transUrban Optimism After The Maul Of America


transUrban Optimism After The Maul Of America

William J. Mitchell,
City Of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn,
Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995.

Living in America, one makes two apparently contradictory observations: first, that most cities are ugly and becoming uglier, and, second, that there is an enormous vitality to this vulgarization of the landscape and the public realm. For the most part, these observations have led those who are still concerned with such matters to the despair of defeat. No possible design solution seems potent enough to contend with the combined onslaught of crass commercialism, massive disinterest and militant apathy that characterizes the ongoing dismantling of the public realm. No subtle architectural gesture can compete with the Mall of America. Those who still care seem anachronistic, out-of-touch, just a short step removed from the beautiful, pathetic, lost souls that pour themselves into the insatiable sands of poetry-readings at fringe cafes.

On approaching the cusp between one age and another, there is still a sense that matters can be delayed, perhaps even reversed. The pull of tradition decelerates the advance to the cusp just as gravity slows a rising projectile to perfect vertical stillness just prior to its plunge back to full velocity. At the zenith there is stillness, but once the cusp has been crossed, history itself adds its considerable weight to the accelerating movement away from the familiar. Within the past few years we have crossed such a cusp, and everything is now accelerating away from all that we knew. The vortex of a new, dizzy futurism is making the old futurism look like a romantic still life with wilted flowers.

In a vacuum, a feather will fall as fast as a boulder, but in the friction of the real world the boulder falls faster. Architecture, so reluctant to fly, is now overtaking the lighter disciplines in comprehending the changes we have unleashed. It is no accident that both Mitchell and Negroponte, to whose Being Digital this book will surely be compared, share architectural backgrounds. The cataclysm of change is a cataclysm of problems, but problems are often opportunities in disguise. Confronting those problems directly can restore a long-faltering sense of urban and architectural optimism, as helplessness is replaced by the plenitude of possibility.

Periodically, all the certitudes of a generation begin to shake and the time comes for revision and redefinition. Key texts appear at such moments, and such texts animate the efforts of the succeeding generation. In architecture, one such text was Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1966. That “gentle manifesto,” preferring “messy vitality over obvious unity,” broke through a barrier of stagnation and legitimized a broadening of inquiry and expressiveness. An influx of animated exchange followed, bringing with it the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. In many ways the energy of that book carried architects through postmodernism and into deconstruction before exhausting itself, but exhaust itself it did. After deconstruction, what?

After deconstruction, cyberspace. At some point it became clear that what had felt like a vital and important exchange of ideas had become the staging of a play without an audience. Technology, which most architects, bold or banal, shocking or subtle, had tried to ignore as something beneath their concerns, was not only winning the game, it was also stealing the show. Initial reluctance was replaced with growing enthusiasm by the more adventurous and far-sighted of architectural theorists. It became evident that the restless new tools were not just helping to carry out old tasks, but were changing the vary nature of society as we had known it.

William Mitchell’s City Of Bits is one of the first attempts to articulate an encompassing view of the changes that have come about, and to provide some underpinnings to the growing movement of architects engaging new modes of theory, practice, education, and production. His own description of his effort, a “windshield survey along the infobahn,” is telling and appropriate. The book is indeed a fast ride, and much is glimpsed quickly that warrants a return visit. As one reads the book, everything seems strangely familiar, as if already known. When Mitchell states that the questions posed by cyberspace are worthy of an “online Aristotle,” he reveals his own philosophical bent. Aristotle’s astonishing accomplishment was the classification of all that was known, the creation of the very idea of taxonomy, a profound ordering of the universe that revealed an intellect both lucid and encompassing.

Mitchell’s books, from his early Computer Aided Architectural Design to City of Bits, have always looked up to Aristotle. This one is just as comprehensive as the previous works. This book seems different though, in that it aims not just at a broader audience, but at a broader problem. The construction of the city of bits is no longer limited to the architectural profession as we have known it. Indeed it is evident that the architects of this new public realm will be drawn from all the information industries, present and emerging, and from the ranks of specialists as well as hackers. The language of the book acknowledges this contamination of interests and employs a rapid-fire populist newspeak techtalk that is itself a concession to change. It is worthwhile to note that, as a writer, Mitchell has continued to grow from book to book, and this is his most fluid writing.

The historical backbone of the book sparks fruitful associations. In equating “agents” to “helots,” the Spartan city-state is recalled, and with it the harsh, militaristic laws Lycurgus had to institute in order to enable a small number of Spartans to maintain a much larger number of “helots” enslaved. Only in science fiction do we think of the rights of knowbots or the pervasive Frankenstein-fear we have of our own creations. The juxtaposition of “helot” to “agent” makes such considerations matters of practical importance. Elsewhere he discusses the emergence of “codepriest” programmers, implicitly urging us to imagine an electronic Protestantism (and Reformation, and counter-Reformation) that allows us all to become the programmers of our own gods and to worship without such an interpretive priesthood.

Once in a while a conclusion is drawn that is unchecked. In discussing the loss of importance of status “geocodes,” Mitchell forgets that one’s electronic address is already a status symbol. By his own account, the Aga Khan was given an honorary “” address, and Mitchell himself discusses his “” identity. The geocode is simply replaced by a cybercode: anyone spending time in the newsgroups knows how uncool it is to be a newbie “AOLer”. While such points seem minor in the overall scope of the book, they are indicative of just how persistent our habits of inequality and hierarchy are, and how we will always find ways to discriminate against one another.

