E-topia: The Future of Cities in the Digital Age

An essay on a public lecture presented by William J. Mitchell at the Amman City Hall, Amman on February 26, 2000

Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa, 2000



William J. Mitchell* began by stating that the subject he is about to present is of importance for the future of cities throughout the world. He added that although the experiences he will draw upon concentrate on how developments in digital communications are affecting cities in North America and Western Europe, these experiences are definitely of relevance to cities belonging to different geographic, economic, and cultural environments, as is the case with Amman.

He added that the lecture is based on three books he has written. The first of these is E-Topia (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1999), the book from which part of the title for the lecture is taken, and which deals with the topic of digital communications and cities. The second is City of Bits (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994), a book he wrote at the beginning of the Internet and World Wide Web era, and which constitutes an early study of the relationship of these technologies to the evolution of the city. The third book, High Technology and Low-Income Communities, with Donald A. Schon and Bish Sanyal; (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999) deals with the effects of telecommunications technology on low-income communities, and specifically with issues such as social equity and economic development. This third book addresses both the developing world and economically marginalized communities in an advanced country such as the United States.

Mitchell indicated that to better understand the effects of digital communications on the city, a few general remarks should first be made about the historical evolution of cities. Here, he states that human settlements historically developed at points of opportunity. They therefore emerged at locations featuring scarce and desirable resources such as water and access to transportation routes.

As such settlements developed and grew in size, the interaction among their inhabitants increasingly became the glue that held the settlements together. Consequently, new economic, social, and cultural opportunities developed in these settlements, and these opportunities - rather than merely the physical and geographic characteristics that initially allowed a specific settlement to emerge - became the new engine that powered the growth and development of these settlements.

Also, such settlements developed infrastructure networks that were absolutely crucial for allowing them to grow in size and complexity. The better-known examples of such infrastructure networks, which distribute resources and opportunities throughout the settlement, include water supply, waste disposal, sanitation, electrical power, and transportation systems. The importance of infrastructure networks emerged early on in the history of human settlements. Ancient Rome provides one of the more famous and beautiful examples of how such networks functioned about two thousand years ago. The city had a complex street network underneath which were located highly sophisticated water supply and sewage systems.

Mitchell added that throughout history, we have seen the introduction of new kinds of infrastructure networks into human settlements. This is especially evident in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when we have seen the introduction of new transportation methods as well as electric power and telephone networks. Such new developments not only have allowed settlements to grow further, but also have allowed for additional diversity and complexity in the lives of their inhabitants. They have redistributed resources and opportunities, and have allowed many cities to function in different ways. This means that the locations and organization of activities in the city begin to change. Such a process of development is one that Mitchell identified as fragmentation and recombination. As new networks are introduced, established building types and urban patterns that had been based on preexisting infrastructure networks begin to fragment and to recombine.

To illustrate this point, Mitchell provided a number of examples. The first is the introduction of piped water into a traditional village, a process that has been taking place throughout the world over the past century or so. Before the introduction of piped water, the inhabitants of traditional villages usually obtained their water from the village well. The village well centralized certain functions. For example, it was a meeting place for the exchange of news and gossip, or for getting to know people. In other words, it served as an important center for the types of social interaction typical of a traditional settlement. Once piped water is introduced to a village, the village well looses it significance. Functions of getting access to water become decentralized and move to the private realm, and houses begin to be fitted with private bathrooms and kitchens. As a result, the traditional pattern of social interaction in the village is transformed. The spaces where functions connected to water took place fragment and recombine. In this case, such spaces are no longer public and centralized, but become private and are distributed throughout the fabric of the settlement.

A similar process took place in the United States, where electrical power networks were introduced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The effects of this development were very clearly felt in places such as the industrial mill towns of the northeastern United States. Such towns, which marked the initiation of the industrial revolution for the United States, were clustered around sites of water and steam power since it was not possible to distribute power effectively very far from its source. As a result, one is presented with highly concentrated industrial communities in that region. However, with the introduction of electrical grids that allowed for the development of electrical distribution systems and small electric motors that could be located anywhere, the situation changed radically. It was now possible to power machinery just about anywhere, and industrial functions began to be distributed much more widely. Such functions no longer needed to be located at the point of supply of power, and new patterns of distribution of work related to industrial production began to emerge.


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