. 96.

The Nation. CCLXI, October 23, 1995, p. 478.

Progressive Architecture. LXXVI, September, 1995, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, August 21, 1995, p. 57.

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