City of Bits

by William J. Mitchell

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As William J. Mitchell alludes to in “Space, Place, and the Infobahn,” the subtitle of City of Bits, the Internet is composed in part of concrete places that exist in a variety of spaces. It is far more than ideas freely wafting through space. Although Mitchell wrote the book more than twenty years ago, when he was a professor and dean in architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, many of his insights are strikingly fresh and his vision remarkably prescient. The data conveyed in the “bits” are transmitted through hardware, which must be created, and used by people in diverse homes, offices, factories, restaurants, and other physical spaces that comprise the “city” about which he writes.

Just laying the cable through which information would be transmitted was one major undertaking when it was initiated, as he explains in the first chapter. Where would they be threaded underground, and how would they coexist with telephone lines, water pipes, subways, and other underground features already in place? These kinds of practicalities continue to be everyday considerations not only for the inventors and manufacturers but for the users of all types of internet-related technology—the “cyborg citizens” he anticipated we would become.

Locating Mitchell’s work in time, the contemporary reader will find some of his predictions unsurprising, but the pace of change has greatly accelerated since the 1990s. While the seamless linking of all of one’s “personal electronic devices . . . in a wireless bodynet” that he predicted may not seem a revelation since the arrival of cellphones in watches, it may be worth recalling that PDAs were just becoming common, with the PalmPilot released in 1997, and the first iPhone was unveiled in 2007. Similarly, the omnipresence of connectedness, with WiFi in every coffee shop, was far from accomplished two decades ago.

Mitchell surveys all aspects of physical space that seemed relevant to the web at that time and is generally optimistic about the benefits of the technology and data access. He sounds some warning bells about possible pitfalls of lack of preparation for the upcoming major changes. Despite his impressive achievements, which make Mitchell’s book well worth reading, it is dated—in large part because of some of his predictions, but the exponential rate of change was far greater than his expectations. In particular, the onslaught of cybercrime, hacking, trolling, and other abuses has far outpaced even his vivid imagination.

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