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Lawrence ChuaComprehensive, coherent, and often cute, E-topia is a good primer for anyone interested in how we are going to inhabit the digital era.
The global digital network is not just a delivery system for email, Web pages, and digital television. It is a whole new urban infrastructure—one that will change the forms of our cities as dramatically as railroads, highways, electric power supply, and telephone networks did in the past. In this lucid, invigorating book, William J. Mitchell examines this new infrastructure and its implications for our future daily lives.Picking up where his best-selling City of Bits left off,Mitchell argues that we must extend the definitions of architecture and urban design to encompass virtual places as well as physical ones, and interconnection by means of telecommunication links as well as by pedestrian circulation and mechanized transportation systems. He proposes strategies for the creation of cities that not only will be sustainable but will make economic, social, and cultural sense in an electronically interconnected and global world. The new settlement patterns of the twenty-first century will be characterized by live/work dwellings, 24-hour pedestrian-scale neighborhoods rich in social relationships, and vigorous local community life, complemented by far-flung configurations of electronic meeting places and decentralized production, marketing, and distribution systems. Neither digiphile nor digiphobe, Mitchell advocates the creation of e-topias—cities that work smarter, not harder.
No surprise there. Tourism already is a huge economic force in many of the world's great cities, and it's not uncommon for municipalities to reconstruct their downtown and waterfront areas specifically to appeal to visitors. Marshall McLuhan had it right. "The city no longer exists," he wrote way back in 1967, "except as a cultural ghost for tourists."
William J. Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and well-known author of City of Bits, begins his latest book with McLuhan's doleful words. In e-topia, which for some reason he chose not to capitalize, he offers a maddeningly arch, if usefully broad, perspective on how the networked world will change our lives.
Mitchell shows admirable restraint in resisting the impulse to prophesy about vast changes predetermined by technology rather than human actions or decisions. What he does see is an age, not very far into the future, when distributed computing animates the world around us in ways it would have been difficult to imagine a generation ago. Carry your palmtop into a museum and get information on everything you see just by pointing at it. Or aim a device at a malfunctioning engine, diagnose the problem and then summon a tow truck.
Mitchell believes the coming ubiquity of computer intelligence (represented today by the Internet) has powerful implications for markets, as well. Prices for electricity, for instance, could be updated dynamically, and the average household could intelligently meter its own power consumption.
Such superefficient, time-sensitive pricing might be most effective for digitized information. "Dynamic pricing of network-distributed digital information, based on its timeliness and relevance in specific contexts, provides one possible solution to problems created by the collapse of the intellectual property' approach to controlling and marketing information," Mitchell writes.
Even when he's making sense, Mitchell's hyperkinetic prose can be exasperating. At one point, for example, he criticizes people who proclaim the death of distance, "as some cybersmitten hypesters hyperbolically have." And despite the author's considerable learning, it dawns on you about three-quarters through this short book that he doesn't have much new to say. Most disappointing of all, he spends relatively little time on the subject he so tantalizingly dangles before us at the outset: What is the future of the city in the age of the Net?
My own experience may have some bearing here. I am a child of the city, but I now live among cows, cornfields and other like-minded citizens who've jumped off the treadmill of modern life. It's cheap and gorgeous here in rural upstate New York, and thanks to e-mail and the Web, I can make the same tenuous living I used to eke out in the heart of Los Angeles.
I'm not the only one, of course. On our street, a marketing consultant works from home on behalf of giant corporations. His wife designs furniture. Another neighbor works as a freelance book editor. There isn't much indigenous economic activity here, so it's probably good news for the area that people like us have arrived to funnel in money from somewhere else.
But I seem to spend more and more of it on the Net. Recently I spurned a $4,700 bid to install lightning rods on my house. Instead I found a guy on the Web in Arizona, as if that mattered who sold me everything I needed for $750. I spent another $300 on labor, and the lightning will never know the difference.
Living where I do, far from most things, the Internet continually astonishes with me its usefulness. The edition of the New York Times I get doesn't have late baseball scores, so of course I turn to Nytimes.com. There's no big bookstore nearby, but millions of volumes are available via the Web.
Then again, we Americans have been fleeing our cities for decades long before the Internet made it so easy to relocate to the boondocks. We never really liked or trusted cities in the first place, and the urban blight of crime and social disorganization that emerged in the 1960s, along with the spread of universal driving and laissez-faire land-use policies, made it possible for practically the entire country, by the turn of the millennium, to go suburban.
Shopping, jobs and most everything else soon followed. In a sense, the Internet as a distributed medium is really only following the patterns of settlement and preference that Americans established long ago in their government, their housing and their preeminent choice of transportation (automobiles). In fact, the Internet is only the latest of many technologies the railroad, telegraph, telephone, modern highway that have ultimately promoted dispersal. It just happens to appear at a time when, in most of the world, people are descending on overcrowded cities that are ill-equipped to assimilate them.
Yet I can't predict an exodus to the hinterlands. Citicorp moved its credit card operations to South Dakota some years ago, but the rest of us still want proximity to cities.
And as much as we all supposedly pine for old-fashioned community, it's a let-down to hear from Mitchell that, "One promising strategy, then, is to pursue the development of polycentric cities composed of compact, multifunctional, pedestrian-scale neighborhoods interconnected by efficient transportation and telecommunication links."
Of course this is a promising strategy. Planners, architects and thinkers generally have been advocating it for years. Whether it can happen in car-crazy America, where strip malls and subdivisions long ago replaced the congenial patterns of development that came before the automobile, is doubtful, although the current backlash against sprawl is a hopeful sign.
