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Return to the review by Harvey Blume.


Previously in Digital Culture:

"The Unacknowledged Legislators of the Digital World," by Charles C. Mann (December 15, 1999)
In his new book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig offers a disconcerting vision of the Net's future. Too disconcerting, objects our reviewer. Plus, an e-mail exchange between Lessig and Atlantic Unbound editor Wen Stephenson.

"Exquisite Source," by Harvey Blume (August 12, 1999)
Heads turned in June when the Linux operating system was awarded first prize by the judges of an international art festival. How far, one wonders, can the open source model go?

"With Liberty and Justice for Me," by Mark Dery (July 22, 1999)
Is the Internet giving ordinary people more control over their lives? An e-mail exchange with Andrew L. Shapiro, the author of The Control Revolution.

"Bits of Beauty," by Harvey Blume (June 3, 1999)
Yes, it's art. Now what is there to say about it? An assessment of the first-ever Cyberarts Festival in Boston, where art criticism is forced to play catch-up with technology.

"The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
The recording industry may indeed have something to worry about. If the much-talked-about digital format (or something like it) catches on, we could be carried back into our musical and cultural past.

See the complete Digital Culture index.


More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
From Here to E-topia

An interview with William Mitchell, the author of e-topia: "Urban Life, Jim -- But Not As We Know It"

January 13, 2000

William Mitchell
William Mitchell

Harvey Blume: What has changed since City of Bits?

William Mitchell: When I wrote City of Bits, the Web didn't really exist. It was beginning. But what we've seen since then is tremendous development. A lot of things I was writing about in City of Bits were predictions, essentially, of things that are ancient history now.

HB: You conceptualize the future in terms of the expanded role of information; that is, most of what we will be doing will be mediated by information.

WM: The perspective I've developed quite strongly in e-topia is that we need to think of the digital telecommunications infrastructure as continuing with the imposition on cities of different kinds of network infrastructures that began with road systems and water-supply systems and went through railway systems and electrical grids and the telephone. Each one of these systems enhances the capacity of the places they serve and enables more functions to be performed at those locations. That, in turn, restructures the overall organization. I've called this a process of fragmentation and recombination.

As a result, you see contradictory things happening at once. In retailing, for example, you get decentralization of the browsing and purchasing functions. Those functions used to be within a store and now fragment and recombine with domestic space. At exactly the same time, to achieve economies of scale, the distribution functions tend to centralize -- so you get big warehouses. You get neither rampant centralization nor rampant decentralization but a complicated process of fragmentation and recombination.

HB: What's your relationship with the Media Lab?

WM: My academic appointment is jointly in architecture and media, so I cross those lines. And Nicholas Negroponte and I are old friends, going back about thirty years. I think my point of view is very consistent with the position being developed by a lot of folks in the Media Lab. We have to look at the ways that the digital world affects the physical world and the physical world affects the digital world.

There was a way of thinking a few years back that went along the lines of virtualization of everything. It doesn't work that way. It's clear that the relationship of digital and physical is much more complicated.

HB: You write about how, even in relationship to something like steel, the amount and value of information involved in making it has increased.

WM: If you look at any kind of product these days an increasing proportion of its value is intellectual property. It's the know-how that goes into it, it's the design, in many cases it's the actual embedded software. It used to be materials and labor. Now a very large proportion of any product is intellectual content and intellectual property.

HB: So far as business models go, you'd say that the accent would be not on the commodity itself but on the information added.

WM: Businesses always have traded on information-added, but they're adding the information in a different way now. It used to be that you'd go to a traditional bookstore, maybe still do in some contexts, and you would rely on the expertise of the person behind the counter, somebody who really knows and loves books. This information-rich environment supports what seems to be a rather simple process of selecting and buying a book. What companies like Amazon have to do is construct a similar information periphery. Online previews and recommendations are essentially aimed at creating the same sort of periphery that exists in physical settings.

HB: You point out that the attraction of some business settings is that they are physical, not virtual.

WM: The restaurant is the classic example. Obviously it is possible to order food on the Web and have it delivered by some kid on a bike, but that's not the same thing as going to a restaurant. The reason you go to a restaurant is to experience a particular place in the company of particular people you want to be in that experience with. Restaurants are not going to disappear. We may see a huge expansion of food delivery methods, but the fundamental thing about a restaurant is the attraction of a particular place.

HB: So to compete with an Amazon, for example, physical bookstores have to have much more presence than they used to.

WM: The places that are really unique and authentic probably are going to do okay. I don't think Shakespeare & Company, in Paris, is going to disappear. Things that are authentically unique cannot be replicated in virtual reality. What I think are going to get squeezed out are places that have neither the authenticity of a place like Shakespeare's nor anything like the efficiency of Amazon.

