The future enters into us, in order to transform
itself in us, long before it happens.
- Rainer M. Rilke
In his new book "Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City", William J. Mitchell tells the story of the reciprocal relationship between man and technology - how one shapes the other in a cyclical and temporal process. These mutually reinforcing phenomena are most visible when looking at design and architecture and their manifestation in cities in particular. The characteristic new architecture of the 21st century occurs at the intersection of three realms: electronic information flows, mobile bodies and physical places. So, what we are experiencing is not the replacement of the physical space with electronic versions, but the sophisticated integration of digital networks within physical supply chains.
This development has had a multitude of pervasive consequences that have become the default condition in which man lives today. As we increasingly depend on networks – a traffic jam, a check-in line, a power outage, or a market crash can create as effective a barrier as a locked door – the more tightly and dynamically interwoven our destinies become. Technology has permeated our lives to the point where the theoretical distinction between the physical individual and her electronic extensions do not hold any meaningful explanatory power anymore. Connectivity, as Mitchell states, has become the characteristic of our twenty-first-century urban condition, to the point where it defines our identities.
"Embedded within a vast structure of nested boundaries and ramifying networks, my muscular and skeletal, physiological, and nervous systems have been artificially augmented and expanded...My biological body meshes with the city; the city itself has become not only the domain of my networked cognitive system, but also – and crucially – the spatial and material embodiment of that system."
This is the fundamental thesis in Mitchell's book. It largely rests, as he states, on Gregory Bateson's insight that if you want to explain the locomotion of a blind man crossing the street "you will need the street, the stick, the man, the street, the stick, and so on, round and round." In Bateson's view, there is no clear distinction between internal cognitive processes and external computational ones. Mitchell translates this into the present by saying that we perceive, act, learn, and know through the mechanically, electronically, and otherwise extended bodies and memories that we construct and reconstruct for ourselves. And, as we are beginning to see, there is no clear limit to this extension. This is his explanation for why mankind is not only its own bodies, but tightly intertwined with its surrounding technologies:
“Technology has permeated our lives to the point where the theoretical distinction between the physical individual and her electronic extensions do not hold any meaningful explanatory power anymore.”
"As Bateson has begun to realize, we are not fully contained within our skins; our extended networks and fragmented habitats make us spatially and temporally indefinite entities. His central insight was that the ancient distinctions between user and tool, building and inhabitant, or city and citizen, no longer serve us well…I construct, and I am constructed, in a mutually recursive process that continually engages my fluid, permeable boundaries and my endlessly ramifying networks. I am a spatially extended cyborg."
He goes on to say that this does not mean that we have become post-human in the wireless network era, but that already since Neanderthal early-adopters first picked up sticks and stones, we have never been human. The profound implications of this insight are illustrated perfectly in Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when the ape discovers the tool and the image goes on to show how mankind discovers space (at 5:16 min). The introduction of technology, even at the most primitive level, constantly changes the human constitution and influences evolution.
The already blurred boundaries between ourselves and our environment are made even less visible with the trend of miniaturization of functional extensions. Mitchell notes that in the early 1970's, David Greene and Mike Barnard saw where miniaturization was leading and proclaimed "people are walking architecture". This intensified the interest in the scarce real estate of skin surface and its immediate surroundings. The ongoing shift of functions from urban and architectural to bodily real estate inverts some familiar customs and rituals, such as moving from the phone booth to the mobile phone and from the house stereo system to portable music devices (Walkman, iPod, etc.).
Not only does technology shape us, but we shape it in return, as new dimensions to architecture open up – hybrid constructions in which digital information adds a layer of meaning to a physical setting, and the physical setting helps to establish the meaning of the digital information. The two worlds are already completely indistinguishable and intertwined, best exemplified by looking at the acceleration of time between the dot-com bubble expansion and its subsequent burst. At that point it was clear, says Mitchell, that physical space and cyberspace had actually become locked in an intricate, mutually transforming embrace, with functions shifting and dividing between the two in complex ways.
“Not only does technology shape us, but we shape it in return, as new dimensions to architecture open up – hybrid constructions in which digital information adds a layer of meaning to a physical setting, and the physical setting helps to establish the meaning of the digital information.”
Mitchell ends on a positive note, stating that with technological development and the enmeshing of the two spaces, our mental maps of buildings and cities are becoming less static records of fixed features and more dynamic representations of current conditions. These conditions can offer liberation from the rigidities and interdictions of a predefined program and zones – and give us the opportunity to move away from ways of using spaces produced and enforced by dominant social orders. We can now use our ability to change our environment not only through our own physicality, but through our identity as well. We can utilize this fluidity between what we are and what we believe we are or even want to become, to consciously build spaces that reinforce our emerging cultural values – may that be social equality, sustainability, or a general expansion of empathy and community.