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Urban Geography

ISSN: 0272-3638 (Print) 1938-2847 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rurb20

City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn.


William J. Mitchell; Emerging World Cities in Pacific
Asia. Fu-chen Lo and Yue-man Yeung, editors

Michael W. Longan & Peter O. Muller

To cite this article: Michael W. Longan & Peter O. Muller (1998) City of Bits: Space, Place, and
the Infobahn. William J. Mitchell; Emerging World Cities in Pacific Asia. Fu-chen Lo and Yue-man
Yeung, editors, Urban Geography, 19:2, 186-188, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.19.2.186

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.19.2.186

Published online: 16 May 2013.

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BOOK REVIEWS

City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. William J. Mitchell. MIT Press, Cam-
bridge, MA, 1996. 223 pp., photos, diagrams, notes, index. $10.00 paper.

Reviewed by Michael W. Longan, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Geographers are only just starting to theorize and study the emerging phenomenon of cyber-
space. City of Bits, however, is one of the few works about cyberspace that goes beyond the simple
hope that in the future, geographylike race, gender, and agewon't matter because of communi-
cation technology. The author, William Mitchell, Dean of Architecture and Planning at MIT, shows
that cyberspace does indeed have a geographic dimension and imagines a role for architects in
designing and constructing it. In fact, he argues that because electronically mediated environments
will increasingly affect one's well-being in numerous ways, deliberate attention should be paid to
the creation and design of such environments (p. 5). Although, at times, it tends toward the hyper-
bolic attitude that we will all be living in a computer-generated virtual reality, one of the most
interesting aspects of the book is that it recognizes and explores the connections between virtual and
physical spaces. For instance, City of Bits starts with the image of technicians installing fiber-optic
cable. As any good book about cyberspace should do, Mitchell reminds his readers that virtual
geographies are made possible only because someone has engaged in the (literally) dirty work of
putting wires in the ground.
The stated purpose of the book is to "reimagine architecture and urbanism" in the context of
advances in communications and computing technologies (p. 5). Thus, each chapter of the book is
logically organized into sections that compare traditional architectural and urban forms with what
Mitchell sees as their virtual versions. For instance, in a section titled "Banking Chambers/ATMs,"
he notes that whereas banking used to take place in a specialized building divided into even more
specialized spaces designed for different banking functions (e.g., the Five Pound Note Office),
today such functions are taken care of by software in "soft-banks" where mainframes residing in
nondescript buildings mediate financial transactions 24 hours a day (p. 78). Much of the time,
Mitchell's re-imaginings are simply discussions of currently existing technologies and extrapola-
tions about what will come in the future. While this makes the book an engaging introduction to all
things cyberspatial, the architectures and urbanisms that Mitchell "imagines" for the most part do
not radically differ from those that are currently being built. While helpful, the separation among
sections sometimes gets in the way and many times there is a lack of connection from one section
to another that can be a bit disorienting. It is not until the very last chapter that a coherent outline of
what Mitchell imagines for the future is made explicit.
The first two introductory chapters contain some interesting propositions concerning the geog-
raphy of cyberspace. For instance, Mitchell draws a parallel between location determining land
value and band width determining the value of a network connection. Moving beyond metaphor, he
suggests that band width may help to determine land value because access to information will be
greater in places where the infrastructure is more developed, including business parks, universities,
and teleports.
The middle three chapters move from the scale of the body to the scale of buildings and finally
to the scale of the city. Chapter 3, "Cyborg Citizens," focuses on the body and illustrates the ways
in which technology operates as an extension of the human body and senses. Chapter 4, "Recombi-
nant Architecture," makes comparisons between traditional architectural technologies and their vir-
tual offspring.
Chapter 5 ("Soft Cities") and Chapter 6 ("The Bit Biz") will be of greatest interest to urban
geographers. "Soft Cities" compares traditional urban formations, including neighborhoods and
street networks, for example, to what Mitchell sees as their virtual versionsMUDs (Multi-User

186
Urban Geography, 1998, 19, 2, pp. 186-188.
Copyright 1998 by V. H. Winston & Son, Inc. All rights reserved.
BOOK REVIEWS 187

