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Me++ : The Cyborg Self and the Networked City

Author: William J. Mitchell
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: October 2005

 REVIEW 1: Joseph Savirimuthu

Why this book? The cover sleeve states that this book "completes an informal trilogy examining the ramifications of information technology in everyday life."

William Mitchell may be puzzled by my question in the light of the notes in the cover sleeve.

He would probably look on this question with sympathetic amusement if I informed him that I read his first two books, City of Bits and e-topia, which could be loosely characterized as works which map out the ethics of spatial architecture.

He may wish to take me to task if I told him that I am not steeped in cybernetics or post-modern theory. A lawyer schooled in Blackstonian jurisprudence and English common law are not the ideal credentials when reviewing the book. Maybe the question posed at the outset is erroneous. Perhaps I should have asked -- who are the intended readers?

That is not a question that I am qualified to answer. What follows is my reflection on the impression this book has made on me.

ME ++ can be seen as a culmination of personal journey of reflection; the reader is taken in hand through the mosaic of life in the networked society. In a little over 200 pages -- 12 chapters being buttressed by a prologue and an epilogue -- I found the footnotes informative and a useful source of information. En passant -- it is probably evidence of what Mitchell argues in this book, that I made regular attempts to connect the biological with the mechanical, when surfing the Internet to source some of the material contained in the footnotes.

Mitchell layers his canvas with an array of images, anecdotes and metaphors. Some of his chapters are headed with titles like "Cyborg Agonistes," "Logic Prisons," "Digital Doublin," and "Wireless Bipeds." Let us not dwell on whether the 'meta' headings constitute mots juste. Mitchell has a mission -- which is to illuminate the essence of technological human (if that is not a contradiction):
    Consider, if you will, Me++.

    I consist of a biological core surrounded by extended, constructed systems of boundaries and networks. These boundary and network structures are topological and functional duals of each other. The boundaries define a space of containers and places (the traditional domain of architecture), while the networks establish a space of links and flows. Walls, fences, and skins divide; paths, pipes, and wires connect. (7)
Chapter 1 follows on from the Prologue, and sketches the complexity of networks and our place in this both as creators and subjects. The networks create spaces of individual identity and an environment for social interaction and communities. Mitchell notes:
    The archetypal structure of the network, with its accumulation and habitation sites, links, dynamic flow patterns, interdependencies, and control points, is now repeated at every scale from that of neural networks (neurons, axons, synapses) and digital circuitry (registers, electron pathways, switches) to that of global transportation networks (warehouses, shipping and air routes, ports of entry). (9)
The 'interpretive turn' is not new, if one recalls works like Norbert Weiner's Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Marshall McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride; Folklore of Industrial Man, and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Donna Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, and a tradition that continues with N. Katherine Hayles' recent How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Or even in popular film culture -- Robocop, The Six Million Dollar Man, and, more recently, the film release of Appleseed.

Mitchell begins by describing some of the ways technology has begun to shape the way traditional barriers and connections between man and his surroundings have been structured. He regards the pervasive influence of technology exemplified in the biorhythmic cadence of networks and their significance illustrated in the almost binary nature of our digitally constructed environment and our attitudes and perceptions to it. Where is Chapter 1 and the elegant prose and imagery taking us? The answer is to be found in Chapters 2-12; each chapter provides us with a cameo of the discontinuities, disorientations, and fragmentations that the digitally mediated environment is now throwing up. This explains the headings used for each chapter, as was noted earlier. There is one advantage for a reader in the use of the headings. Readers do not need to read the chapters in sequence. To be sure, I found myself revisiting chapters that I read earlier and gaining additional insights. This is a positive -- I did not feel that Mitchell was imposing a thesis but was happy to allow the reader to draw on his or her personal experiences.

On completing the book, I gleaned new insights about the interface between technology and humans. Some are amusing. For example, we are creatures with a programmed desire to make connections. As Mitchell notes: "Now cellphones fit in a pocket, they never leave us, and (in some cultures, at least) they are never switched off. They may even be wired into our clothing and equipped with earsets (scaled and shaped to the interior of the ear) for hands-free use. They are more part of our bodies than part of the architecture" (25; see also footnote 20).

How many of us have been the recipients of cellphones going off in a restaurant, subway, or even a game? How many of us have not laughed out loud when reading the antics of Dilbert? Perhaps we tend to laugh as we realize that some of the observations mirror reality. Mitchell alludes to Dilbert's cubicle when he talks about (what I regard as an euphemism) "Post-Sedentary Space." You can now find web pages that advertise the Dilbert "cubicle" -- one that will create a space that corresponds with taste, culture, and lifestyle. With the emergence of wireless connectivity, the idea of space (private or public) becomes less of a question of geography and more on the hertzian characteristics. Maybe there will come a time -- if it is not already happening -- for a technology, hertz-free zone?

The book also serves as a timely reminder on the way technology shapes us and in turn is shaped by us. Lawyers sometimes are guilty of adopting a linear attitude to technology -- hence, the oft-quoted phrase in legal discourse: "technological neutrality."

Mitchell also reminds us that technology is both liberating and prescriptive. For example, Chapters 2 and 3 aim to undertake a task akin to providing a digital analog to Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man with an interpretive twist. Mitchell notes:
    I am not Vitruvian man, enclosed within a single perfect circle, looking out at the world from my personal perspective co-ordinates and, simultaneously, providing the measure of all things. Nor am I, as architectural phenomenologists would have it, an autonomous, self-sufficient, biologically embodied subject encountering, objectifying, and responding to my immediate environment. I construct, and I am constructed, in a mutually recursive process that continually engages my fluid, permeable boundaries and my endlessly ramifying networks. (39)
The "spatially extended cyborg" is a biped that is both biological and mechanical. We are the Robocops or the darker version in the form of Cyberman in Dr Who. Mitchell misses no opportunities to underscore the subliminal relationship humans have with the environment and technology: "sexual plumbing" (22), "Nolli" (28), "transportation, energy supply, water supply, and waste disposal" (57), and so on.

