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Mitchell's Me++


Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City.

Mitchell, William J. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. 269pp. $27.95, hardcover. ISBN: 0262134349.

Automating Narcissus

Davin Heckman

<1> Reminiscent of books by other MIT luminaries like Neil Gershenfeld's When Things Start to Think (2000) and Rodney Brooks' Flesh and Machines (2002), William Mitchell's Me++ reminds me, yet again, of why it is so exciting to be alive in an age of wireless phones, high-speed data transmission, and cybernetic systems. Unfortunately, after a couple of years of reading Wired and developing a festering cynicism for high-tech solutions to social problems that have been caused by previous high-tech "solutions" (like titanic ships, combustion engines, splitting atoms, and all kinds of really horrible weapons), I am more interested in dodging technological thunderbolts than waiting to look for silver linings.

<2> A smart writer and charming character, Mitchell describes the ways in which wireless technology and flexible systems will transform urban spaces and the people that make use of them. With echoes of McLuhan, and invoking James Joyce's Dublin, Mitchell writes,

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 reach extends indefinitely and interacts with the similarly extended reaches of others to produce a global system of transfer, actuation, sensing, and control. 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. (20)

Imbuing romantic imagery with commonsense analogies, Me++ tells a seductive tale of an idyllic city where individuals are free to roam, interact, and gather unimpeded by the structural constrains of time or space. Not merely adrift in a virtual city, the "me" of Me++ is an informational node where the material world can interact with the virtual world.

<3> Romantic appeal aside, many of Mitchell's claims are contestable, and deserve to be challenged. Mitchell explains, "A tennis or basketball court is a rigorously standardized piece of geography designed to contain the rule-governed flow of action; an 'out of bounds' condition is not to be taken lightly" (33). However, he neglects to mention that since a simulation must be programmed, the rules of its programming function as the boundaries of play. So, while there might not be an "out of bounds" in the sense that a basketball game requires limits, the programming must account for anticipated and intended actions in the same way that a basketball court requires a hoop of some sort. In a game of basketball, the "play" (or "wiggle room") happens in the myriad possibilities that are available whenever human beings interact. Although such space might be circumscribed by rules and boundaries, the space in between is theoretically infinite. Computer games, on the other hand, must contain a greater number of programmed rules in order to create convincing play. As the number of possible situations increases, the program becomes more complex. As the program becomes more complex, the more rules there are to govern play. This question of accountability is such that a singular event in an electronic game is a "glitch," a "cheat," or an "error."

<4> Mitchell invokes the likes of Michel de Certeau, Deleuze and Guattari, and the Situationist International, claiming, "[The electronomadic] condition, understood in the most optimistic way, offers liberation from the rigidities and interdictions of the predefined program and the zones -- a release from ways of using spaces produced and enforced by dominant social orders" (160). And to his credit, he does undercut this optimistic view with warnings about increased surveillance and automated systems of social control. But, again, there is another possible angle that must be considered. The idea of a nomadic existence might have been a revolutionary concept in a time when there wasn't wireless, mobile technology. Now that economic power has been transferred from vaults and bunkers to digital flowspaces and distributed networks, this conception of nomadism as resistance is useless. It obscures the reality of elitism and liberates the privileged from their fortresses, while leaving the weak mired in relative stasis. When the name of the game was stability, the poor lived in a state of turmoil and flux. Now that the game privileges motion, the poor find themselves trudging along with inferior vehicles on potholed highways. Paul Virilio described this decades ago in his essay on "Dromology," Speed and Politics.

<5> The final straw is when Mitchell writes that people who would resist this technological future are reactionaries: "the survivalist, the xenophobe, the isolationist, and the unilateralist" (208). He continues, "But, as Marx repeatedly argued, humankind never, in the end rejects more effective means to satisfy its material needs" (208), finalizing his argument with a polemical assault on the senses. Once again, however, Mitchell's impassioned and well-meaning argument glosses over crucial details. In this case, he hustles past the question of just what these needs are, implying that they are universal, central, knowable and exclusively material, and that they can be met by corporate technoculture. Never mind the fact that we choose cultural, spiritual, and psychological needs over material well-being all the time.

<6> As I read Me++, I couldn't help but imagine that there was some larger Darwinian process at play, and that the twitching narcissists who are doomed to carry the torch into the future are winning. But the question remains, is this what we want the world to become? Just watch someone as they pick up their cell phone and become indistinguishable from a chronic cocaine abuser -- all puffed up and chatty one moment, then panicked and abusive the next. Can an entire society of plugged in people like this last for more than one generation?

<7> People in modern democratic states already consume the lion's share of resources, much to the delight of the top five percent, who make most of the world's governing decisions and control a disproportionate share of its wealth. Expanding the capacity for the few to consume more efficiently for the greater enrichment of the fewer seems like a selfish move, if not a downright dystopian scheme. Why become robots when we can scarcely be human? Why try to expand our agency in an elaborately constructed virtual network, when we cannot even create an equitable system of government and economics in the "real" world? To ask such questions skirts the process of reviewing a book and ignores its flaws and merits, but they can offer a useful critique for the genre of pop-futurism. Furthermore, these questions can point to pressing political issues in the culture at large AND problems with New Media studies in general. The hegemonic power of technological discourse also seems to be a recurring nightmare in the field in cultural studies -- in the well-meaning but doomed attempt at objective detachment. The notion that humans are both mechanical organisms (hardware) and socially constructed beings (software) resonates with the desire to appear as rigorous social scientists, but ultimately abandons human subjectivity in favor of theory.

<8> If one wants to apply theory to an area of cultural significance, technical systems, economics, and management regimes present systems that are readily amenable to such scrutiny. Instead of suggesting that we become more technological, it would be wise to read more carefully the works of people like de Certeau, Deleuze and Guattari, Guy Debord, or Karl Marx. Mitchell ultimately makes the mistake that the top-down imposition of technoculture ought to coincide with movements from the bottom up. However, the tactics of the weak are mobilized by social relations and local phenomena which merely make use of larger structures. A bottom up response to globalization would not be necessary without globalization, so it is to put the cart in front of the horse to anticipate the crisis-creating technologies to counter the crisis. People have always been forced to adapt, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently to the shifting demands of power. It isn't necessary and it might even be insulting to ask individuals to also be the agents of this change. Such people built the pyramids and picked cotton, they built the railroads and dug coal, they worked in factories and fields, they still work in sweatshops and service jobs around the world...they have all done their share to advance the cause of the technological society without even having to anticipate its demands. Maybe it is time to refocus and reconsider the question of human needs, instead of marching down the road of progress which always seems to strive for the more efficient creation of wealth.