Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell

Posted: March 29, 2005 at 9:02 am in nonfiction

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I mentioned in this post how I picked up Me++ at the Whitney Museum, and started reading it. Some interesting ideas here. I found out later from Jofish that Mitchell is the current head of the Media Lab at MIT, which explains a lot about the book. There’s nothing particularly innovative about his ideas, but he packages and explains them well, which makes sense since the Media Lab head is pretty much a public relations position.

It was a weird book to read in a way. While I really liked the general viewpoint of the book, there was nothing in it that made me scramble for a pen to note a particular idea (something which happens regularly with most nonfiction books I read). I think what I liked the most was the vision of our greater interdependence on each other in conjunction with our reduced ties to a particular location. In other words, to support my lifestyle requires a tremendous physical and electronic distribution network. For me to flit around the country, and be reachable no matter where I am because my cell phone and email are always with me is an astonishing phenomenon, even from the viewpoint of twenty years ago. I regularly remind myself on trips to not stress about packing because so long as I have my ID or passport, and a credit card, I can get whatever I need at my destination. I can walk down to the corner store and buy fresh fruit, or a replacement toothbrush, or a current magazine. It’s amazing.

At the same time, our ties to an individual place and location are becoming far weaker. In some parts of the country, it is still common to grow up in one place, maybe go off to college, and then return to set up a home and family within thirty miles of your parents. My hometown is like that. But for many of us, we’ve developed our sense of virtual community, where between ubiquitous electronic communication and plane travel, I can almost as easily maintain ties with friends that live on the opposite coast as I do with my next door neighbor. I see my friend Batman, who currently lives outside of Toronto, more often than I see another friend who lives less than a mile from me.

The other point that I remember from the book was that we should be wary of the implicit nature of these networks. In ancient times, the distribution network was explicit; the entire town was centered around the granary. Even in more recent times, the networks of railroads or freeways made it evident where the centers were. These days, the networks are disappearing from view. The guy sitting in the park muttering to himself is as often a high-powered executive talking on his Bluetooth cellular headset as it is a bum these days. It’s interesting that the networks are dropping from sight at the same time they are becoming more ubiquitous than ever. I suppose it makes sense – to quote McLuhan, “we don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t a fish. A pervasive medium is always beyond perception.”

I also like the vision of circles of control radiating outwards from ourselves, each of which requires more cooperation. He uses the example of climate control. At an individual level, I can choose how many layers of clothing to wear to control how warm or hot I want to be. Moving outward, I can change the temperature of the room I’m in, with the consent of others in the room. Moving outwards, we can change the temperature of the building with a central heating system. He imagines having a weather bubble around the city, and the negotiations associated with that. At each step, it requires more power, and a greater degree of cooperation to achieve an effect. Our control of our environment doesn’t end at our arm’s reach; it attenuates with each sphere of control.

One last thought (wow, I had more to say about this book than I expected). I liked his question of what the Golden Rule means in a distributed society. When we are dependent on a worldwide distribution network, what does it mean to treat others as we would like to be treated? Our actions can have effects on people halfway around the world. If I choose to buy Nike sneakers made in a sweatshop in southeast Asia, am I supporting the children that work there or am I dooming them to continued indentured servitude? In a less polarizing example, anybody that has written on the Internet knows that it’s amazing how your words can haunt you, where they will turn up in the most unlikely of places. When each of our actions can have worldwide consequences, even if those consequences are attenuated greatly, we have to become far more aware of our environment.

Interesting book. It’s a nice summary of some of the social consequences of the new networked capabilities that technology has enabled. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but it’d be a good book to give to a non-technology-oriented friend to have them start thinking about these issues.

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