Cities previously thrived first of all by exploiting natural resources or great locations, and then by building on their economic advantages to attract talent and capital. Now that people, capital and production are increasingly mobile, what will enable urban centers to thrive in the Internet era?
Mitchell rightly suggests that in the future, cities may succeed simply by being nice places that are strongly attractive to talented people places offering "pleasant and stimulating local environments, high-quality educational and medical services, and sufficiently flexible transportation infrastructures and building stocks to accommodate rapidly reconfiguring patterns of activity."
Personally, I'd put my money on college towns, which have considerable cultural, medical and intellectual resources without many of the disadvantages of city life. Many colleges are already heavily wired for the networked future.
Also, don't forget weather. Americans, at least, want to be warm. Places like Palo Alto hardly a city at all to a hardened New Yorker like me may be the best we can hope for in the new age of the Internet. But God knows there are worse things. Remember, Las Vegas is booming, too.
-Daniel Akst writes frequently about business and technology. He is the author of St. Burl's Obituary, a novel.
Marshall McLuhan, 1967: "The city no longer exists, except as a cultural ghost for tourists."
Yes, yes, I know; it's a familiar trope—death of God, death of the subject, death of the author, death of the drive-in, end of history, exhaustion of science, whatever. But he turned out to be right—though a few decades ahead of his time, as usual.
It's finally flatlining. The city—as understood by urban theorists from Plato and Aristotle to Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs—can no longer hang together and function as it could in earlier times. It's due to bits; they've done it in. Traditional urban patterns cannot coexist with cyberspace.
But long live the new, network-mediated metropolis of the digital electronic era.
* The First Mourner's Eulogy
DOA at Y2K! Whatever happened to the city as we know it?
I'll tell the tale.
Long ago, there was a desert village with a well at its center. The houses clustered within the distance that a jar of water could comfortably be carried. In the cool of the evening the people came to the well to collect the next day's supply of water, and they lingered there to exchange gossip and conduct business with one another. The well supplied a scarce and necessary resource, and in doing so also became the social center—the gathering place that held the community together.
Then the piped water supply came. Who could deny the practical advantages? It was more convenient, and kids nolonger got cholera. Population grew, and the village expanded into a large town, since houses could be supplied with water wherever the pipes could run.
Dwellings no longer had to concentrate themselves in the old center. And the people ceased to gather at the well, since they could get water anytime, anyplace. So the space around the wellhead lost its ancient communal function, and the people invented some new, more up-to-date and specialized sites for socializing—a piazza, a market, and a cafe.
History replays—this time because the information supply system has changed. Once, we had to go places to do things; we went to work, we went home, we went to the theater, we went to conferences, we went to the local bar—and sometimes we just went out. Now we have pipes for bits—high-capacity digital networks to deliver information whenever and wherever we want it. These allow us to do many things without going anywhere. So the old gathering places no longer attract us. Organizations fragment and disperse. Urban centers cannot hold. Public life seems to be slipping away.
Take something as simple but telling as a day at the races. Before telecommunications, this involved traveling to the racecourse, mixing with punters in the stands, placing your bets with bookies on the rails, watching the horses with your own eyes, and settling your wagers face to face. Then, when radio and the telephone came along, races were broadcast, off-track betting (both legal and illegal) flourished, and on race days you could hang out at different places—at pubs and betting shops. Now, the ever-entrepreneurial Hong Kong Jockey Club has reconfigured the system once again by introducing handheld, electronic, networked devices that allow you to place your bets from anywhere in the dry, at any time of day. You just need a telephone jack or a wireless connection to log in, and the system settles your accounts automatically. It is extraordinarily efficient, but it also eliminates occasions that going to the track had provided for making contacts, socializing, building trust, and doing deals.
Once again, we need to innovate—to reinvent public places, towns, and cities for the twenty-first century.
* The Second Mourner's Eulogy
And that's not all. Digital communication also remakes the traditional rhythms of daily life.
Not so long ago, a family of the North lived in a fine clapboard house. There was a chimney at the heart of it, and to keep in the warmth the walls formed a simple surrounding box. In the winter, family members gathered round the fireplace—which was the only source of heat and light. Here, the children studied, the parents exchanged news of the day, and Grandma worked at her embroidery. The hearth held the extended family together.
Then pipes for delivering energy were put in—electrical wiring and central heating ducts. Family members could be warm and have light to read by everywhere. The fire was no longer kindled, except as a kind of nostalgic entertainment on festive occasions. The kids withdrew to their rooms to do their homework and listen to their stereos. The parents began to work different shifts, and would leave testy notes for each other on the refrigerator door. Grandma got bored and cranky, and soon moved out to an air-conditioned nursing home near Phoenix where she could play bingo with her similarly sidelined cronies. The fireside circle could no longer serve as social glue.
Informatization is following hard on the heels of electrification, with social consequences that are at least as profound. As the engineers figure out the technology, and the venture capitalists keep the IPOs popping, tiny telecommunications and information-processing devices are becoming as commonplace as lightbulbs and electric motors. You can call just about anyone, anywhere in the world, at any moment, from your digital cell phone. You can have twenty-four-hour news delivered digitally, by satellite, to your hotel room TV. You can pick up your email, whenever you want it, at any telephone jack. You can get cash at any ATM, any time. Your domestic appliances have embedded processors, and will increasingly require network connections as well as electrical and plumbing hookups. Your car is crammed with sophisticated electronics, and the guy who fixes it needs a computer as well as a wrench. The early industrial age of dumb devices is over; things now tirelessly, twenty-four/seven, think and link.
Today, ubiquitously present telecommunications networks, smart machines, and intelligent buildings combine with water supply and waste removal, energy distribution, and transportation systems to create a wherever, whenever, globally interlinked world. The old social fabric—tied together by enforced commonalties of location and schedule—no longer coheres.
