Saturday, December 20, 2003


This article appears in slightly different form in the November/December 2003 issue of IEEE Micro © 2003 IEEE.

Janus, the god after whom January is named, has two faces. One looks forward, the other back. Recently, I've looked at some of my old columns, and thought again about the topics they cover. The book I focus on this time has its antecedents in earlier works by the same author. At the same time, it follows the Janus model by looking into the future without losing sight of the past.

Me++ -- The Cyborg Self and the Networked City by William J. Mitchell (MIT, Cambridge MA, 2003, 266pp, ISBN 0-262-13434-9,, $27.95)

William Mitchell is a professor of media arts and sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he also serves as dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. Me++ is the most recent in a series of books that Mitchell has written about about the way that information technology is transforming our lives.

In the November/December 1995 Micro Review, I reviewed Mitchell's City of Bits -- Space, Place, and the Infobahn (MIT, 1995). In that book Mitchell uses vignettes from his personal experience to contrast scenes of the electronically mediated world with their classical counterparts. City of Bits is like an impressionist painting. Mitchell uses it to train your eye (and his own) to see the world in a different way.

The electronically mediated world has changed considerably since 1995, and MIT has reinvented City of Bits as, which claims to provide a graphically rich site, enchanced with over 200 links, a sophisticated search engine, and a unique public forum environment. The idea is intriguing, but the implementation appears to be poorly maintained. Most of its links were broken when I visited the site. Nonetheless, I found the entire text of City of Bits there, so you can read it online if you like. But if you'd like a hardcopy version of the book, the link to ordering information works perfectly.

In 1999 Mitchell brought out e-topia -- "Urban Life, Jim, But Not As We Know It" (MIT, 1999), a sequel to City of Bits. In that book Mitchell considers the ways in which architecture and urban planning must change to accommodate broader notions of place and proximity. Virtual places and electronically mediated interconnection provide new opportunities and constraints for architects and planners to work with. Mitchell paints an inviting, optimistic portrait of the resulting communities of the twenty-first century.

Mitchell's latest book continues the train of thought from City of Bits and e-topia, but this time he addresses the subject much more concretely than he did in City of Bits. One reason for this is that people have had time to integrate the world of bits into their physical worlds. The separation between bits and atoms, as described by Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital (Knopf, 1995), has proved to be a trial separation. Bits and atoms are reconciled. The marriage is back on track. 

The term Me++ suggests a self, extended by portable wireless devices, moving about a networked world. Wireless phones or computers provide access to navigation aids and communication. MIT students bring laptops to class and use wireless internet connections to Google the lecture topic, making for a more intense and interactive learning experience.

Mitchell sees the Dilbert world -- that is, the 1990s workplace divided into cubicles containing PCs -- as dead. Any place can now be a workspace. This gives people another reason to be in public spaces, and it gives architects a chance to focus on reforming these spaces to accommodate the new functions. A café may need well lit seats with their backs to the wall to provide convenience and privacy for laptop users. It may need alcoves into which mobile phone users can go to converse without disturbing or being disturbed by others. Social conventions need to evolve around these new spaces and functions.

The city has always been a system of containers (city walls, buildings, rooms) and networks (transportation, energy supply, communication). To support the extended self, the containers become less physical, and the networks become more numerous and more important. Technological advances also change the nature of the infrastructure. The transportation and communication infrastructure of the twentieth century resulted from government investment or from private investment with government encouragement and support. Infrastructure like WiFi, on the other hand, comes from the bottom up.

One of Mitchell's main messages is that McLuhan's global village is really here. A community is a network of reciprocity. Traditionally, the associated social glue and moral obligations attenuate with distance. We feel most strongly obligated to our families, then to our communities and countries. In the past we felt little responsibility for people in distant lands. Nor did we feel that those distant people could have much effect on us. Events like those of September 11, 2001 show that this is not true. More mundane negative events, such as widespread power grid failures or virus attacks, underline the fact that we must take the idea of global community seriously.

The idea of a global village goes against many strongly held views. Networks and interconnections make boundaries permeable. They are incompatible with the view that nation states can close their borders or isolate themselves from the affairs of other nation states. On the personal level, the idea of "me first" must give way to a Golden Rule that acknowledges our interdependence.

Mitchell does not believe that nation states are doomed, but he does believe that physical places must emphasize the features that make them special. Distinctive subcultures, scenic beauty, desirable climate, and historic connections can all distinguish one place from another and help to perpetuate place-based communities. Physical place, Mitchell believes, will remain at the apex of a pyramid of different kinds of presence. Email may be excellent for routine communication. Synchronous communication by video and phone can satisfy the need for immediate feedback. But the most important situations call for two or more people to be in the same physical location at the same time.

Mitchell's chapter and section titles are filled with allusions. Titles like Virtual Campfires, Cyborg Agonistes, and Downsized Dry Goods reinforce the connections he sees among the electronically mediated world he describes, the world it is evolving out of, and the underlying culture that both worlds reflect. Mitchell sees many connections, and these add value to his work. One literature professor, quoted on the book jacket, says that Mitchell "is able to see the future without losing sight of the past, and he embodies the technological savvy yet still deeply humanistic perspective we need to understand where our technologies are leading us and where we should be leading them." She also praises the book's wittiness, urbanity, and wide range of reference. I agree with these assessments, but I wish Mitchell didn't carry it quite so far as he does.

I think Mitchell sometimes displays his erudition too consciously. Most readers, I suspect, will get little help from the references in the following excerpt:
It opens up the possibility of new, as yet unimagined spatial practices, and the opportunity (in the words of Michel de Certeau) "to rediscover, within an electronicized and computerized megalopolis, the 'art' of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days." Or, if you don't like the pseudo-primitivism of this formulation, you might imagine rediscovering Baudelaire's flânerie, situationist "drift," or whatever it was that Deleuze and Guattari were recommending in A Thousand Plateaus.
Along the same lines, the title of the book will not mystify programmers, but readers who don't get the allusion to the incrementation operator and to the C++ language will face an unnecessary obstacle to understanding what the book is about.

Mitchell's erudition extends to his vocabulary. I'm sure I knew the meaning of insouciant and carapace when I took the SAT exams, many years ago. Now when I encounter these words, however, I have to look them up. And as for enciente -- I'm sure this book is the first place I've ever seen it. Sometimes common words communicate better than uncommon ones, even at the expense of lost nuances.

These small annoyances aside, I think that Me++ is an essential read for anyone trying to make sense of the bewildering advances that are transforming our world. Reading it should take you only a few hours. Do it now. Janus would approve.