FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

William J. Mitchell.
Me++ The Cyborg Self and the Networked City.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.
cloth, 260 p., ISBN 0-262-13434-9, US$27.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/

William J. Mitchell. Me++

The stunning technological advancements of recent years have proven to be a topic irresistible to many authors, spurring them to write books ranging from the philosophical impact of personal computing on modern societies to visionary predictions of the digital future. The best contributions offer insightful assessments of the current situation and provide the reader with food for thought. At the other end of the scale, more shallow observational writings fail to engage in any discussion of both positive and negative, thus becoming of little value in facilitating a debate on the issue.

I was not familiar with any of the previous books by William Mitchell, who is Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences, head of Media Arts and Sciences, and Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. I was aware, though, that his writings had been received well by critics so it was with a certain curiosity and expectation that I began reading the third and final book of his trilogy (which includes City of Bits and e-topia). Me++ continues the analysis of the information technology revolution that is changing the way in which we do things, and looks at how our perception of the external world is being shaped by the digitalisation of reality, and how the relationship with other humans has been affected by virtuality.

In my experience, the biggest danger of writing a book of this kind is that it can easily end up becoming a mere glorification of everything we have achieved, while (worse) depicting what is ‘untechnical’ as undesirable, obsolete, unfashionable, backward.

Would the book, which is divided into twelve chapters, covering most of the technological accomplishments and the social deployment of communications devices, computers, electronic gadgets, and wireless technology, follow along the same line, I wondered?

At first sight, it appeared to provide a comprehensive snapshot of planet Earth at the beginning of the third millennium, but after the first couple of chapters it became clear to me that, although thorough and insightful in its own way, the discussion was going to miss some important facets. For instance, the book unambiguously points out the relentless advancement and vertiginous development of electronic technologies. However, it touches far too sporadically and superficially upon one fundamental aspect: That of portable power supply and how to solve the problem of bringing electricity to all these devices we are inventing (most of which are becoming extensions of our body). To me it was an unexpected shortcoming, for it is fine to describe the great advantages of carrying around a plethora of nifty gadgets, but it is easy to see that these only work with electricity and that any constructive examination of portable technology should deal appropriately with the power issue. Remove electricity and Me++ becomes a staple of 248 blank pages: Nothing of what is described therein will work.

Going back to the ‘snapshot’ mentioned above, it is undoubtedly true that we are now able to deploy incredibly sophisticated wireless telecommunications technology to make us become more productive, more socially interconnected, and (arguably) happier. However, what percentage of the world population is lucky to be exposed to such electronic paradise? The book takes into consideration only technology–savvy countries and of a digital divide there is no mention. Consider the following extract, taken from a chapter in which the author discusses wearable electronic accessories, and how they ‘compete’ for available bodily space:

"The possibility of gripping large objects of arbitrary shape in the hand provides another attractive parasite niche. Historically, it has been occupied by the luggage of travellers, by large weapons [...] Today the victor in this niche is commonly a laptop computer with a handle or carrying case ... ."

Surely a laptop computer is the victor only for a small minority of people represented by business people, mobile support technicians, students of wealthy developed countries, and so on. For the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants, carrying a laptop is a very unlikely proposition, and here Mitchell’s analysis can become terribly discriminating.

In other sections, too, I gained the impression that the author was either consciously ignoring the reality of many societies, or was deliberately not interested in them, and was thus only focusing on the cutting edge of the industrialised world:

"By selectively loosening place–to–place contiguity requirements, wired networks produced fragmentation and recombination of familiar building types and urban patterns. For example, the local bank or branch bank largely disappeared in the early digital era."

I live in the Republic of Ireland, arguably one of the most technology–embracing nations of Western Europe, a country that has seen a breathtaking societal change, from agricultural to high–tech in a matter of a decade. Yet, for all its modernity, we still have plenty of local bank branches, with no sign of them disappearing any time soon. So, why claiming that they have "largely" disappeared? Was it meant to be a provoking statement?

No doubt, the above reflects a technological future envisaged by a prevalently U.S. and European–centric mind. In it, all priorities are evidently those inherent of a Western society. In this reality you do not find references to trees, birds, shapes of clouds, the beauty and colours of flowers. Instead, the focus is firmly on human beings and their artificially–constructed interactions. The mental picture I made while reading the book was one of nightmarish sterility and detachment from natural surroundings. Everything the pages conjured up was technical, electrical, virtual, geeky, sterile, intrusive, controlling, yet (according to Mitchell) highly desirable. I wondered whether Me++ would have ended up being a very different book, had it been written by an author from the Far East subscribing to Buddhist faith.