What shall replace it?
* The Third Mourner's Eulogy
Once, the Buddha sat under a bo tree. Disciples gathered in the shade and listened to his voice. To learn, they had to come within earshot. And in that place they formed their community of believers.
There was no other way.
Then his words were written down. First, the laboriously hand-written holy books were kept in monastery libraries, where the faithful could come to read; long after he was dead, they could travel to these book-centered communities as their predecessors had once come to the bo tree. Later, the books were printed, and the word could be delivered worldwide, to anyone who sought it. It was the same with other faiths. Though journeying to the holy sites survived as a spiritual exercise, and places like Santiago de Compostela and Mecca retained their magnetism, pilgrimage lost its more directly practical function.
As printed books proliferated and literacy spread, elaborate systems for storage and distribution of texts—both sacred and secular—sprang up everywhere. These took many scales and forms; there were national libraries, monastery libraries, university libraries, subscription libraries, municipal free libraries, suburban branch libraries, Carnegie libraries, Christian Science reading rooms, book-lined studies, book clubs, and bookmobiles. Main Streets had their bookstores and newsstands. Waiting rooms had their stacks of dog-eared magazines. Businesses depended on orders, ledgers, and invoices. Offices overflowed with files, briefcases were stuffed with paperwork, and even pockets held notes, cards, photographs, and paper money. Mail systems moved all this ink-on-cellulose around. Information was mobilized, and access to it was decentralized.
Today, text and images float free even from paper, and are pumped around at amazing speed through computer networks. We have online databases, Web sites, FAQs, and search engines. Email is rapidly replacing snail mail. In our technological age, seekers of enlightenment no longer need to embark on wearisome trips to distant sources of information. They don't even have to go to their local libraries. Bookstores, newsstands, magazine racks, theaters, temples, and churches—even bo trees—have their virtual equivalents. Students surf into electronic encyclopedias. Professors put their lecture notes up on the Web. Retailers put catalogs and order forms online. Stock markets speed quotes electronically to the screens of traders.
Mindwork no longer demands legwork. Commerce isn't impeded by distance. Community doesn't have to depend on propinquity. Links among people are formed in hitherto unimaginable ways.
Perhaps this new social glue can be turned to our advantage. Maybe homes and workplaces, transportation systems, and the emerging digital telecommunications infrastructure can be reconnected and reorganized to create fresh urban relationships, processes, and patterns that have the social and cultural qualities we seek for the twenty-first century. Maybe there's another way—a graceful, sustainable, and liberating one.
Two tentative cheers for the global village!
* Mondo 2K+
How will it all play out? And what is to be done?
The buildings, neighborhoods, towns, and cities that emerge from the unfolding digital revolution will retain much of what is familiar to us today. But superimposed on the residues and remnants of the past, like the newer neural structures over that old lizard brain of ours, will be a global construction of high-speed telecommunications links, smart places, and increasingly indispensable software.
This latest layer will shift the functions and values of existing urban elements, and radically remake their relationships. The resulting new urban tissues will be characterized by live/work dwellings, twenty-four-hour neighborhoods, loose-knit, far-flung configurations of electronically mediated meeting places, flexible, decentralized production, marketing and distribution systems, and electronically summoned and delivered services. This will redefine the intellectual and professional agenda of architects, urban designers, and others who care about the spaces and places in which we spend our daily lives.
* Doing Your Bit
This new agenda separates itself naturally into several distinct levels—the subjects of following chapters. We must put in the necessary digital telecommunications infrastructure, create innovative smart places from electronic hardware as well as traditional architectural elements, and develop the software that activates those places and makes them useful. Finally, we must imagine the architectural, neighborhood, urban, and regional spatial configurations that will be sustainable and will make economic, social, and cultural sense in an electronically interconnected and shrunken world—a world in which distance has lost some of its old sting, but also much of its capacity to keep challenges and threats comfortably removed.
To pursue this agenda effectively, we must extend the definitions of architecture and urban design to encompass virtual places as well as physical ones, software as well as hardware, and interconnection by means of telecommunications links as well as by physical adjacencies and transportation systems. And we must recognize that the fundamental web of relationships among homes, workplaces, and sources of everyday supplies and services—the essential bonds that hold cities together—may now be formed in new and unorthodox ways.
It is, I suggest, a moment to reinvent urban design and development and to rethink the role of architecture. The payoffs are high, and so are the risks. But we have no choice; we cannot realistically opt out. We must learn to build e-topias—electronically serviced, globally linked cities for the dawning début de K.
MARCH OF THE MEGANETS
You say you want a revolution? You want digital technology to deliver new and improved cities? Well, you know, most of the things promised by the digerati just haven't been up there with liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Tiny digital cell phones? Status toys for overgrown boys. HDTV? Great eyeball, no doubt, but garbage on a bigger screen is still garbage. Movies on demand? Marginal social benefit at best. Virtual reality video games? Fun for a few minutes. Your very own home page on the Web? Electronic vanity publishing. Push-served sports scores? Please! Wired whiz-bang today, tired techno-yawner tomorrow.
So don't look here for more techno-triumphalist, macho-millennial prophecies of a glittering, go-ahead cyberfuture. But don't expect equally dogmatic and deterministic Chicken Little inversions of these visions either—reiterations of those now-familiar glum assertions that the digital revolution must inevitably reinscribe the nastier existing patterns of power and privilege, while trampling on treasured traditions as it does so.
