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Hailing the brave new e-world

'Many Internet years ago' - in 1995 - Bill Mitchell published his inspirational City of Bits - a 'first sketch for some of the questions we ought to be asking about the digital world', as he put it in his talk at the aa earlier this week. He has now updated it with a new volume, E-topia, an 'agnostic' sort of title, he says, which seems to mask a great sense of optimism about the 'soft transformation' of the environment which he envisages.

Mitchell defines the idea in opposition to the Modernist concept of tabula rasa, and it is one of his proposed 'Five Points for a New Architecture' of the Internet Age. The others are: dematerialisation, demobilisation, mass customisation, and intelligent operation. To an extent, they have become familiar: the decreasing need for large-scale material containers for activities, be they buildings or machinery (take for example the transformation of the telephone kiosk into the tiny mobile cell phone, or the evaporation of branch banks into home-banking computer screens); the decline of commuting patterns, with teleworking; the ability of companies to mass-produce products according to individual specifications; and the emergence of artificial intelligence at an everyday level (eg in cars and buildings). But his reading of the implications of these developments for the local environment is encouraging. He predicts a 'reclustering' or 'renucleation of small- scale, fine-grained neighbourhoods', as living and work space increasingly come back together, and offices become important primarily as meeting- places on a smaller, perhaps relatively informal scale. This presents the possibility for architectural reinvention, rather than dissolution, and an exciting future for cities, whereby the strengthening of neighbourhoods through increasing face-to-face contact and demand for local services would lead to a reduction of crime levels and anti-social behaviour, and cities would become attractive places for family life.

On the other hand, those places bypassed by the new infrastructure will be condemned to unredeemable marginalisation. Furthermore, the fragmentation of familiar building types, due to on-line services, into large distribution warehouses located at transport interchanges, and 'back office' activities hived off to wherever labour is cheapest, have serious implications for local employment patterns. Mitchell did not dwell on these issues, and acknowledged that remote communication would break 'locational bonds' through declining use of institutions like branch banks

Whatever happens, Mitchell's presentation of a wonderful image of teleconferencing from a nineteenth-century edition of Punch reminds us that the ideas have not only been around since the first inventions of telegraph and radio, but also perceived as an ideal to be pursued. The motto of the so-called School of the Air at Broken Hill in 1920s outback Australia, where remote communities could also communicate by pedal-powered short-wave radio, sums up the ideal: 'Parted but United'.

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