Not everything about Me++ was disappointing, though. A great deal of what is described in it is real and with us now. Several of the examples of technological developments are exciting and will make our life more pleasant, more fulfilling, more interesting. The language used is clear and engaging. Plus, there is a very good notes section at the end of the book, with plenty of references for the more avid and curious reader.

Where the book let me down was in its marked lack of balance. An overoptimistic attitude towards new technologies and the consequences of deploying them seems somehow out of place in a world where the practical application of science to commerce or industry should be embraced with enthusiasm but also with caution. It is a world where, for example, computer systems affected by viruses can cause untold damage to vital infrastructures, and where it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the right balance between providing security for citizens and giving them their individual privacy.

Similarly, becoming complacent about the sophistication we build into our devices is unhelpful:

"As broadband wireless connections deliver fatter streams of bits to the mobile body, attention management will become an increasingly crucial design issue. The mechanisms may be very simple, as when voicemail or TiVo allow you to defer attention to data streams until you are ready. Or they might depend upon sophisticated context-sensitivity — enabling a cellphone automobile navigation system to interrupt you only when it is safe to do so, but to be bolder when the message is really urgent."

Being bolder sounds great, but how exactly could we implement a system that can distinguish between a really urgent message, and one that is not urgent but which purports to be so. How would such a device know that a human is sincere about his or her intentions? No further discussion followed, so I was left with my doubt.

The trouble with following blindly the high–tech leaders is that they are not always motivated by a genuine desire to improve humans’ lives, but are led often by the lure of profits and the bliss of market penetration. Years ago I became very disillusioned with the software industry when I first saw first–hand how marketing priorities could take precedence over people’s real needs. The motto was: ‘let's create something cool (but of little real benefit) and market it so that people think it is essential.’

I have become skeptical about innovations simply because it is much harder to innovate than CEOs would have you believe.

Me++ does not attempt to critique the motives of the players behind new technologies, but only conjures up situations where (almost magically) something will be done to cope with a present and concrete problem:

"Increasingly, businesses will try to be wirelessly present and responsive wherever, whenever, and however their customers need them — but this will, of course, depend upon the willingness of their customers to give up some privacy in order to gain personalized, contextualized service."

The word contextualised above was pivotal, yet, again, no further discussion was forthcoming. Does a contextualised service follows along the lines of the infamous paper clip in Microsoft Office applications? If not, what kind of more sophisticated and truly useful system could be developed?

Another gripe I have with the book is that it never satisfactorily answers the question of why would we want to embrace technology to such an extent, without being clear about the benefits. An example:

"Orientation is crucial, of course. Unless you can pinpoint your current position on a map, and point the map in the right direction, you remain lost [...] If you cannot connect that ambiguous ruin in front of you to the correct entry in your Blue Guide, the information that you have in your possession remains frustratingly useless. Even worse, you will retrieve inaccurate information if you don’t get the spatial registration right."

Subsequently, Mitchell points out that having wireless GPS technology at hand could ensure that your holiday is not spoiled. What struck me as curious was the fact that the rather more natural alternative of asking somebody local was not being contemplated. Would doing so be electronically too unsophisticated? I am by no means against technological advancements when these bring real improvement to people’s lives and to the environment. However, I cannot avoid thinking about the absurdity of carrying around complex wireless systems (with all their support infrastructures which use up energy and natural resources) in order to obtain information from GPS, instead of relying on a good paper map and the help of a friendly native.

Technology as an end in itself is just as useless as no technology at all. Replacing something that makes sense with its virtual correspondent is not always better, whatever argument might be presented to reinforce the necessity:

"A second effect is to transform the character of information products. Digital texts, images, and other artefacts begin to behave differently from their heavier, materially embedded predecessors. They become nonrival assets — they are neither depleted nor divided when shared, they can be reproduced indefinitely without cost or loss of quality, and they can be given away without loss to the giver. Thus they can support the dissemination, application, and creative recombination of innovations on a massive scale [...]"

True, digital products do have the inherent characteristic of being indefinitely reproducible and shareable. There are also negative aspects about them, however, and these are not discussed by the author. For example, one could argue that a paper–based object is available regardless of where you are, whereas the virtual artifact ceases to exist as soon as you pull the plug, making it more dependent on location, infrastructure, technological standards.

Similarly, the reorganisation of our existing knowledge for adapting it to new technologies can be extremely worthwhile, but should not be considered only because the new technology exists. Me++ at times champions the idea that the current methods of carrying out tasks can always be improved upon by applying a new technology, as when writing about traditional groupings of information:

"The photocopier first challenged this strategy by enabling ready reproduction of pages, articles, and chapters, and the recombination of these extracts into new, ad hoc collections such as course readers. With digital text, the logic of the database replaced that of the printed page. Publishers of online journals discovered that rigid subdivision of material into "issues" no longer made much sense."

