The Electronic Swarm of City and Self

The Electronic Swarm of City and Self

2004-02-29
Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City
William J. Mitchell
Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2003; 259pp $27.05

Jenny Weight reviews William Mitchell’s third book, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City.

There is a tendency to want to be more than human. The fantasies that challenge humanist terms and conditions tend to rely on either technology or magic, but the distinction between technology and magic is often blurred in interesting ways. While William J Mitchell, in Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, is squarely unmagical in the means by which he argues we become cyborgs, the cumulative effects of all that he relates at least skirt wizardry.

This is Mitchell’s third book. [ Marcos Novak reviewed Mitchell’s City of Bits soon after its release in 1995.] Ever since humans started using tools they have been more than human, but the networks that now form an integral part of the worldwide middle class change the ways that we operate to such an extent that they impact our sense of who we are and what we can be. “I construct, and I am constructed, in a mutually recursive process that continually engages my fluid, permeable boundaries and my endlessly ramifying networks. I am a spatially extended cyborg” (39). Because of the networks that permeate and enable our interactions with the world, the extent of our power over the world is no longer contiguous with the reach of our physical bodies. Networks extend our material limits; they also alter the status of the objects we engage with. For example, money ceases to be material and becomes data accessed via terminals, so that we recognize the object as part of a process - a flow of credit and speculation - more readily now than when we just had cash.

Mitchell commences his book by philosophising about boundaries - the layers that separate us from the world. We interface with a layered material world reminiscent of an onion skin. Various types of material barriers dissolve as we gain more devices and networks that allow us to penetrate them. Some of these barriers are more bureaucratic than material; for example, immigration borders are permeable if you happen to be the right sort of person with the right sort of data. As a result, people in networked societies have multiple sets of overlapping relationships (17). Mitchell is more concerned with practical rather than psychological barriers. He does not, for example, suggest ways in which our new devices might surmount emotional distances. Thus, a lot of subtle human relationships escape his gaze.

Because our distributed networks are so new and evolving, Mitchell is obliged to spend a lot of time describing the hardware and software that make them possible. He outlines wireless and G3 (third generation), GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device) systems, and other ideas that have barely left the drawing board. According to Mitchell, GPS and FM (Frequency Modulation) systems “represent the beginnings of an important new relationship between information and inhabited space” (124).

Because of our increasing ability to mate the material world to data about it via a combination of distributed information and portable devices, “physical space is acquiring many of the crucial characteristics of cyberspace” (129). Consequently, data is losing its strange virtual status. Instead we are able to interact with it as our situatedness in the material world requires. Thus, for example, we can determine the availability of car parking spaces enroute to the destination, or check restaurant menus beforehand. This development is freeing us from a dependence on site-specific information and therefore grants us a type of geographical freedom that is reminiscent of nomadic Tasmanian aborigines.

Mitchell’s many examples are not yet common but they are certainly alluring in their possibilities. For example eSuds is a system that allows users to know when the laundry machines are available in a college dorm; while self-made networking such as drug dealers’ and prostitutes’ instant messaging (146) help them meet clients and evade unwanted attention. Divorce by text messaging is also occurring (88). As a result, we are becoming “cyborg foragers navigating through electronically mediated resource fields” (159). Our networked city is changing the relevance and cultural cache of geographical proximity; its ramifications are reaching town planning and architecture, as well as ethics, law enforcement, and law breaking.

In an era of “electronically coordinated swarms” (209), movements of groups of people are coordinated on an ad hoc basis according to changing conditions; thus friends can rearrange group meetings and protestors can evade police barriers. Democracy can be a frightening thing for the authorities who have, in some instances, shut down networks to curtail citizens’ behavior.

Sometimes the cornucopia of Mitchell’s examples makes it difficult to distinguish significant trends from fads. Me++ often has a rather techno-utopian tone. While the techno-utopianism can become a bit exhausting, it gives scope for Mitchell’s best rhetorical prose. At the same time, it occasionally slips into proselytising rather than description or analysis. However the rhetorical flights are some of the more fun parts of the book. He proposes a new tense called the “electronic present continuous,” which allows for near-simultaneous receipt of information regardless of geography (104) in whose grip the Western world currently resides.

Mitchell is trying to tie technological developments to concepts of community and humanity. He discusses Plato’s idea that a functioning community is one in which all members know each other face-to-face (approximately 5000 individuals). Furthermore, he considers Tönnies’ Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), a distinction that he has some sympathy for (206). According to Mitchell, the problem is that “Gemeinschaft does not scale” (206) - that is, the intimacy of the small-scale societies cannot be maintained at the larger scale, and this precisely is the problem for the Internet. Mitchell suggests that we need to find new ways of conceptualising distributed networks without recourse to Tönnies and Plato, but he does himself not go so far as to articulate a new conception. The network is not just a global village; it is a different type of thing (207). We cannot withdraw to unambiguous home territories because now with so many ways of breeching the material boundaries that used to contain us, there are no longer home territories (208).

Me++ is at its weakest when it is trying to come to terms with the political and social implications of distributed networks under the weight of so much diversity and innovation. A certain political blindness is possibly always going to be the bane of a book that deals with emerging systems and behaviours. Perhaps we will need to wait to see whether the networked city “settles down” well enough to be contained within a definitional theoretical framework.

One of the best sections of the book concerns our current global preoccupation - terrorism. Mitchell discusses in interesting and terrifying ways how both terrorists and their pursuers can use distributed networks effectively. The emerging state of globally distributed siege (178) can work at the level of information, as computer viruses attack the Web, and at the level of materiality, as with ongoing terrorist bombings.

The decentralised nature of these networks has served terrorists well. According to Bill Joy (cited in Mitchell 186), we face the possibility of knowledge-enabled mass destruction, and it is not enough to try constructing walls like those erected for the protection of medieval cities. Seige walls now come in flavours of data and software - and announcements by Bill Gates of his intention to wipe out spam.

Can law enforcement compete with the greater mobility that the networks allow?

Unapologetically written in the shadows of the collapse of the twin towers, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City is certainly a book of its time. The question remains as to how well the book will survive what we all hope is a short-term encounter with worldwide terror.

This is a well written, well edited book which throws up many issues that will no doubt receive much more attention. If humans seek to be more than human, perhaps what Mitchell reveals is the extent to which our cyborgian existence paradoxically maintains and confirms our humanity. Whoever we are or become, these paradoxes are an inevitable consequence of what we have always been.