City of Bits: Space, Place And The Infobahn

Soon users of Columbia University’s law library will be able to
retrieve texts from computer workstations because the school opted
to digitize its collection instead of constructing a new building.
And so the digital realm overpowers and redefines our physical
environment and, in the process, raises new architectural and urban
design issues, claims William Mitchell in the online version of his
book City of Bits.

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

Excerpt

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

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