William J. Mitchell. E-Topia: "Urban Life, Jim--But Not As We Know It!". Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999. 184 pp. $22.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-262-13355-5.
Reviewed by Seymour J. Mandelbaum (Department of City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-Urban (April, 2000)
A Dean's Memo
Bill Mitchell is Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. In 1995 the MIT Press published his lively account of the City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn and (in 1999) the current volume with the charming Star Trek sub-title. In between those two volumes, Mitchell has served as co-editor of a collection of conference papers on High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology (Schon, Sanyal, and Mitchell, eds. 1998) and an intriguing 1997 report on the uses of educational technologies at MIT. Taken together, the four texts may be read as a (quite extraordinary) memorandum to the members of Mitchell's faculty and to the professions they serve. The straightforward message of the memorandum is to attend with care and imagination to both the promises and the dangers of an emergent digital revolution superimposing a "global construction of high-speed telecommunications links, smart places, and increasingly indispensable software" upon the local fabric of buildings, neighborhoods, towns and cities. (p.7) The less straightforward (and only implicitly argued) message is that the design professions matter greatly in the creation of "lean, green cities that are smarter, not harder" (p. 147).
Conceptions of time and history play an important role in each of the four texts and are particularly striking in the complex theme announced on the book jacket of E-topia. A space vehicle approaches the western hemisphere at night. Just as they appear in satellite photographs, urban regions are marked by clusters of light. The voice of the sub-title -- presumably that of the irreverent Dr.McCoy -- announces: "URBAN LIFE, JIM - BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT!"
The jacket describes an artificial present within which the book struggles to link past and future; knowledge and value. The clusters of light on a dark landscape are, of course, the way we "know" cities now from satellite or space shuttle photographs. Dr. McCoy is not, however, taken in by the appearance of stability. Mitchell -- thanking Harvey Perloff and Charles Moore -- has learned "what cities are really for" (p.181). It is that abiding knowledge of "urban life" that allows the voyagers on the Enterprise -- and the author -- to see change in an overtly stable city facade; to contrast what they see with what they "know" rather than with what they "knew."
New information systems are characteristically designed by disentangling thin communication processes and practices from the thick social interactions in which they are embedded. Once isolated, communication flows and processes can be rearranged, enhancing the capacity of networks and reducing the cost of information. (In this way, for example, stories told and remembered in a conversational circle are transcribed in written texts that can be read in private and stored in libraries.) If the design professions pay attention to the new information technologies, Mitchell tells us, they will understand and act upon the fundamental notion that thin communication processes, whatever their technical capacities, will wither on the vine if they are not reintegrated into thick patterns of interaction. That is the lesson repeated over and over again in the failure of "merely" technological attempts to "fix" education or to "empower" the residents of low income neighborhoods. Facing the skewed literary tropes of apocalyptic warning and millennial enthusiasm, Mitchell tells his readers:
The time and the fashion for breathless, the-world-is-new, anything is possible rhetoric have passed . And it turns out that we face neither millennium-any-day-now nor its mirror image, apocalypse-real-soon. Instead, we have been presented with the messy, difficult, long-term task of designing and building for our future and making some critical social choices as we do sounder permanently changed, postrevolutionary conditions (p. 29).
The stock market and the business press fasten our attention on the competition between information systems and providers. There is, however, a more complex and portentous competition to master --Mitchell's messy task. How (and by whom) will new information systems be assimilated into institutions and practices; domesticated in place and community?
Established patterns of interaction -- if they are at all open to innovation -- have significant advantages as integrative settings. Their conventional practices simplify the articulation of uncertainties and limit the domain of choice. We don't, for example, have to reinvent universities in order to extend distance learning; to change our housing patterns to accommodate intelligent highways. It is little wonder ( as Mitchell and others have repeatedly observed) that a great deal of new wine is contained in old bottles and that Schumpeterian gales leave many old trees standing. In Mitchell's terms: despite dramatic changes in communication, distance does not die, space does not end, and virtual reality does not transform "just about everything" (p. 27).
Mitchell does not attempt to embed his evocative plea for the attention of designers in an extended historical narrative. Here and there, however, he looks back in time in order to look forward. He constructs pasts that allow him to recognize the ways in which new information systems have interacted with the built forms of cities and the dynamics of urban life. Those pasts then are important in designing what he calls "soft transformations" that are promised to be less jarring than the destruction of manufacturing districts in many American cities in the last half of the twentieth century (pp. 153-155).
I am intrigued by the book and delighted by its dismissal of both apocalyptic and millennial tropes. I miss, however, an account of Mitchell's enemies. Are architects, urban designers, and planners troops waiting to be mobilized or are they -- or the ways they work -- Mitchell's adversaries? Where do the two-ton elephants sit? Who defines "what cities are for" on the ground?
Other works by William J. Mitchell
William J. Mitchell. City of Bits : Science, Place, and the Infobahn (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
William J. Mitchell and Micahel L. Dertouzos, ed. Report of the MIT Educational Technology Council July 1997. (http://web.mit.edu/committees/councils/edtech/EdTechTOC.htm.).
Donald A. Schon, Bish Sanyal, and William J. Mitchell, eds. High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospectss for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).
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Seymour J. Mandelbaum. Review of Mitchell, William J., E-Topia: "Urban Life, Jim--But Not As We Know It!".
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