Book Review: Me++ The Cyborg Self and the Networked City - William J. Mitchell


Book cover.
This book is outstanding. It is a clear-eyed view of the future as it was seen from 20 years ago. I've never taken so many scribbled notes in the margins of a book. Many of the ideas are ahead of its time - and only a couple of clunkers which never made it.

One thing to note is that it is written in the shadow of the terrorist attacks on New York City. There are around 50 mentions of 9/11 in the book - to the point where it feels like an obsession. Even the most mundane observation is tied back to that date. I don't think it is possible to overstate the psychological effect those events had on some people. An undeniably viral meme which attaches itself to every work they produce.

It is stunning tour through how networking humans and cities will transform the individual and society. Really, the only way I can relay its importance is by pulling out some of my favourite passages.

We experience networks at their interfaces, and only worry about the plumbing behind the interfaces when something goes wrong

This is the most concise explanation I've seen about how technology has fundamentally changed us. We don't know how the postal system works. We only really care when a letter is delayed or a cheque is lost in the post. It's the same with WiFi, mobile data, and electricity. These things are an ineffable mystery to the layperson. Yet an individual is totally reliant on something out of their control.

What is a human? To viruses, we each are:

a node in a body-to-body network that, sadly, turns out to be effectively organized for virus propagation as well.
Traditional forms of sexual union are circuit-switched and synchronous, with all the intensity and risk that this entails, but refrigerated sperm banks now function as genetic code servers. In vitro fertilization is an asynchronous transaction—the organic equivalent of downloading email, and about as arousing. ... From the perspective of our genes and viruses, our bodies and their in vitro extensions are just temporary nodes in an evolving propagation network.

And that's quite the perspective shift. Even before we wire ourselves up to gizmos and gadgets, we are transmitters and receivers of huge amounts of data. And not all of it friendly.

As we adopt technology, we are no longer tied into a specific space and time. A published book effectively lets the writer travel forward in time - preserving their ideas for the future. The telephone allows us to project ideas far across space - limiting us only by the speed of light.

The radical de-localization of our interactions with places, things, and one another-in space through electronic sensing and telecommunication and high-speed travel, and in time through electronic and other forms of storage-was identified by Anthony Giddens as one of the characterizing features of modernity.

But, as we progress through the physical realm, biology takes its toll. What can we do about that?

My local stock of neurons has (the neuroscientists gloomily assure me) been diminishing as I grow older, but the supply of silicon and software at my disposal has been growing rapidly. Consequently, the neural network inside my cranium outsources more and more mental functions.

Do you remember your friends' phone numbers? Or do you outsource that? Perhaps first to a paper address-book, but now to a cloud-synchronised bundle of electronics.

There's an interesting look back Buckminster Fuller's idea that a city like New York could be covered with a dome and have "perfect" weather:

And Fuller probably did not consider the fact that the weather inside his Manhattan dome would become a matter of New York municipal politics

Can you imagine the political campaigns? "My opponent wants to make it rain on Sundays, I say we should have good weather on the Lord's day!"

Of course, we now find ourselves in a similar situation with wireless spectrum contention.

The commonly available spectrum acts as a social focus, much like the well in a traditional village.

Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, encryption prevents socialising. If the wireless spectrum wasn't encrypted, we could see what our neighbours were doing, who they were chatting to, which shops they liked. That would be a net loss of privacy - but would it bring us closer together? I doubt it.

This opens up the possibility of dense wireless networks in which nodes cooperate dynamically to use available spectrum with maximum efficiency. It seems likely that this will be the key to future expansion of wireless networks in densely populated areas.

Again, not quite what we have now. Most WiFi hubs perform frequency hopping in order to make best use of the airwaves. But there are always rogue access-points which behave badly in order to secure more space for themselves. And, sadly, there are very few "mesh" networks which will gladly carry a neighbour's traffic.

If you add miniaturization and self-configuration capability (just stick a component anywhere, and it works) to wireless interconnectivity, networked systems become fluid and amorphous.

Again, we're not quite there yet. The SIM card gives access to a specific mobile network - but there's no simple way to have a radio self-configure and gain access to a network. Which is a real shame.

Mitchell has a beautiful turn of phrase as he turns his eyes to the future:

In an electronically nomadicized world I have become a two-legged terminal, an ambulatory IP address, maybe even a wireless router in an ad hoc mobile network. I am inscribed not within a single Vitruvian circle, but within radiating electromagnetic wavefronts.

That is us. Home Sapiens becomes Homo Electro-Magneticus.

