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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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