June, 1995 Metropolis, page 17
City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn by William J. Mitchell (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1995)
In City of Bits, William Mitchell, dean of the architecture school at MIT, describes a new method of teaching, made possible by the wonders of technology. Sitting in his office, with a computer at his fingertips and a video camera trained on him, he works with students around the world. Some are merely in a studio upsatirs, others are in St. Louis, Vancouver, Hong Kong, and upstate New York. Connected via video and the Internet, they design a residential project in Shanghai. The dean marvels at his pedagogical milestone: an "electronically linked virtual community" that negates the issue of "bodily location".
Throughout City of Bits, Mitchell paints an alluring portrait of cyberspace as the new urban realm; the computer escapes its box and weaves itself into the fabric of our daily lives, transforming schools, banks, malls, theaters, prisons, and hospitals. Nothing is sacred. Even the ATM, the one cyber contraption we seem to have gotten used to, may shortly wind up on the slag heap, rendered obsolete by digital currency. In this rapidly approaching world, we shop for groceries at home by strolling down virtual aisles and "pointing and clicking" at the items we want. Our ailments are treated by "itinerant healers...riding the information superhighway." "The online environments of the future," Mitchell writes, "will increasingly resemble traditional cities in their variety of distinct places, in the extent and complexity of 'street networks' and 'transportation systems' linking these places, in their capacity to engage our senses, and thier social and cultural richness."
Mitchell has his reservations. He remarks briefly on the difficult trade-offs faced by poor communities who will have to decide whether to devote scarce resources to parks and community buildings or to computers and high-bandwidth connections. He wholeheartedly rejects the vision of Norman Rockwell-esque electronic cottages, as touted by rabid futurists, while also casting aspirations at the digital dystopia of surveillance and oppression forecast by resolute Luddites.
But for the most part, Mitchell skirts the urban riddle of the twenty-first century: What should be done about real cities when everyone is plugged into cyberspace? For instance, that building in Shanghai he designed with his world-wide students (none of whom were actually in Shanghai): of what benefit is his virtual design community to the real community that will presumably live there someday? Perhaps Mitchell's global design session was just an academic exercise. But one wonders if it is a good thing that buildings can be designed by teams of cyber-architects who have never met one another and may never have visited the site of the project. It would seem that feng shui is pretty difficult to practice over the Internet.
The "urban design" possibilities of the Internet are, of course, fascinating, perhaps too fascinating. The danger is that architects are so struck by this new world that our streets, parks, and public places are robbed of their ideas and imagination. Mitchell agrees, and in response to a series of questions e-mailed to him, he points out the responsibility of architects "to learn to deploy both bricks and bits, in appropriate combination, to meet human needs."