When looking back on what drove civilisation, he says:

The very possibility of further economic, social, and cultural development depended upon sedentarization, the accumulation and protection of food surpluses, the consequent ability to support non-food-producing specialists at sites of accumulation, and increasingly specialized division of labor within densely populated cities

I agree, but I think he misses a trick. We need over-abundance to allow us to get creative. But we need famine to drive efficiency. In a world of plenty, there is little incentive to look for new ways of doing things. Yes, we crave novelty - but we live on a planet with limited resources and have to periodically adjust how we create and alter our environment.

As his predictions start to touch on technology, he examines the impact - and disappointments - it may bring:

Handhelds with palm-sized screens and ridiculously tiny keyboards are an uncomfortable compromise. But if you can substitute a retinal scanning display that paints a high-resolution image directly on the inside of your eyeball for the screen and a microphone hooked to a speech recognition system for the keyboard, you can shrink the whole thing

OK, we have the handheld screens! And, yes, they are a bit of a pain. Speech recognition is getting there - but retinal projection is still a pipe-dream. And, of course, power consumption means lugging around a large battery. He convincingly makes the case that - at some point - we will need to integrate hardware with our meatware:

But the laptop's victory is a tenuous one; handheld objects are always in danger of being put down for something else

Wristwatches spring to mind. They're permanently attached to our bodies. The smartwatch simply can't be put down. Can we go further?

Let's not forget teeth. If you have to get a gold tooth or ceramic crown, why not pack it with electronics? If your teeth carried an RFID tag, you might make purchases or open hotel room doors by flashing a smile. Maybe a memory filling would be a good, safe place for your crucial medical records. And, if you squeezed a wireless speaker into a molar, you could take advantage of the fact that your jawbone efficiently transfers sound and eliminate the earpiece of your hands-free cellphone. The generalization to nails and lashes is obvious

Yes! I've been banging on about high-tech dental implants for ages. I'd love to get that level of integration. Although I appreciate how dystopian it may seem to some.

What about something more prosaic? Where are the smart clothes he predicts?

Threads that can vary their color will open up the possibility of animated tweeds and plaids. A programmable tie, woven from smart thread, might knot itself automatically and download patterns from the Internet.

I'd love that! Sadly we don't have anything so flexible yet. But do we need to? Will we all be avatars in cyberspace? There's a case to be made we have passed the "B.D. (Before Dematerialization) era". That is, more and more of what we need isn't physical any more. Or, as Mitchell puts it:

It was an extended effort to minimize the attachment of atoms to music

Music isn't waveforms scratched into vinyl. It isn't binary embedded into a CD. It is pure digital code flowing through the æther. The same has happened for books, movies, and - albeit nascent - 3D objects. What's next? Where is the digital code for food which can be extruded through a printer?

This isn't anything new. Consider the humble fax machine:

You keep the bits constant, but substitute new atoms.

The storage of matter in electronic format can't come soon enough.

In the chapter about Electronic Mnemotechnics he speculates on the future of technology. Perhaps we will have transparent smart displays?

Point an appropriately programmed see-through display at an object of interest, and it will tell you all about it

We don't have this. But we have cameras on the back of everything. Do we need "real" transparency when we can simulate it more easily?

What use could it be put to?

This adjoins a new dimension to architecture, and creates new opportunities for assertion of facts, construction of fictions, and insinuation of falsehoods

Many years ago, I was involved in a project called "BlipDrop". The idea was that you could leave videos in specific locations - so they were only viewable to people in a narrow range of co-ordinates. We could easily do that now - or grab the Wikipedia article for whatever landmark we're near. But that wouldn't prevent people putting out propaganda and other misleading content.

He branches out into the future of (knowledge) work:

you have your wireless connections, a seat under a tree in spring beats an interior office cubicle. And electronically arranged, ad hoc meeting places-where you can most conveniently form the human clusters you need at a particular moment, while remaining in wireless contact-dominate the fixed locations and inflexible schedules that had once been necessary to enable interaction and coordination.

This is the life lots of us are living now, right? He also correctly predicts the rise of Uber:

In more advanced systems, customers make location-coded cellphone calls, cabs have GPS navigation systems, and software assigns jobs based upon proximity. There is a shift from centralized coordination and control to electronically mediated swarming

Of course, this isn't quite what Uber is. They are very definitely a centralised system. A future where users can call for a cab directly without a middle-man sounds like a wonderful idea.

As he rightly acknowledges, there is a dark side to all this. If we abandon city centres because we're no longer tied to the office, what happens to all those coffee shops which are physically tied to their location?

The new mobility divide may turn out to be more important than the digital divide

The book ends on a sombre note. How technology and memes can slowly take over and destabilise the world. As I said, this book was written in the shadow of 9/11 and was published as the USA was invading Iraq on the pretence of destroying their Weapons of Mass Destruction. But that wasn't all he was worried about. He quotes from Bill Joy's essay "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us" on the dangers of nanotechnology:

Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.


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