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|When I first picked up City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn
I expected the book to be an attempt to marry the rapidly converging studies
of architecture, urban planning and Internet engineering into a viable
whole. The author, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor William
J. Mitchell, seemed to be the ideal candidate to make the connection as he
is a Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences as well as Dean
of the School of Architecture and Planning.
Instead of undertaking such an ambitious goal, Mitchell surveyed architecture and the Internet's interrelationships in much less detail. Chapters 4 and 5, entitled "Recombinant Architecture" and "Soft Cities", do look at some urban planning and architectural issues but, unfortunately for the Internet-savvy reader, there is no new analysis of how those principles might be applied to the virtual landscape. The same critique holds for the rest of the book -- Mitchell consistently follows a superficial "this is how it is, this is how it could change" approach for every emerging application from telemedicine to electronic cash but does not go into appreciable depth on any of them.
So what does the book have going for it? Its breadth, for one. Once I got beyond my preconception of what the author was trying to accomplish City of Bits made a lot more sense. Rather than producing a treatise on designing electronic spaces, Mitchell appears to have set out to inform readers of the multitude of Internet-related applications in use or on the way and to introduce the concept of examining those phenomena in light of an architectural and urban planning paradigm.
Another big advantage of City of Bits is that it only costs US$10 as a paperback. At a time when trade paperbacks can run US$16.95 and up, the low price point makes the book ideal for readers looking for an inexpensive introduction to how the Internet and other telecommunications networks could change our lives.
I do have some problem with Mitchell's writing style, which is a bit too breezy for my taste. The pages slipped by quickly, but I'm not sure how much of the material I would have retained if I had not been exposed to many of the concepts beforehand.
Nonetheless, City of Bits and its companion Web site are a worthwhile read for relatively new Internet users or, perhaps more to the point, students in introductory "computers and society" courses where the elementary lessons presented could be reinforced by supplemental readings and lectures.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.