* Digiphiles versus Digiphobes
We know, by now, the tiresomely predictable ideological subtexts to these polar positions. From the government-butt-out right comes the view that digital technology can improve our lot, therefore it will—provided we don't mess with the market. From the policy-wonk left comes the rejoinder that the rich and powerful are always the first to benefit from new technologies, and that markets are no friend of the marginalized, so we need vigorous government intervention to guarantee that computers and telecommunications don't end up creating a yawning digital divide between haves and have-nots. And, of course, the neo-Luddites are firmly convinced that we all have far more to lose than to gain anyway, so we should just dig in and resist.
But the increasingly boring digiphiles and digiphobes, with their contending visions of utopia and dystopia, are myopically groping different extremities of the pachyderm. We will do far better to sidestep the well-known trap of naive technological determinism, to renounce the symmetrical forms of fatalism proposed by booster-technocrats and curmudgeonly techno-scoffers, and to begin, instead, by developing a broad, critical, action-oriented perspective on the technological, economic, social, and cultural reality of what's actually going on, all around us, right now. Since new technological systems are complex social constructions, we must understand our emerging options, choose our ends carefully, and build well. Our job is to design the future we want, not to predict its predetermined path.
* After the (Digital) Revolution
Begin by looking around you. Your own eyes and the accumulating social science evidence should swiftly convince you—if you're not persuaded already—that the digital revolution cannot be dismissed as mere hype and hyperbole. This trumpeted technological transformation, which we're assured has been "whipping through our lives like a Bengali Typhoon," has actually been real enough.
Somewhere around 1993, with the takeoff of the WorldWide Web and the launch of Wired magazine, this geekerati-led, network-enabled, silicon-powered insurrection against the old order had its virtual 1789, October, May 4th, or ... fill in your favorite. It became obvious to the observant that familiar regimes were being swept away by simultaneously unfolding, causally intertwined processes of technological innovation, capital mobilization, social reorganization, and cultural transformation.
As with those monster shakeups that have punctuated our past—the agricultural and urban revolutions following from the invention of the wheel and the plow, and the industrial revolution which emerged from Enlightenment science—the postrevolutionary social dynamics have gathered seemingly unstoppable momentum. They are rocking our institutions and roiling our surroundings. They are creating new opportunities and closing off some old ones. Their effects will not always be as advertised by the cheerleaders, they will not be wholly positive, and they will not be uniformly distributed, but they cannot be ignored.
To understand this particular transformation's trajectory, we must recognize that—like its big-time history-book predecessors—it is not really the product of a single dramatic event. Nor is it the consequence of some self-contained invention. It has resulted, instead, from the gradual convergence of several extended processes. Until recently, these were puttering along in parallel. But when they came together, it was like mixing the otherwise innocuous elements of nitroglycerin. Then the World Wide Web supplied the spark, and the result was an explosively exponential expansion—a Big Bang that's the beginning of something genuinely new.
Specifically, the crucial ingredients of the incendiary brew have been digital information storage, transmission, networking, and processing hardware, together with the associated software and interface capabilities. Products and services based on these various technologies are now produced and distributed on a wide economic front—by the telephone, radio and television, cable TV, semiconductor, computer, consumer electronics, software, publishing, and entertainment industries—and these industries have become increasingly interlocked and interdependent. Information has become dematerialized and disembodied; it is now whizzing round the world at warp speed, and in cortex-crackling quantities, through computer networks. And this vast global process is just booting up.
* Information, Infrastructure, and Opportunity
The broad outlines of our electronically mediated future—if not the details—are becoming clear. One way or another, depending upon the eventual outcomes of the technology races, business battles, and public policy debates of the millennium's end, these disparate ingredients will eventually combine to produce a worldwide digital information infrastructure. The potential benefits of this are so great, and the momentum for it is building so rapidly, that nothing will effectively stand in the way.
This emergent system will combine the comprehensive geographic coverage and sophisticated person-to-person and place-to-place connection capabilities that characterize the existing telephone system with the high-speed pipes and multimedia affordances of cable television. And it will add to the mix the virtually limitless storage capacity and processing power produced by the silicon chip. Prefixes describing all aspects of its capacity will continue to crank up from kilo to mega to giga to tera—even peta and beyond.
Physically, it will be a complex construction of computational devices, copper wires, coaxial cables, fiber optics, wireless communications systems of various kinds, and communications satellites. Logically, it will be held together by widely accepted conventions and protocols with indigestibly acronymic names like TCP/IP, HTTP, FDDI, and ADSL. Economically, it will be the joint creation of innumerable, widely distributed businesses and public authorities with very different sorts of stakes in the system and diverse ways of making money from it. It is being created incrementally and messily through a complex ongoing process of technological innovation, new infrastructure construction, adaptive reuse of existing infrastructure, alliances and mergers among telecommunications providers, and reformulation of regulatory regimes.
Eventually, information of every kind will collect in a planetful of computers, and will be delivered wherever you want it through a single digital channel. Everyday objects—from wristwatches to wallboard—will become smarter and smarter, and will serve as our interfaces to the ubiquitous digital world. And paradoxically, wherever you happen to come in contact with this immense collective construction, it will seem to have the intimacy of underwear.
Instead of forming new relationships of people and agricultural production sites as in the agricultural revolution, or of people and machines as in the industrial revolution, this global digital network will reconstitute relationships of people and information. It will increasingly become the key to opportunity and development, and the enabler of new social constructions and urban patterns. Investment, jobs, and economic power seem certain to migrate to those neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations that can quickly put the infrastructure in place and effectively exploit it.
