Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The City of Bits Hypothesis, William J. Mitchell, 1999

Mitchell writes in his introduction that historians have engaged in the endless question as to the impact of technology on society. Is technology responsible for social and cultural construction? Or, is it that we create technology and then our technology changes us which in turn changes our society?

Mitchell considers what he calls the new economy of presence which he describes as the option of synchronous or asynchronous communication through telepresence [electronically mediated communication] or presence that is face-to-face. Presence choice occurs when an individual decides whether face-to-face presence is worth the time and money. Mitchell believes that people solve this problem of presence based on the context and circumstances. As technology progresses our choices are influenced by availability, reduced cost and quality, which Mitchell says creates a sort of competition for, “…our attention, our business and our loyalties.”(p. 6)

Although Mitchell’s initial discussion focused on technology and mediated or non-mediated presence, he quickly shows the reader how presence affects geographical and cultural contexts. People used to visit banks to deposit checks and cash through face-to-face non-mediated presence. The advent of ATM machines made it possible to forego any face-to-face presence. ATMs were conveniently located and open 24 hours a day. The loss of branch banks due to the rise in ATMS has had a profound effect on neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods that are then cut off from access to banking services.

Similar shifts have occurred in news, as it moved initially from face-to-face, to print, to radio and television and then eventually to internet. Entertainment has been affected as well through a shift from live performances in theaters, clubs and sports to time shifted reception, recording, remote audio and video and now downloading entertainment from the internet. Retail has experienced shifts as well from traditional stores, vending machines, telemarketing and online malls.

Medical services delivery has experienced a shift in presence as well. High bandwidth networks now allow for imaging, monitoring and telerobotic devices that reduce the need for face-to-face presence between a doctor and his/her patient. I would add that telepresence also allows individuals from remote areas to receive health care when it may not have been possible in the past.

Safety and security have experienced similar shifts. Telecommunication has opened up the possibilities of remote surveillance which combined with remotely controlled security devices, fire alarms, car theft alarms and even defensive booby traps have changed the way safety and security services work.

According to Mitchell, the digital revolution is likely to have significant effects on the workplace, because technology has made it possible to telecommute, live further away from work, and conduct work in hotels, on airplanes and in airports, which impacts how these areas are designed. Businesses have reduced their need of permanent, private offices in lieu of electronically connected satellite offices that can be located in lower rent areas or in suburban areas where their workforce is located. As a result there is a much greater separation between management and production functions.

The separation of geographical space has been positively affected by the digital explosion by allowing people with specific expertise to work together via the internet and file sharing, no matter where they are located. But, regardless of the positives, Mitchell says there are multiple and sometimes conflicting consequences for the use of technology. Certain cities such as New York, London have become global cities due to their high concentrations of talent, computer and telecommunications technology. Global cities, according to Mitchell, play worldwide control and command roles

Mitchell questions how new technology and telecommuting could change the way we use our homes, whether we will require more space or a greater division or differentiation of space for the home office, media/entertainment, video gaming and etc.. Mitchell believes that if significant jobs shift from central office and commercial and industrial locations to residential neighborhoods, it will result in one of two scenarios. The positive scenario is that there may be opportunities to, “…create cohesive, small scale, pedestrian-oriented or bicycle-oriented neighborhoods that combine lively local social interaction and neighborhood service centers with electronic access to a much wider world of jobs and services.” (p.19) Mitchell’s negative scenario is that a shift could create walled, enclaves of privilege that lack social and cultural diversity as well as a mix of income levels.

In this changing digital world, Mitchell argues that we have to consider the virtual places as well as the physical ones, because the physical world and the virtual world are not as separate as one might believe. Our hybrid structures of real estate and virtual places are held together by a linkage of transportation and telecommunication. If we keep these observations in mind, we can develop a new urban typology that combines the completely traditional and place-based communities and all that they entail as well as fully virtual communities. Mitchell concludes on a positive but cautionary note when he says the digital revolution, like the agricultural and industrial revolution before it, opens up new possibilities for urban form and organization.

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