April 11, 2008

Total Immersion

William Mitchell's "e-topia: 'Urban Life, Jim — But Not As We Know It'" (MIT, 1999, bought as the usual remainder at Moe's): a book as dated in its hip cultural references and words as the phrase "Mondo 2K" (a phrase he actually uses; I admit to once knowing someone briefly associated with all that) or the word "e-topia" (or the Matrix, which it tries to use as an exotifier with the same leaden academic effect it usually provokes in the non-academic), a book that breathlessly (and often perceptively) attempts to explore a wired utopia and its meanings (for architects and planners, mainly), while glossing a bunch of things like security (in any of its shaded meanings — apparatus vs. security from such an apparatus, for example), or crime, or terrorism, or even the huge energy budget of the revolution.

For example, Mitchell talks a fair bit about the future of immersive technologies, smart spaces, etc., but doesn't spend a lot of time discussing what it is you're most likely to be immersed in — advertising (think "Minority Report"; does anyone think totally immersive (and absolutely intrusive) smart advertising is not a part of our future?) — and what those smart spaces will be up to (clever ways to keep tabs on what you're doing and how to get you to do things you might otherwise not do). In something of a throw-away paragraph he envisages controlling all the smart appliances in your home with a simple palm-sized remote control, but misses the obvious flipside to this: the ability to remotely control the smart appliances in someone else's home, or even control a person in their smart immersive home with a similar little control. It's the human here who's most likely to be the smart appliance (does anyone really think that isn't part of our future?). Similarly, when Mitchell breathlessly describes his wired dwellings bringing choice and opportunity to the inhabitants, he honestly just doesn't seem to understand that being wired is to be tethered, something that can just as easily take away choice and opportunity from the masses. Something he might want to consider is that he's really describing the updating of Corb's "machine for living in" to "machine for selling in" or even a "machine for conforming in".

He barely seems to notice the flipside to even the basic network technologies he seems to see as liberating: by being immersed, you're also trivially trackable, absolutely awash in surveillance and coercion opportunities. Again, he simply doesn't discuss what it is you'd be so effectively immersed in, nor who makes and controls that immersive reality. He (weirdly) misses a couple of crucial dimensions to these network technologies: he has little or nothing on that creepy convergence of surveillance and marketing that's probably the biggest thing in Web 2.0, for example. Let's face it: from the implementers' point of view, the web's really just a way to sell browsers to product pushers; the government and other surveillance is just a happy by-product of the mechanism to do that.

It's not that the vision is chilling, it's that it's chilling that he can't see the downside, or just dismisses it with a wave of the hand. The question for an academic like Mitchell who's claiming to explore a wired (or, increasingly, wireless) future is whether he wants to be complicit in — or a booster for — the sort of immersive smart wired utopia he glosses. All I can say, based on this book alone, is that he's not exactly a reliable guide to the future — bring your own map and cross-check repeatedly.

(There's a less than subtle hint of where he's coming from academically in his use of the word "telematics", a word not usually encountered in the field itself, a word that's more usually found in the original French, or nestled translated in thickets of language more appropriate to a virtual reality and rhizomes (another such word he uses) than in the world of networks or systems engineering I've inhabited for a long while now).

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