Liberation is probably the product of decentralization and disintermediation. As consumers, this is clearly a bonus. Concerts, talks, and entertainment can now be the subject of time and space shifting. The sting in the tail however lies in the need for a system of capitalism to control and regulate. Cue -- Napster:
    As a result of decentralized, customized, production at a distance, supply networks are destabilized and transformed, and they demand rethinking . . . The shift to decentralized, digitally mastered production is inexorably eroding structures of authority that had been sustained by mutually supportive strategies of productizing intellectual and artistic work, industrializing mass production, and legally controlling replication processes. (136-138)
Yes, the current debates on Napster have an air of artificiality -- the idea that a virtual sword seems fanciful but not when we think of spectrum as intellectual property. More interesting, however, is Mitchell's take on it:
    From the perspective of architects, Napsterization is the culmination of a long process of mobilizing and recombining design information. It began with the use of portable templates to facilitate replication of standard shapes and profiles in buildings. It began with the use of portable templates to facilitate replication of standard shapes and profiles in buildings . . . great classical treatises from Palladio's Four Books to Guadet's Elements and Theory, disseminated standardized languages of architectural form. We are now entering an era in which descriptions of elements and rules are stored on servers as software objects, traded, varied, and recombined electronically, and eventually materialized by means of CAD/CAM production devices. If Palladio were alive today, he would be looking to 3D digital modelling and peer-to-peer distribution technology, not to woodcuts of plans and elevations. (139-140)
I had to stop and re-read this extract in light of preceding accounts about decentralization and the subsequent discussion on modularity and portability. It is not possible in so short a review to unpack the pregnant extract To be sure, consider how we will respond to the extract in the light of the following question: Aren't the current attempts by the RIAA in pursuing college students across the globe for engaging in music piracy akin to preserving the status quo of existing institutional structures and regimes? I would have liked more discussion on how best new social connections can be created to reduce the adversarial dimensions of technology. Notwithstanding this, I did wonder whether our very consciousness was being constructed by the digital networks. As Mitchell notes,
    What if we could go all the way with shaking ourselves loose, shuck the last few atoms from our souls, and simply live on server farms somewhere? The gonzo endpoint of these trajectories of dematerialization and hypermobilization is the suggestion that mental life is just an affair of bits in the brain . . . You are, on this view, just software. (167)
Such a thesis, as Mitchell correctly observes later, is the result of an assumption that we have always been human (which is a twist of Bruno Latour's observation as the footnote 26 acknowledges). Does that mean that we have always been cyborgs?

My favorite chapter in this book is the penultimate -- "Logic Prisons." What struck me initially is the curious phrasing. It is quite common to see the word prison preceded or ending with a punctuation. The use of the term as a metaphor is, however, apt, since tracking and surveillance technology are now used to create new enclosures. The prison as a distinct physical enclosure has to be re-conceptualised as both data and surveillance technologies converge to define new spaces of exclusion and inclusion. As Mitchell notes, "Technologies of surveillance and data collection, pattern recognition and data mining, and identity management have now converged with those of access management, to enable formidable new systems of social control" (189).

Granted, this chapter provides an inventory and Mitchell does not advance his thoughts on the interesting questions logic prisons raise and their relevance for privacy and civil liberties. Some may find this frustrating. But this should not disillusion us since it does not require too much of an intellectual effort to work through some of the issues that the metaphor raises. One in particular should be noted -- namely, the way our orthodox conceptualizations of space and the reference points of physical features as defining inclusion and exclusion need to be re-visited. Moreover, one needs to factor into our contemporary discourse 'legal code' and 'technical code.' In the pre-Internet era, enclosures like prisons corresponded with a clearly identifiable and readily discernible legal code. One cannot make the same assertion in the digital environment: GPS and other tracking devices can be appropriated by individuals to place us in new enclosures. This does not need to be criminal -- consider the effects of data mining and online profiling. Each visit to Amazon is greeted with a message indicating what I expect or ought to buy. This is perhaps consensual -- but in the city of bits, other bits and bytes are being accumulated to create putative prisons. Mitchell's intervention with regard to the gradual erosion of private and public space is pertinent, as data brokers "exert their power through denial of access, apprehension at electronically managed checkpoints, and, where necessary, electronic fingering for arrest, immobilization, or elimination" (201).

By way of conclusion, I must confess to having found this book to be a difficult read -- definitely not to be skimmed through. To do so, would be to miss what Mitchell I suspect may have had in mind -- an invitation to join him on his personal journey. Maybe that is why the text does little justice to his insights. Some may find the cramming of facts, anecdotes, and biological references perhaps a tad too much. Mitchell is uncompromising as the acknowledgment later in the book makes clear: "My goal has been to identify emerging conditions, formulate crucial questions, suggest options, and stimulate critical discussion at a pace fast enough to make a difference" (251). This I can say without contradiction has been done with lucidity, modesty, and humor.

Joseph Savirimuthu:
Joseph Savirimuthu teaches Internet Law in the University of Liverpool. He has a personal blog, and following his reading of ME++ is undertaking research on Virtual Worlds and Avatars.  <jsaviri@liverpool.ac.uk>

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