With this interactive site, Mitchell, dean of architecture and planning at M.I.T., certainly redefines our idea of a book: The seven chapters are amply hyperlinked, reviews will be posted on an ongoing basis, and readers are invited to leave comments, to which the author may respond. Mitchell even provides the URLs to hundreds of 'surf sites' that cover subjects from advertising to the World Wide Web. Eventually, however, the book must be read.
Here the site falters somewhat. Mitchell spends a lot of time musing about cyberspace's history and the digital future in overwrought prose, describing a book as 'tree flakes encased in dead cow,' and the Internet as a 'worldwide, time-zone-spanning optic nerve with electronic eyeballs at its endpoints?' In addition, he offers few solid details about the social systems and funds that must be in place for his ruminations on the future to become reality. It's doubtful, for example, that a nation unable to agree on a national health care plan would support homes networked as virtual clinics, replete with diagnostic and monitoring devices.
Mitchell is on firmer ground when he offers suggestions on how virtual and physical public spaces should relate. Citizen access to electronic public sites (such as government agency Web pages and community networks) shouldn't be limited to computers in the home or business, he writes. People need access via civic architecture: the electronic kiosk in the lobby of city hall or in the public library. Here Mitchell is more realistic: he realizes that these electronic networks inevitably will compete with other public works for scarce funds.
Finally, as parks and squares must be attractive to all, so should the public areas of cyberspace. An interface that depends on 'cryptic commands,' writes Mitchell, 'is as much a barrier to most people as is a flight of steps to a park user in a wheelchair.' Software functions and interface design, he notes, are now as important as floor plans and construction materials.
-- Review by Teresa Austin
The bandwidth-disadvantaged are the new have-nots. It's simple; if you cannot get bits on and off in sufficient quantity, you cannot directly benefit from the Net. The consequences of this are brutally obvious. If the value of real estate in the traditional urban fabric is determined by location, location, location, (as property pundits never tire of repeating), then the value of a network connection is determined by bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. Accessibility is redefined; tapping directly into a broadband data highway is like being on Main Street, but a low baud-rate connection puts you out in the boonies, where the flow of information reduces to a trickle, where you cannot make so many connections, and where interactions are less intense. The bondage of bandwidth is displacing the tyranny of distance, and a new economy of land use and transportation is emerging -- an economy in which high-bandwidth connectivity is an increasingly crucial variable. Since the cost of a high-bandwidth cable connection grows with distance, information hot spots often develop around high-capacity data sources, much as oases grow up around wells.
City of Bits: Space, Place And The Infobahn
(MIT Press, $20 softcover)
Online version: http://www-mitpress.mit.edu/City_of_Bits