* New Networks and Urban Transformation
As historically minded observers can scarcely fail to anticipate, this latest wave of urban infrastructural networking will play much the role that its predecessors did in earlier eras of technologically mediated metamorphosis—in the times of Roman roads and aqueducts, in the boom time of eighteenth-century shipping and waterways, in the heyday of the nineteenth-century railroad robber barons, and in the expansion years of the twentieth century's electricity grids and Interstates. As canals and muscle power were to Amsterdam, Venice, and Suzhou, as tracks, ties, and steam trains were to the open spaces of the American West, as the tunnels of the Underground were to London, as the internal combustion engine and the concrete freeway were to the suburbs of southern California, and as electrification and air conditioners were to Phoenix, so the digital telecommunications system will be to the cities of the twenty-first century.
Like their pipe-and-wire predecessors, however, digital telecommunications networks will not create entirely new urban patterns from the ground up; they will begin by morphing existing ones. Generally in the past, new urban networks have started by connecting existing activity nodes that had been made possible and sustained by earlier networks. (After all, what else could there be to connect?) Then, like parasites taking over their hosts, they have transformed the functioning of the systems on which they were superimposed, redistributed activities within these systems, and eventually extended them in unprecedented ways.
Thus the coming of the railroads transformed the existing settlement of Chicago into a pivotal national center as the West opened up; then road and air transportation remade it once again. In southern California, an extensive rail system initially linked together a system of small towns scattered through the valleys; then the freeway network reconnected them, allowed the spaces in between to develop, and eventually wove the pattern that we now know as the modern Los Angeles metropolitan region. And in the twenty-first century, new, high-speed, digital telecommunications infrastructure will refashion the urban patterns that emerged from nineteenth- and twentieth-century transportation, water supply and waste removal, electric power supply, and telephone networks.
You can already see this sort of transformation unfolding in the pleasant Indian city of Bangalore, for example. Bangalore initially grew, on an ancient foundation, as the capital of a princely Mysore state. Then, in the British era, it became a railway center. From the second half of the nineteenth century, its accessibility, pleasant climate, and green, attractive surroundings attracted administrative activities, industry, educational and research institutions, and eventually a large population of well-educated professionals. By the 1990s, it had a new infrastructure of satellite earth stations, microwave links, and software parks, and through this it had become a thriving center of the software export industry. Bangalore software enterprises could compete effectively on the world market by employing high-speed electronic links to import intellectual raw materials, export finished software products, and interact with their clients, while tapping into a skilled but relatively inexpensive local talent pool.
It's an old script replayed with new actors. Silicon is the new steel, and the Internet is the new railroad.
* The Big Pipes
New urban infrastructures tend to be Viagra versions of older, tireder predecessors that cannot quite do the job any more. Their enhanced potency makes a qualitative difference. When piped systems replace wells you get a greater flow of water and you can take long, hot showers. When freeways supplant dirt tracks you can live in the suburbs and drive every day to work. And when high-speed, digital telecommunications systems succeed the telegraph and the telephone, you get socially significant changes in everyday interactions. It turns out that the more bits per second you can push through a communications channel, the more complex and sophisticated the interchanges and transactions that can take place over it.
This was evident right from the beginning of electronic telecommunications. The telegraph carried single-toned dots and dashes over an iron wire, it was excruciatingly slow and very expensive, and its limitations left us the word "telegraphic" to describe the terse and abbreviated style of textual discourse that it engendered. The range of frequencies required for speech transmission demanded greater bandwidth, so the telephone system used copper wire to provide it.
At the low end of modern digital telecommunications, there is the world of one kilobit per second communications—as provided by early modems and by the French Minitel system. At this rate (or less) it is feasible to exchange short text messages. This suffices for limited social, educational, and commercial interaction via electronic mail—for setting up meetings, for routine transactions such as placing orders, checking inventories and account balances, and paying bills, and for creating elementary, text-based forms of virtual public space such as bulletin hoards, Usenet newsgroups, and MUDs and MOOs.
Jump up an order of magnitude or two; at tens to hundreds of kilobits per second (as provided, for instance, by a 28.8 kilobits per second modem or a 128 kilobits per second ISDN connection), large text files and high-quality color graphics can be moved around with adequate speed. This level of connection was very widely available by the mid-1990s. Together with the high-speed backbone of the Internet (which was designed to operate at 45-155 megabits per second), it allowed the World Wide Web to grow at a remarkable rate. By providing an online equivalent to printed books, magazines, and catalogs, the Web opened the way to online publishing, advertising, and retailing on a significant scale. Virtual bookstores and newsstands began to compete with physical ones, and virtual malls and campuses began to appear. But the graphics of the early Web were mostly two-dimensional, and navigation was just pointing and clicking.
Now move to the megabit range; at rates of megabits per second to tens of megabits per second, good audio and video are possible, graphics can become very sophisticated, and elaborate, three-dimensional, shared virtual worlds can be created. These transfer rates have long been provided to homes by cable television networks, but only one-way—from the provider to the consumer—rather than symmetrically. They have also been provided by the local-area networks (LANs) and Internet connections of universities and large corporations; these have typically delivered about 10 megabits per second to the desktop, with faster systems running at 100 megabits per second. Over longer distances, lines leased from telecommunications providers have supplied T1 (1.54 megabits per second) and T3 (45 megabits per second) service.
At megabit and gigabit rates, expressive subtleties—tones of voice, body language, and so on—need not be filtered out, as they usually are in lower-bandwidth telecommunications. Furthermore, a great deal of useful context can be provided in the form of video backgrounds, shared access to work tools and materials, and shared virtual worlds—much as an architectural setting like an office or classroom provides an appropriate context for the activities that it accommodates. Thus telepresence can begin to compete effectively with bodily presence in situations—such as negotiating a contract, discussing a design proposal, or conducting a medical examination—where nuance and context are critical.