Why did it make no longer much sense? First Monday still subdivides its contents into issues simply because, regardless of any database architecture, it is humans who read it, and humans do prefer their own logic to the one of the database. Again and again, I sensed the underlying feeling of disdain for what is untechnical and the invariable praise for new, more geeky ways of accomplishing something, by making use of unspecified new wonderful technological feats that would make the present look decidedly passé.

So far, not a positive review, I am afraid, although I admit that many of the issues above could be interpreted differently (and more positively), depending on the expectations and Weltanschauung of the reader.

At some point in Mitchell’s account, however, I stumbled upon a paragraph that made me question the overall sensibility of the text:

"The advantages of wireless fields of presence are accompanied by subtle and not–so–subtle challenges to the regime of separation and control that has long been built into schools, campuses, and medical facilities. Schoolteachers were among the first to notice this, as kids equipped with wireless devices began to order pizzas in class, pass SMS notes, and clandestinely circulate answers to test questions. Retails began to worry that customers in their stores might scan the barcodes on products and wirelessly search for competitors with better prices. Professors delivering lectures began to wonder if they had the undivided attention of students crouched over their wireless laptops and were surprised in seminars as their interlocutors silently downloaded salient information to interject into the discussion. The immediate authoritarian response, of course, was to try to banish personal wireless devices — but this was doomed to failure. When the dust settled, few would willingly give up the benefits of continuous connection."

At first I was not sure whether to take this seriously, for here we have at least two extremely negative consequences of the popularisation of wireless technologies being played down as mere nuisances. The students cheating in a classroom and lecture theatres are purported benevolently as the followers of an inevitable digital revolution, whereas such a behaviour should (for the students’ own sake!) not be condoned, let alone justified in terms of technological progress. The choice of words irritates me greatly: "when the dust settled" implies that nothing much was at stake and that we can safely dismiss such &145;bothersome&146; conduct as worthwhile, particularly when compared to the (alleged) benefits of continuous connection. What these benefits might be in the context is (as usual) not elaborated.

Surely imparting some self–discipine to young people and giving them the notion that cheating is not right should go well before ordering pizzas online or doing Google searches, so perhaps the priorities have become all mixed up here.

In the end I was left with the impression that our future world would not be one in which we have managed to deploy marvellous technologies to help us create a more harmonious environment or a better social infrastructure. It appeared, instead, as one where we have adopted technologies through marketing pressure, through an incurable obsession for anything computerised, and where humans are all out there to get one another, in order to achieve electronic supremacy, power and control. The last chapter ends with a gloomy sentence: "Next time you want to go somewhere, think of your friendly access manager; He’s making a list, and checking it twice — gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Unless we are prepared to resist it, the logic prison is coming to town." Ugh!

I would still recommend the book, if nothing, so that we can try avoiding unnecessary mistakes. — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

++++++++++

John Yunker.
Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies.
Indianapolis, Ind.: New Riders, 2002.
paper, 576 p., ISBN 0-735-71208-5, US$39.99.
New Riders: http://www.newriders.com

John Yunker. Beyond Borders.

We’ve all encountered forms that demand our ‘State’ and ‘Zip’. Less than a third of Internet users live in the U.S., and this book is aimed primarily at helping U.S. businesses make Web sites suitable for international audiences.

Yunker carefully analyses issues of culture, language and translation. He gives practical advice on domain names, global content management, workflow, and on technical matters such as logfiles, by–nation analysis, browsers and fonts. He covers everything thoroughly, from paper sizes for printable formats, to the varying cultural significance of colours.

The book distinguishes between ‘Internationalisation’, making raw Web material in a form that can be easily localised, and then ‘Localisation’ which is done each time that material is implemented for a specific locale. Interesting predictions arise from this, for example the use of pictures on international sites will decline because images are harder to localise than text.

There is attention to solutions, though sensibly without too many specifics of products that will become outdated. There are seven business case studies, and also sections devoted to Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and Unicode.

Little, apart from a few paragraphs on PDF, is said about platform–neutral accessibility and download file formats, despite the vastly different take–up rates between the U.S. and Asia of Linux, and the rise of Asian–made localised Office suites.

Appendices include Character Entities, Language and Country Codes, and other standards. The book has a narrow inner margin and a huge outer margin, so the paperback’s curving hard–to–read side is full of text, whereas much of the flat easy–to–read part is blank. Not clever.

Overall for anyone globalising Web sites, this is the book to buy. Yunker’s Web site (http://www.bytelevel.com/blog/) brings issues in the book up to date. — John McKeown End of Review


Contents Index

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