Originally created 05/01/00

Book's merits lost in style, language



This look into the future of urban planning as affected by the personal computer revolution is worth checking out. But there are two things you need to know beforehand:

1) A publication of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, it's written by an academic for academics. Brace yourself for sentences and obscure references such as these:

"For individuals, these POP-to-doorstep connections offer a partial escape from the old need to choose between intimate, supportive, yet often-constricting local communities on the one hand and the opportunities that seem inseparable from the anonymity and alienation of the big city on the other -- Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft, in the famous formulation of Ferdinand Tonnies."

That famous formulation is also footnoted, as are many, many dozens of other things. Prepare for lots of flipping back and forth as you go, and watch out for paper cuts. There are also expanding sentences and overstretched analogies, such as this one:

"As canals and muscle power were to Amsterdam, Venice and Suzhou, as tracks, ties and steam trains were to the open spaces of the American West, as the tunnels of the Underground were to London, as the internal combustion engine and the concrete freeway were to the suburbs of southern California, and as electrification and air conditioning were to Phoenix, so the digital telecommunications system will be to the cities of the twenty-first century."

It's not a bad analogy -- actually, it's five not-so-bad analogies piled atop one another, destroying the clarity of the image the analogy was intended to create in the first place.

2) You need to know where to find it. I looked first in the computer section of my local bookstore, thinking it a pretty good bet. Sociology seemed another good possibility, but no dice. I finally found it, with the help of a salesclerk, filed under Architecture.

For the record, the Library of Congress headers on the information page list it as: 1. Telecommunication -- Social aspects. 2. Computer networks -- Social aspects. 3. Information superhighway -- Social aspects. 4. Cities and towns.

It's also got a rather sophomoric sense of humor, as the title (I believe it to be a Star Trek reference) suggests.

But is it worth looking into?

Parts of it are. The first half is devoted to the networking of houses, objects and people and the building of "smart stuff" -- buildings and objects as data receivers and transmitters, as well as what they intrinsically are. This has a whiff of Bill Gates' The Road Ahead about it, and adds little theory to the more concrete descriptions Mr. Gates gave us of his own "smart house."

By chapter five, however, Mr. Mitchell explains how digital networking will affect the planning and building of cities, the effects of networks on rural areas, and how networks will affect the choices people make between city life and rural life. The Internet blurs the distinctions between the two by bringing city amenities everywhere.

Also blurring are the distinctions between home and workplace, as anyone with a home office or home-based business knows. The most interesting theory to be found in this book has to do with "the economy of presence" -- the idea that if you can do your work from home or on the train or while waiting in a doctor's office, then your physical presence takes on a premium value, and you have to decide under what circumstances your actual presence in the workplace is warranted.

There are ideas here worth examining. But I'd like to see them examined for a more general audience than this book does.

Reach Suzanne R. Stone at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.

E-TOPIA: URBAN LIFE, JIM - BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

By William J. Mitchell

MIT Press, 1999, $22.50

ISBN @ 0-262-13355-5