When these high rates are reached, networks actually run at speeds comparable to the processors and internal buses of computers. Consequently, computers begin to lose their discrete spatial identities; any scattered collection of interconnected processors and memory devices may become the functional equivalent of a PC in a box. As a slogan popularized (a bit before its time) by Sun Microsystems puts it, the network is the computer. This is where we are going to end up.
* Connected to the Backbone
This all-encompassing digital system will create new linkages between cities and within cities, and its intercity and intracity components should carefully be distinguished. To begin with, there are significant technical and cost differences among local-area, metropolitan-area, and long-distance networks. But more importantly, they differ in their implications for urban life and form.
Long-distance, intercity linkages are formed by interconnecting major switching centers with high-capacity fiber-optic cables, microwave links, or satellite links to create digital telecommunications backbones. The switching centers are usually known as POPs— points of presence. If they are on backbones that run at gigabit rates, they are gigaPOPs. And large centers built around satellite earth stations have sometimes been promoted as teleports.
Whatever form they take, these switching nodes on backbones—like seaports and airports before them—serve as points of connection to a wider world and potential generators of economic activity in their surrounding regions. It will be economically vital to have an efficient POP on the high-speed backbone in your vicinity. It will be an increasingly important competitive advantage if you have one and your business rivals do not. And equity considerations will motivate public policies that encourage wide and even distribution of POPs.
This pattern is clearest in developing countries, where introduction of a POP into a hitherto unserved region can make a sudden, vivid difference. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, the government of India invested in high-speed satellite earth stations at Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Noida, Bhubaneshwar, Thiruvananthapuram, and Chandigarh. These provided twenty-four-hour international connectivity to nearby software parks containing workspace for software enterprises, and thus became the focal points of the thriving software export industry. (In less than a decade, India became the world's largest exporter of teleservices, and the second-largest exporter of software.) Since there was little high-speed terrestrial infrastructure, the effects were mostly felt in the immediate vicinity—at most, over the twenty-to-thirty-kilometer radius typically reachable by microwave link from a transmission tower. In effect, they created digital oases.
In developed countries, the digital revolution has unfolded in a context of established telephone and cable telephone infrastructure that could be adapted to carry digital data, and this has made the situation more complex. You can get digital connection almost anywhere—typically from many competing providers—but speeds, costs, and levels of reliability vary widely.
* New Global Interdependencies
The most dramatic general effect of this long-distance digital telecommunications infrastructure is to create new kinds of interdependencies among scattered regions and settlements. For example, businesses have discovered that low-cost, high-quality voice and video connections enable delivery of certain customer services from great distances; being in the right time zone, speaking the right language, having the right software, and being competitive in a global labor market can become more important than being in the same metropolitan area.
Thus telephone and video call centers in Sydney can serve customers who want to make airline reservations in Hong Kong. Similarly, stenographers in Hyderabad can transcribe dictation from doctors in Chicago (exploiting the time zone difference to provide overnight service), draftsmen in Manila can produce CAD documents for London architectural and engineering firms, and very-low-wage workers in Africa can watch video monitors connected to security cameras in New York.
Such interdependence is not, of course, an unprecedented phenomenon. Neighboring cities have often traded with one another, and in the past new infrastructures have created expanding systems of economically, politically, and culturally interdependent settlements. In the United States, for instance, the interurban network that holds the nation together began as a line of port cities along the Atlantic coast, then reached westward to the Mississippi as new cities developed along inland waterways, and eventually extended coast to coast in the era of the railroads and the telegraph. Even economic and cultural globalization long predates the computer and the communications satellite, as many observers have noted.
The point, though, is that digital telecommunications infrastructure greatly increases the density of linkages within systems of cities, and can spread these systems worldwide. The electronic interconnection of currency traders to form a high-speed global trading system provides the most dramatic illustration of this, but it is really just an early straw in the digital wind. There is much more in the works.
* From POP to Your Door
In general, when local networks of any kind are created and linked to long-distance networks, they diffuse the benefits of distant connection among the inhabitants of their service areas. Connecting a local water supply system to an aqueduct brings water from a distant source directly into homes. Linking local roads to the Interstate allows small-town businesses to benefit from passing traffic. (Conversely, getting bypassed by the Interstate can be a disaster for them.) And hooking local digital networks to POPs on high-speed, long-distance backbones puts a populace in direct touch with the world.
Creating the local loops from POPs to homes and businesses is an expensive and time-consuming task, though, since there are so many of them to provide, and since provision typically involves digging up streets; providers face what they often call "first mile" and "last mile" problems. How do potential customers link their sites to the nearest POP? How do providers get from their POPs to all those potential customers out there? Who pays for these local loops? And how do costs get recovered? Providers attempt to solve these problems not only by putting new local infrastructure in place, but also by adapting existing telephone, cable television, and even electric power lines to the new task of digital telecommunications.
For individuals, these POP-to-doorstep connections offer a partial escape from the old need to choose between intimate, supportive, yet often-constricting local communities on the one hand and the opportunities that seem inseparable from the anonymity and alienation of the big city on the other—Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft, in the famous formulation of Ferdinand Tönnies. It was a geographic choice: one sort of place or the other. In an era of interlinked digital networks, though, you can live in a small community while maintaining effective connections to a far wider and more diverse world—virtual Gesellschaft, as we might term it, without tongue too far in cheek. Conversely, you can emigrate to a far city, or be continually on the road, yet maintain close contact with your hometown and your family—electronically sustained Gemeinschaft.