Dungeons) and the World Wide Web. Two main foci of this chapter are the formation of virtual
communities and public and private cyberspace issues. Rather than uncritically promoting virtual
public spaces as a substitute for traditional physical public spaces, Mitchell addresses the question
of how the two kinds of public space relate to each other. Chapter 6, "The Bit Biz," contains a brief
look at the political economy of cyberspace, with discussions of topics ranging from electronic com-
merce and the dissolution of traditional political boundaries to the discussion of electronic democ-
racy. The last chapter, "Getting to the Good Bits," concludes the book with a few warnings about the
necessity to take an active part in making decisions about the kind of cyberspatial environments
"we" want to live with, and a generally optimistic statement about the opportunities that electronic
communications will offer in the future.
Overall, City of Bits is a useful contribution to the emerging study of the geography of electronic
communication. Though it sometimes reads much like any other trendy book or magazine article on
cyberspace, City of Bits considers electronic communications technologies in their geographical and
historical context and, as a result, generates some new, if a bit underdeveloped, theoretical ideas. The
method of comparison and contrast between traditional geographic and architectural forms and their
virlual counterparts is very productive at times. For example, the use of the metaphor of company
towns to describe commercial on-line systems (pp. 160-161) seems right on target. Unfortunately,
Mitchell sometimes does not take these comparisons far enough and does not ask if there are more
than just parallels or metaphorical connections among the analog and digital worlds he discusses.
Moreover, he occasionally forgets to question the extent to which the geographical metaphors he
uses do not adequately describe the virtual phenomena addressed. For instance, in a section entitled
"Neighborhoods/MUDs," Mitchell argues that MUDsusually text-based environments where a
large number of people interact with each other and their "environment" in real timeare the cyber-
space equivalents of neighborhoods (p. 118). While MUDs may have some of the qualities of an
ideal neighborhood in that they are spaces in which neighbors interact on a regular basis, the differ-
ences are perhaps greater than the similarities. MUDs do not capture some of the necessarily physi-
cal properties of neighborhoods, including the fact that you often cannot avoid seeing or interacting
with your neighbors occasionally, whereas people interacting in MUDs can opt out of their "neigh-
borhoods" with very little effort. It might have been more interesting for this section to examine the
ways in which neighborhood groups use computer networks to organize and communicate with
neighbors and the rest of the world, and in doing so anchor his City of Bits to the City of Bricks.
What kinds of electronically mediated environments will neighbors collectively use and how should
they be designed for the future? While the book is cognizant of the interdependence between phys-
ical spaces and virtual spaces, Mitchell sometimes floats off into the digital ether of cyberspace and
forgets its analog referent.
Another criticism is that much of the book is written in the future tense. As a Professor of Archi-
tecture at MIT, Mitchell might be in a position to predict the future, but such language sets up a sense
of inevitability that undermines his argument that "we" need to work to imagine what kinds of elec-
tronically mediated environments "we" want to live in. Going a bit deeper, he starts with the assump-
tion that "we" will be living in electronically mediated environments and does not always question
the extent to which "we" should be living in the kinds of environments that he imagines for "us."
Finally, his imagination does not seem to extend beyond the scale of the individual city. He might
have included an additional chapter on the relationships among cities, including the relationships
and comparisons of cities or regions that are more connected than others. What will it mean if some
people live in electronically mediated environments and others do not? It seems that the "we" of his
audience are those who are already hooked up to the Internet. Despite these criticisms, City of Bits
is an engaging introduction to architectural and geographical issues in electronic communication. It
introduces numerous creative ideas and poses suggestive questions about the relationships between
place, space, and new communication technology.
188 BOOK REVIEWS

City of Bits as a whole, or selections of several of its more geographically focused chapters,
would certainly be appropriate reading for an undergraduate urban geography course. Mitchell
writes accessibly and consistently illustrates his points with examples. One additional feature that
makes it especially attractive for use in the classroom is the fact that the entire text of the book has
been placed on the World Wide Web by MIT Press (htt://www.mitpress.mit.edu'City_of_Bits/).
This is a convenient way of having students read some of the more geographically focused sections
without necessarily having them purchase the whole book, if they have adequate access to the Web.
The on-line book also has the added advantage of hypertext links to additional resources on the
Internet throughout the text. Accompanying the e-text is an expanded list of hyperlinks to electronic
resources as well as a Web-based discussion forum about the book, in which the author sometimes
chimes in. The printed version is, of course, much easier to handle and accepts the ink of a pen much
better than a computer monitor. City of Bits is also worthwhile reading for researchers interested in
the increasingly mediated geographies in which some of us, at least, find ourselves immersed.

CAPSULE REVIEW

Emerging World Cities in Pacific Asia. Fu-chen Lo and Yue-man Yeung, editors.
United Nations University Press, Tokyo-New York-Paris, 1996. xxiv + 528 pp., maps,
diagrams, notes, refs., index. $35.00 paper, ISBN 92-808-0907-5.

This compendium is one of the products of the United Nations University Programme on Mega-
cities and Urban Development, which focused on the growth and management of giant metropolitan
complexes in regard to growth patterns, demographic and economic processes, and social, eco-
nomic, and environmental consequences. The first study, Mega-City Growth and the Future, was
published in 1994 and examined these urban agglomerations on a global level. In 1997, it was fol-
lowed by three regional surveysthis volume, The Mega-City in Latin America, and Urban Chal-
lenge in Africa: The Growth and Management of Its Large Cities. A planned study of Tokyo will
close the series. Following a concise editorial introduction to Emerging World Cities in Pacific Asia,
Part I covers the Asia-Pacific region's functional linkages in chapters by the editors and P. Rimmer.
Part II treats the region's changing system of world cities, with chapters by scholars whose home
bases are in Tokyo (J. Takahashi and N. Sugiura), Seoul (S. Hong), Taiwan (H. Tsai), China (A. Yeh
and X. Xu), the Philippines (O. Solon), Bangkok (M. Krongkaew), Malaysia (L. Thong), and
Jakarta (B. Soegijoko). The final triad of chapters deals with "borderless cities" and includes the
Singapore-Johore-Riau Growth Triangle (S. Macleod and T. G. McGee), the Hong Kong-Zhujiang
Delta megalopolis (D. Chu), and the evolving urban system of Northeast Asia (S.-C. Choe). A great
deal of current information is effectively presented in this attractively priced volume, which imme-
diately becomes a basic introduction to urbanization trends in this dynamic region.

Peter O. Muller