Two thirds into the book we realize that a subcurrent of the main argument has imperceptibly come to the surface: whereas the book began as a text informing architects as to the coming of a new age, the sense of the book seems to have shifted. As Mitchell describes the transformation of building type after building type into its cyberequivalent, the persistence of architecture’s relevance to the construction of the future becomes increasingly clear. What seemed like a wake-up call for desperate architects struck by the infodeluge that is washing their profession away, gradually becomes an argument for why the issues that architecture, as art and discipline, has addressed over centuries, must not, indeed cannot, be ignored. Cities and the architecture that they are made of are not neutral containers, they are answers to the question of how to live. The intellectual outlook and the modes of inquiry that inform urban and architectural exploration prove themselves invaluable in envisioning what the “city of bits” may entail. It becomes clear that buildings were always simply the most visible part of architecture, not the main point at all, and that the issues that architects grappled with through the ages are far from exhausted, though their material manifestation is rapidly evaporating into a plethora of morphed media. What began as a book for architects transforms into a book for worldbuilders and worldcitizens of all sorts.

This is in many ways an admirable and prophetic work, and one that is sure to have enormous impact. Mitchell is obviously aware of all the fascinating but convoluted debates scattered all over the intellectual scene, and he occasionally nods in acknowledgment, but mostly he avoids them, making the book appealing to a much broader audience than it would otherwise have had. Still, every book is open to criticism. One criticism arises from the obverse of the book’s own strength: the Aristotelian logic that inspires City of Bits also leaves Mitchell waiting for Hippodamos, looking for a grid logic to contain cyberspace. His taxonomic comprehensives is arborescent, not rhizomatic. The book’s extrapolations are frequently quite daring, but all too often seem linear. I would argue that cyberspace will be a far stranger space than what this book predicts. To give just one example, near the book’s conclusion Mitchell presents us with a fairly static view of nations, even after conceding that “pre-bitsphere” nations will have to adapt their laws to a world without spatialized boundaries. From what is increasingly apparent about the nature of virtual communities and virtual corporations, and from the growing frequency of internal terrorism, it is already clear that the notion of nation may itself succumb to the network mindset, that netnations may emerge whose boundaries are unrestricted not just spatially, but also temporally and ideologically, and that have rapidly fluctuating populations and topologies: war may become “inwar,” and “citizenship” may be more akin to having a good current credit rating than to holding a valid passport.

Mitchell’s method of investigation in this book, as in his previous books, is combinatorial and shows the influence of the “art of finding truth” (ars inveniendi veritatis) of mystic poet Ramon Llull. This kind of exploration of alternatives is certainly of great importance in the context of computers, but it leads to two insurmountable limitations, the first resulting from the combinatorial explosion, and the second from the Democritan atomistic fixity of elements. The combinatorial problem is the easier of the two to deal with, being quantitative, though in the end, as the numbers of combinations become vast and the finite confronts the infinite, it cannot be set aside by any hope for faster computers and broader bandwidth, and different heuristic strategies must be employed.

In many ways the modern era, with its flagship operation of collage, itself an atomistic operation, has been a Llullian time. From the games of the surrealists to the modularity of office furniture, combinatorial generative mechanisms have been employed explicitly or implicitly, and virtually all the jarring images of the century were generated by the placement of the recognizably familiar in recognizably unfamiliar contexts. The emerging spirit is not combinatorial in this way at all; as the grain of reality has become finer, collage has succumbed to morphing, an operation far more like what Deleuze and Guattari discuss in their description of becoming: in their jargon, the elements that temporarily define an entity “deterritorialize” and “reterritorialize” elsewhere, forming other temporary entities. This operation also relies on some substrate, a “level of consistency,” which in the digital era is the level of bits, but bits much finer than those of classical atomism (which are larger and correspond to the “level of development”). Just as particle physics has advanced far past what we used to consider “atoms,” so too has our reality already proceeded far past the large aggregates of familiar types. Recombinant architecture will happen not at the level of entire building types or functions, but at the level of particles of building types, behaviors, and manners of inhabitation so small as to constitute continuous fields, all morphed into strange new evanescent forms, part home, part slaughterhouse, part arcade, all at once and everywhere. In the true city of bits, war may visit your living room, strobing between breakfast and brutality, entertainment and death.

At our scale, bitspace is “smooth space,” Zeno’s paradox notwithstanding. Mitchell’s City Of Bits still exists in “striated space”. It comes close to being the book that replaces “Complexity and Contradiction,” but it holds on to the past just a little too tightly. While I also am persuaded that sensors and effectors will be as commonplace as electricity, and that the world will become a hybrid of the actual and the virtual, with portals literally everywhere we wish them to be, and echoes, vestiges, and resonances of the actual permeating the virtual, I am more curious about the “city-of-bits” within the virtual, when homepage becomes homeworld and hotlist becomes mainstreet, and we can invite each other into the cities of the personalized planets we have assembled on whatever device our disk drives have become.

Wisely, Mitchell has placed the entire book on the web. The website is itself a city of bits, growing by equal measures of planning and anarchy, as readers are invited to contribute thoughts and links that perpetually re-open the book. The web version of the book becomes the missing grid of an online Hippodamos, and the comprehensiveness pays off as a strong and thorough platform that welcomes both reinforcement and resistance, as the best of cities do. In the long run, more people will read the web version than the printed one, learning the forgotten habit of rereading and revisiting. Perhaps, in time, a city of bits will grow around this website.

Marcos Novak is an architect, artist, composer, and theorist investigating actual, virtual and mutant intelligent environments. He originated the study of liquid architectures in cyberspace, and is founding director of the RealityLab and the Advanced Design Research Program at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. This review has also appeared in the Electronic Book Review.