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City of Bits

Space, Place and the Infobahn. By William Mitchell.

William Mitchell: City of Bits. Space, Place and the Infobahn, Cambridge / London 1995. Online version of the book


22.07.1998 · Reviewed by Christina Teuthorn

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It never rains in cyberspace. Where places cannot be found on city maps and are constructed virtually by software, instead of physically from stones and timbers, shelter is no longer an architectural issue. Where entering and exiting is a matter of establishing and breaking logical linkages, and where sharing a place means having simultaneous electronic access to the same information, architects of the digital era will have to rethink their field and face a new challenge: building the bitsphere - the environment where networks are everywhere.

This is a cyborg's argument, a cyborg named wjm@mit.edu (though he has many aliases), an electronic boulevardier hanging out on the network. His name is his adress, and his keyboard is his café. William J. Mitchell, Dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, like other cyborgs opens his electronic inbox to find it filled with bits of business, greetings, chitchat, gossip, complaints, tips, jokes, flirtation - all of the things that required a place in earlier times: a piazza, a bar, a mall, a gym, or a club.

We are all cyborgs now, inhabitants of a emerging but still invisible City of Bits, the 21st century capital, a city unrooted to any definite spot on the surface of earth, shaped by connectivity and bandwith constraints rather than by accessibility and land values. This electronic agora subverts, displaces and radically redefines its inhabitants' notions of gathering place, community, and urban life. According to Mitchell, the Net with its completely different physical structure will play as crucial a role in 21st century urbanity as the centrally located, spatially bounded agora did in the life of the Aristotelian polis.

Just as the ancient polis provided a meeting place, markets, and theatres for those living within its walls, the bitsphere will require a growing number of virtual gathering places, exchanges and entertainment spots for its plugged-in populace. Just as traditional architects have designed the former era, now their digital era counterparts will have to structure the channels, resources, and interfaces of the bitsphere.

Architects' new job will be to equip the old buildings with electronic nervous systems. Processors will have to be embedded whereever they happen to be needed, so that it will become hard to distinguish between where the smart electronics end and the dumb construction begins: computers will burst out of their boxes, walls will be wired, and the architectural works of the bitsphere will be less structures with chips than robots with foundations.

The Bit-citizien's life will be very different from today: PCs will be implanted in items of clothing. Future cyborgs will walk with stepcounting jogging shoes, carry software in their underwear, and reconfigure themselves every minute. To inhabit a place will mean connecting the wireless bodynet to nearby electronic organs located in walls, and other places. Screens will be electronic windows, and motion stimulators, telemanipulators, or nano-robots will form common parts of a future environment, one that allows the body net to connect to the bulding net, the building net to the community net, and the communtiy net to the global net. From gesture sensors worn on our bodies to a worldwide infrastructure of communication satellites and long-distance fiber, the elements of the bitsphere will finally come together to form one densely interwoven system within which the knee bone is connected to the I-bahn.

Wjm@mit.edu writes in his ironic flâneur-style: "Life in pre-cyborg places was a very different experience. You really had to be there." And then he takes the reader on a melancholic trip to what once were highly frequented places - bookstores, galleries, theatres, schoolhouses, trading floors, department stores, etc. - offering a chance to once again visualize the old time before embarking on a journey to the new virtual places of Nolli's Rome, MUDville or e-World: bitstores, servers, virtual museums and campuses, telehospitals, electronic trading systems and more.

Building type by building type, the story is much the same. Whereas in former times the floorplan implied how the construction would function, now construction really depends on their cyberspace settings: Buildings must be equipped with electronic sensors and effectors, onboard processing power, sophisticated internal telecommunication capabilities, software, and capacity for getting bits on and off. Rooms and buildings will henceforth be seen as sites, where bits meet the body, and in the end, buildings will become computer interfaces and computer interfaces will became buildings. So the most interesting question will be "How should virtual and physical public space relate to one another?"

Mitchell plays an excellent bitsphere guide, offers rich examples of possible constructions, formulates non-architectural challenges such as deploying access according to principles of social equity, and concludes by seeing a great chance implicit in the changes society faces: "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." Although the uncertainties and dangers of the bitsphere frontier are great, it also could be a place for new opportunity and creativeness - a promising basis for a truly global village.
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