Imagining the Internet Predictions Project
 
More from William Mitchell
All of the following are from Mitchell's 1994 book "City of Bits"

The emerging civic structures and spatial arrangements of the digital era will profoundly affect our access to economic opportunities and public services, the character and content of public discourse, the forms of cultural activity, the enaction of power, and the experiences that give shape and texture to our daily routines.
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The Net ... will play as crucial a role in 21st-century urbanity as the centrally located, spatially bounded, architecturally celebrated agora did in the life of the Greek polis and in prototypical urban diagrams like that so lucidly traced out by the Milesians on their Ionian rock.
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The tilt toward electronic asynchrony will have increasingly dramatic effects upon urban life and urban form ... The distinction between live events and arbitrarily time-shifted replays becomes difficult or impossible to draw.
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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.
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No network connection at all-zero bandwidth makes you a digital hermit, an outcast from cyberspace. The Net creates new opportunities, but exclusion from it becomes a new form of marginalization.
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Robotic effectors combined with audio and video sensors will provide telepresence. Intelligent exoskeletal devices (data gloves, data suits, robotic prostheses, intelligent second skins, and the like) will both sense gestures and serve as touch output devices by exerting controlled forces and pressures; you will be able to initiate a business conversation by shaking hands at a distance or say goodnight to a child by transmitting a kiss across continents.
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Once we have both a "real" three-dimensional world and computer- constructed "virtual" ones, the distinctions between these worlds can get fuzzed or lost ... Through video projection of computer displays onto real desktops, or through superimposition of computed stereo displays onto actual scenes, the proscenium dividing the "real" world from the "virtual" can be made to disappear. You can find yourself on stage with the actors, trying to distinguish the scenery from the walls.
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The network is the urban site before us, an invitation to design and construct the City of Bits ... This will be a city unrooted to any definite spot on the surface of the earth, shaped by connectivity and bandwidth constraints rather than by accessibility and land values, largely asynchronous in its operation, and inhabited by disembodied and fragmented subjects who exist as collections of aliases and agents. Its places will be constructed virtually by software instead of physically from stones and timbers, and they will be connected by logical linkages rather than by doors, passageways, and streets. How shall we shape it? Who shall be our Hippodamos?
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Network pimps will offer ways to do something sordid (but safe) with lubriciously programmed telehookers. (This is an obvious extrapolation of the telephone's transformation of the whorehouse into the call-girl operation.) Telemolesters will lurk. Telethugs will reach out and punch someone.
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The boundary that has traditionally been drawn by the edge of the computer screen will be eroded ... You will be able to immerse yourself in simulated environments instead of just looking at them through a small rectangular window. This is a crucial difference: you become an inhabitant, a participant, not merely a spectator.
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Continuous care - involving constant monitoring and regular medication - might also be provided remotely ... Houses and beds can contain sensors for tracking the conditions of their occupants and telecommunications for transmitting the information to distant monitoring sites. Electronic scales can log body weight. Noncontact, microwave vital-signs monitoring systems can measure heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, and blood pressure. Smart air- conditioning systems and inquisitive toilets might automatically take samples and perform analyses. Implanted wireless devices might be used for remotely controlled release of precise amounts of medication. Houses seem destined to evolve into increasingly sophisticated components of health care systems.
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Merchants will find that they can dispense with sales floors and sales staff altogether and just maintain servers with databases ... Consumers might either "window shop" by remotely accessing such virtual stores, or they might delegate the task to software shopping agents that go out on the Net with shopping lists, inspect the specifications and prices of the merchandise on offer, and return with reports on the best available matches and prices. Closure of a sale can immediately trigger a delivery order at a warehouse, update an inventory database, and initiate an electronic money transfer ... Retail location becomes a matter of being in the right directories ... The stock is bigger and the selection larger than in the mightiest big-box off- ramp superstore. The things that remain in physical form are warehouses ... and delivery vehicles.
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Rooms and buildings will henceforth be seen as sites where bits meet the body - where digital information is translated into visual, auditory, tactile, or otherwise perceptible form, and, conversely, where bodily actions are sensed and converted into digital information. Building these programmable places is not just a matter of putting wires in the walls and electronic boxes in rooms (though that is a start). As the relevant technologies continue to develop, miniaturized, distributed computational devices will disappear into the woodwork. Keyboards and mouse pads will cease to be the only bit-collection zones; sensors will be everywhere. Displays and effectors will multiply. In the end, buildings will become computer interfaces and computer interfaces will become buildings.
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Many of our everyday tasks and pastimes will cease to attach themselves to particular spots and slots set aside for their performance - workplaces and working hours, theaters and performance times, home and your own time - and will henceforth be multiplexed and overlaid; we will find ourselves able to switch rapidly from one activity to the other while remaining in the same place, so we will end up using that same place in many different ways. It will no longer be straightforward to distinguish between work time and "free" time or between the space of production and the space of consumption. Ambiguous and contested zones will surely emerge.