HB: Places like malls are going to disappear?

WM: I wouldn't go so far as to say disappear; almost nothing ever disappears. But the two ways to compete are either to exploit the efficiencies of the virtual world or to exploit the essential character of a particular place. If you do neither, you're in serious trouble, it seems to me.

You can see it with food, too. Lots of people like myself and my wife work very hard. We use things like HomeRuns to buy our commodities because it's efficient and you can do it at two in the morning. Then we end up using some of our scarce weekend leisure time to go to the fancy cheese store or the fancy wine store, because that's a sensual experience -- it's fun to do, and you're likely to meet some of your friends there. What gets squeezed out of my own life -- and I have no regrets about it at all -- is going to the supermarket the traditional way; that's gone.

HB: So in the future you won't have to stand in line as much?

WM: Yes. If you can eliminate anything that involves standing in line, people are going to be really happy. I love to go talk to my wine merchant because I learn something every time and it's fun. I hate going to the Department of Motor Vehicles and having that sort of interaction. I'll pay higher prices, I'll spend some of my very scarce face-to-face time talking to the local wine merchant whom I happen to like, but I won't go wait in line.

HB: You're talking about a more customized reality. But doesn't that mean the division between the wired and the unwired is going to be even more serious than it is already and become a cognitive as well as a class division? It seems like those two groups, the wired and unwired, will speak increasingly different languages.

WM: The reason to identify a problem like that is to figure out what to do about it, not just to let it happen. That's one of the real urban design challenges. If you look at some of the really successful wired people in the world, the bright young software people in California, for example, you find they don't want to be in places like San Jose, they want to be in San Francisco's South Park. And that's because of the social character of the place. It's absolutely amazing what's happened south of Market and around South Park, particularly in the last several years. Old industrial warehouse space is being turned into urban dwellings. And the park is kind of alive again, and the streets are kind of alive. It's a twenty-four-hour neighborhood, not a bedroom suburb. If you're going to be a teleworker, working at home, you don't want to be sitting in a room, staring at the wall all the time. You want an intense local environment where you can step outside and meet somebody, go to a restaurant, deal with day-care and elderly care and all those sorts of issues.

HB: That's nice if you're in the new wired class, but again it seems like it excludes a whole lot of others.

WM: It's more complicated. That elite population of information-world professionals generates a tremendous demand for traditional kinds of services -- cleaners, waiters, gardeners, everything that requires hands-on work. So the real urban design issue becomes how do you make the right kind of mix? How can you get a diverse community where the different fragments overlap and intersect? Let's take the most extreme negative example, Aspen, where the old joke is the billionaires are forcing out the millionaires. The telecommuter population generates a gigantic demand for service work so there's another Aspen down the road, where the folks who wash the floors live. That's an image of exactly how not to build.

One of the oldest urban design principles in the book is you put policies in place precisely to get diversity in the neighborhood. You make provision for lower-income housing, you provide the services. You make these things happen because the market won't make these things happen by itself.

HB: And the cognitive gap between wired and unwired?

WM: Well, everybody knows that kids take to computer culture like fish to water. I've also observed, and this is rather more surprising, that the elderly jump into it, too, because they have time on their hands, a certain amount of leisure. Retirees have been amazingly active in jumping into the digital world.

The folks who get disconnected, and we see it to a certain extent around MIT, are people who are at the height of their careers and very much invested in doing things the way they know how. They can easily get cut off.

HB: You're an architect. What drew you to thinking about digitalization?

WM: A couple of things. One is I've always felt very clearly that architecture should be defined in broad terms. Architects are concerned about producing systems of one kind or another, and whether we do it with bricks and mortar or telecommunications and software is fairly irrelevant.

What you need is an idea of how intellectual work can be done in a cooperative way. In the eighteenth century it would have been an ideal academic village -- something like Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. But in the twentieth century we have communication protocols. You can construct large and complex cooperative enterprises from the bottom up rather than from the top down. The incredible power of the Web is that it provides a rather simple way for millions and millions of individual efforts to add up to something much larger. That's the genius of the vision behind it. And that changes the way the intellectual and academic worlds work because it provides a beautiful mechanism for aggregating intellectual property or intellectual capital from the bottom up.

HB: You want to position yourself as a realist. But is the name of the book -- e-topia, so much like utopia -- closer to your vision?

WM: If you go back to the Greek, you find that "topia" is a neutral term that literally means place. When you bring in a prefix, you can get "dystopia," which means bad place, or "utopia," literally good place. What I do in the title is rather carefully construct a diagnostic position which is neither of those places. It's an electronically mediated place. Plus, I get to poke some fun at e-commerce and e-everything.

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Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review.

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