It's not all good news, however. Those very same liberating connections create competition between local and distant suppliers of goods and services, and can shake a local community's economic and cultural foundations. Recall that local wells fall into disuse when the piped water supply comes. When customers begin to take superhighways to regional malls, the local stores lose out. Local radio and television shows must contend with network offerings that go out to much wider audiences, and so can afford bigger stars and fancier production. And when local digital networks hook up to the backbone, many of the familiar protections of isolation and transportation cost disappear, and distant competitors can take vigorous advantage of the openings that result.
* The Network City Extended
Intraurban digital networking furthers the long evolution of human settlements from loose collections of more or less independent dwellings to highly integrated, networked cities in which multiple infrastructures of tracks, pipes, and wires deliver centrally supplied services to buildings and carry away waste.
The incipient networked city is clearly visible in the ruins of Pompeii, with its hillside civic reservoir, network of lead water-supply pipes running down through the town, and gravity-fed wastewater drainage system. In the aftermath of the industrial revolution, cities greatly elaborated their networks by improving streets to handle greater traffic volumes, adding streetcar and rail transportation systems to meet the demands of larger and more widely distributed populations, constructing municipal water supply and sewage systems to improve sanitation, creating gas and electric utilities to distribute energy, and eventually adding local telephone networks for communication. Digital data distribution systems will soon become as ubiquitous within cities as electrical and telephone networks, they will carry many different kinds of information, and they will ultimately (if not immediately) provide high capacity at low cost.
From the viewpoint of businesses with offerings that can be ordered or distributed electronically, the new intraurban digital networks create easily reachable consumer markets. Thus they are crucial to news and entertainment companies, publishers, banks, and online retailers. Not surprisingly, then, they have quickly become fierce competitive battlegrounds and subjects of study in the trendier business schools. At the same time, they create a powerful alternative to intermediate distribution sites such as local newsstands, video stores, movie theaters, and branch banks—and may, indeed, threaten the very existence of these established neighborhood elements.
Seen from the differing perspective of local educational and cultural organizations, government agencies, community activists, and politicians, these same intraurban networks potentially provide an updated version of the agoras and forums of the past, a new means of strengthening interactions within communities, and a mechanism for discussion and organization. So they have encouraged dreams of a reinvigorated Jeffersonian democracy, spawned a grassroots "community networks" movement, and supported the emergence of popular online meeting places such as the San Francisco Bay Area's Well and New York's Echo.
* The End of Rural Isolation?
Digital networks can, however, extend much further than the networks of the past—so much so that they challenge long-established distinctions between urban and rural areas.
Once these distinctions seemed pretty clear. Many old depictions of urban scenes, such as Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti's famous Good and Bad Government panels in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico, have vividly shown how the city's limits were defined by its walls. Outside was the countryside, with its rustics, recluses, and assorted inconveniences and dangers. Urban expansion was accomplished, if necessary, by enclosing additional area; you can clearly trace the increments of growth in the street patterns of many old European cities.
Even in ancient times, though, it was not always quite so simple. Athens, for example, was largely a community of independent farmers who lived outside the walls, and came to town from time to time. Meeting places and other communal facilities were concentrated at the center, and a network of paths and roads extended out into the hinterland.
The far more elaborately networked cities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dispensed entirely with walls, and characteristically grew by extending their infrastructures. Being beyond the metropolitan limits came to mean being past the reach of the trolley car lines, the water supply system, and the sewers. These networks tended to thin out gradually, rather than disappear suddenly, with increasing distance from urban centers.
It subsequently turned out that wired infrastructure—the electricity grid and the telephone system—could be extended into the closer and more densely populated rural areas with particular ease. In the twentieth century, then, rural electrification and telephone systems have done a great deal to improve the conditions of life outside the city limits.
Digital telecommunications infrastructure is now beginning to follow the old electric and telephone wires, and in some cases to piggyback on the existing copper. (Less obviously, it can even make use of existing railway signal lines and wire fences.) And even the most minimal rural telecommunications infrastructure, strategically deployed, can have dramatic social and economic effects. India, for example, has pursued a successful program of providing rural telephone service through village-to-village lines, small, highly robust switches, and public telephones with attendants who can provide assistance to those unfamiliar with the technology; it is a natural next step to extend these facilities to fax and to public Internet access. Vastly improved access to emergency services is the immediate result. Longer term, this new linkage promises to change rural economic life by providing farmers with direct access to distant buyers for their produce, and to transform rural education by providing minimal but effective access to the resources of the World Wide Web.
But even more importantly, wireless systems—both terrestrial and satellite—are now providing an extraordinarily effective new way to reach rural inhabitants. Microwave links and wireless cellular systems can traverse large stretches of rough terrain simply by means of some strategically placed transceiver towers. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, the Australian telecommunications provider Telstra constructed an extensive system of solar-powered microwave repeater towers across the empty expanses of the Outback. These landmarks pop up along the roads at intervals of about fifty kilometers—providing travelers with a new measure of distance.
Satellite telecommunications systems are not affected by terrain at all, and can deliver services even more economically to areas with very low population densities and teledensities (telephone lines per hundred residents). Older geosynchronous satellite systems had large but limited service footprints, and mostly focused their capacity on densely populated areas. But newer LEO (low earth orbit) systems, such as Iridium and Teledesic, uniformly blanket the earth.
As rural telecommunications infrastructure begins to deliver increasingly sophisticated educational, medical, and other vital services, then, the old distinctions between city and countryside, and between center and periphery, are becoming fuzzier and fuzzier. This continues a transformation that began long ago. In one of their most famous passages, Marx and Engels observed that the growth of great industrial cities had "rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life." Today, the digital revolution is completing the job.