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Life in cyberspace generates electronic trails as inevitably as soft ground retains footprints; that, in itself, is not the worrisome thing. But where will digital information about your contacts and activities reside? Who will have access to it and under what circumstances? Will information of different kinds be kept separately, or will there be ways to assemble it electronically to create close and detailed pictures of your life? These are the questions that we will face with increasing urgency as we shift more and more of our daily activities into the digital, electronic sphere ... Electronic data collection and digital collation techniques are so much more powerful than any that could be deployed in the past, they provide the means to create the ultimate Foucaultian dystopia.
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Computer viruses and worms are maliciously constructed agents- fanning out, like Fagin's boys, to cause trouble. Will there will be a criminal underclass? ... Since agents are easy to reproduce, cyberspace may be flooded with billions of them; how will population be controlled? How will the law deal with agents that perform important tasks on behalf of distant, perhaps oblivious originators? Even if our agents turn out to be very smart, and always perform impeccably, will we ever fully trust them? And how will we deal with the old paradox of the slave? We will want our agents to be as smart as possible in order to do our bidding most effectively, but the more intelligent they are, the more we will have to worry about losing control and the agents taking over ... The burgeoning, increasingly indispensable, programmed proletariats of cyberspace cities now live invisibly on disk drives.
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My software surrogates can potentially do much more than provide origins and destinations for messages: when appropriately programmed, they can serve as my semiautonomous agents by tirelessly performing standard tasks that I have delegated to them and even by making simple decisions on my behalf ... A more maliciously conceived one might be programmed to roam the digital highways and byways, looking for trouble - for opportunities to corrupt the files of my enemies, to plunder valuable information, to eliminate rival agents, or to replicate itself endlessly and choke the system. Fritz Lang got it wrong: the robots in our future are not metallic Madonnas clanking around "Metropolis," but soft cyborgs slinking silently through the Net. The neuromans of William Gibson are a lot closer to the mark.
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Does the logic of network existence entail radical schizophrenia - a shattering of the integral subject into an assemblage of aliases and agents? Could we hack immortality by storing our aliases and agents permanently on disk, to outlast our bodies? (William Gibson's cyberpunk antiheroes nonchalantly shuck their slow, obsolescent, high-maintenance meat machines as they port their psychic software to new generations of hardware.) Does resurrection reduce to restoration from backup?
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Anticipate the moment at which all your personal electronic devices - headphone audio player, cellular telephone, pager, dictaphone, camcorder, personal digital assistant (PDA), electronic stylus, radiomodem, calculator, Loran positioning system, smart spectacles, VCR remote, data glove, electronic jogging shoes that count your steps and flash warning signals at oncoming cars, medical monitoring system, pacemaker ... and anything else that you might habitually wear or occasionally carry - can seamlessly be linked in a wireless bodynet that allows them to function as an integrated system and connects them to the worldwide digital network ... you will have acquired a collection of interchangeable, snap-in organs connected by exonerves ... your nervous system will plug into the worldwide digital net. You will have become a modular, reconfigurable, infinitely extensible cyborg.
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Electronic organs, as they become ever smaller and more intimately connected to you, will lose their traditional hard plastic carapaces. They will become more like items of clothing - soft wearables that conform to the contours of your body; you will have them fitted like shoes, gloves, contact lenses, or hearing aids. Circuits may be woven into cloth. Microdevices may even be implanted surgically ... You will also begin to blend into the architecture. In other words, some of your electronic organs may be built into your surroundings ... "inhabitation" will take on a new meaning - one that has less to do with parking your bones in architecturally defined space and more with connecting your nervous system to nearby electronic organs. Your room and your home will become part of you, and you will become part of them.
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We will all become mighty morphing cyborgs capable of reconfiguring ourselves by the minute - of renting extended nervous tissue and organ capacity and of redeploying our extensions in space as our needs change and as our resources allow. Think of yourself on some evening in the not-so-distant future, when wearable, fitted, and implanted electronic organs connected by bodynets are as commonplace as cotton; your intimate infrastructure connects you seamlessly to a planetful of bits, and you have software in your underwear. It's eleven o'clock, Smarty Pants; do you know where your network extensions are tonight? ... metaphysicians will be tempted to reformulate the mind/body problem as the mind/network problem.
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In the world that we cyborgs inhabit ... the electronic retinas of our video cameras produce shifts and fragments. Rooms and buildings now have new kinds of apertures; the scenes that we see through the glass are rescaled and distant, the place on the other side may change from moment to moment, and the action may be a replay ... Once, places were bounded by walls and horizons. Days were defined by sunrises and sunsets. But we video cyborgs see things differently. The Net has become a worldwide, time-zone-spanning optic nerve with electronic eyeballs at its endpoints.
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Networks at ... different levels will all have to link up somehow; the body net will be connected to the building net, the building net to the community net, and the community net to the global net. From gesture sensors worn on our bodies to the worldwide infrastructure of communications 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.
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The most crucial task before us is not one of putting in place the digital plumbing of broadband communications links and associated electronic appliances (which we will certainly get anyway), nor even of producing electronically deliverable "content," but rather one of imagining and creating digitally mediated environments for the kinds of lives that we will want to lead and the sorts of communities that we will want to have.

©2004 Elon University/Pew Internet and American Life Project. All rights reserved.
Comments, suggestions or feedback? Contact us at predictions@elon.edu. Last Modified:  1/9/05