* Residual Wireless Backblocks
Nonetheless, telecommunications capabilities will remain scarcer in the far-away, less-developed wireless backblocks—way out where the tumbleweeds blow, and on Micronesian coral specks—than they are in sophisticated urban areas. And this will yield characteristically different usage patterns.
Sometimes rural dwellers need information in a hurry. If they need answers to emergency medical queries, for example, they need them right away. And rural development, disaster relief, and rehabilitation workers often have critical, time-dependent information requirements. In these cases, short-term access to the most advanced telecommunications facilities is what's needed. So grabbing a satellite link for a while—even though it is comparatively expensive—may make sense.
But in many other cases, less dramatic reduction in times taken to obtain answers to queries—from months or weeks to days or hours—suffices to make a huge difference in the quality of medical care, education, and other vital services. So there is growing interest in using small amounts of telecommunications capacity to provide very inexpensive "real-time-enough" email messaging services to poor and isolated rural areas. A system called Fidonet effectively pioneered this strategy by employing off-peak dial-up links and batched transmission of email messages.
Now, such low-end, low-cost services can begin to take advantage of the fact that LEO communications satellites are doing almost nothing, and so have spare capacity, when they are passing over sparsely populated areas. As Nicholas Negroponte has put it, "With LEOs, you have to cover the whole world in order for any single part of it to work—rural and remote access, in a sense, comes free."
Even with such improvements, though, residents of the wireless rural backblocks will continue to suffer from some disadvantages, due to an inherent asymmetry in airborne telecommunications; it is usually much cheaper and easier to build a big, central transmitter that blasts information out over a wide area than it is to build numerous distributed transmitters that send information back. Thus it is easier to provide high-speed downlink service to rural areas—particularly from satellites—than it is to provide equivalent uplinks. So rural residents tend to get broadcast and Web downlink service (together, typically, with low-capacity back channels) long before they get the capacity to pump large amounts of information back out to the rest of the world.
* Public and Private
Much of this emergent telecommunications infrastructure—local and long-distance, urban and rural—is being created and maintained by organizations that are in the bit-hauling business. By itself, though, bit hauling is not a terribly attractive kind of work for private-sector organizations to pursue; digital telecommunications capacity is a low-cost commodity, generating low profit margins, so many of the players attempt to do better by adding value to flows of bits—for example, by creating and distributing entertainment or strategically inserting advertising. The structure that results is a large-scale, widely available, heterogeneously used utility—much like the public road system. Hence the wearyingly overused "information superhighway" metaphor.
But there are numerous private networks as well. Some of these operate within buildings and campuses, like internal plumbing systems. Some are highly specialized EDI (electronic data interchange) networks linking businesses such as banks to one another. And some are private long-distance networks maintained by large, far-flung organizations and operating over lines leased from telecommunications providers.
Some of these private networks operate under specialized protocols, but increasingly many employ the same ones as the public Internet and World Wide Web, and make use of the same software. These have become known, in a triumph of techie prefix-mongering, as intranets. Symmetrically, networks used to create an organization's public presence may be known as extranets.
* Behind the Firewalls and Filters
Where security is important, intranets and other private networks attempt to preserve their privacy through physical isolation and careful control of access points. Like fortresses of old, they have few connections to the outside world, and those connections are designed to allow very close supervision of everything that comes in and goes out. But instead of fortified gates and sentry posts, the connections between private intranets and the public Internet are formed by specially programmed computers that serve as electronic "gatekeepers." These ever-vigilant sentry devices determine when outsiders may have access, when insiders may make outside connections, and what sorts of information may flow back and forth. In doing so, they establish a clear distinction between the territory which is "inside the firewall" and its external environment.
The idea that information freely flows everywhere in a digitally networked world is, therefore, a wishful libertarian myth—or, if you are more worried about maintaining some control over access to certain information, a needlessly dark dystopia. Parents, teachers, employers, and governments can all create closely controlled online environments by isolating them behind tightly supervised connections to the public networks, and by defining internal rules and norms. These controlled zones can range in scale from individual computers to entire nationwide networks.
The outcomes are complex. Ubiquitous interconnection does not mean the end of controllable territory, or elimination of distinctions between public and private turf, but it does force us to rethink and reinvent these essential constructs in a new context. The emerging system of boundaries and control points in cyberspace is less visible than the familiar frontiers, walls, gates, and doorways of the physical world, but it is no less real and politically potent.
* The Task Ahead
These effects of worldwide digital telecommunications infrastructure are powerful and sweeping, but it obscures the issue to claim—as some cyber-smitten hypesters hyperbolically have—that they will yield the death of distance, the end of space, and the virtualization of just about everything. (All that is solid melts, in this hot air.) It is more useful and illuminating, instead, to recognize that the resulting new linkages provide us with a radical new means of producing and organizing inhabited space, and of appropriating it for our multifarious human purposes.
We all, therefore, have an immediate and vital interest in this mother of all networks, and in the social, economic, policy, and design questions that it raises. What new benefits might it bring, and what are they worth to us? How will it get constructed and paid for? How will it interact with existing urban patterns? Who will control it? Who will get access, and when? How might we balance incentives for telecommunications entrepreneurs and investors with policies that assure equity of access? What social and cultural qualities do we want this new mediator of our everyday lives to have?
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 crucial social choices as we do so—under permanently changed, postrevolutionary conditions.
|Prologue: Urban Requiem||2|
|1||March of the Meganets||10|
|2||Telematics Takes Command||30|
|3||Software: New Genius of the Place||42|
|4||Computers for Living in||52|
|5||Homes and Neighborhoods||70|
|7||Reworking the Workplace||98|
|8||The Teleserviced City||112|
|9||The Economy of Presence||128|
|10||Lean and Green||146|
|Index of Names||182|