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Prophet motive

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e-topia: 'Urban Life, Jim - But Not As We Know It' by William Mitchell. MIT Press, 1999. 184pp. £13.95

Early in this book William Mitchell, dean of architecture and planning at mit, criticises much of the cyber-writing of the 90s for naive technological determinism. It suggests that the future will be unrecognisably different. Everything that it touches will inevitably be radically transformed - construction, economics, transport, health, politics and more. Such speculation has been unconstrained by history.

It is a criticism Mitchell could have applied to his own book, City of Bits (AJ 21.9.95). And e-topia, the title of this new book, suggests more of the same. But behind it lies something different. Mitchell has tried to ground this book in historical-social and economic reality by focusing on the seeds of change, on what he has found happening at the leading edge of it-related developments today. What we get is, in essence, a cuttings file of what's new. But 'cuttings' suggests something rather disjointed whereas Mitchell knits the pieces together neatly. He turns a good phrase.

The underlying technology thread is the Internet, and especially a network that is getting smarter. We have moved on from chips-with-everything to the potential of communicating-chips that are in everything and thus the beginnings of an environment with some intelligent autonomy.

As if to emphasise his new approach grounded in today's realities, Mitchell begins most chapters by looking back, sometimes into it history, sometimes as far back as the societies of ancient Greece. His first few chapters focus on it developments, the latter ones on it applications for homelife, leisure, the workplace and the city. Surprisingly little is said, though, about the ensuing design agenda. He finishes with some conventional overviews, such as switching from atoms to bits and travelling less, communicating more. If you want a round-up of current web-enabled change then Mitchell has done a good job in tracking down a wide range of instances, at least for the us.

With this new book Mitchell has swung from the un-grounded futures of City of Bits to developments rooted in the present. Between these poles lies the near future where designers operate. How can this timescale be addressed?

it-based technological change is a significant factor for the construction sector today in a way it has rarely been over many decades. it developments are creating opportunities and driving change in evidently unanticipated ways. Business- as-usual it is not.

Much of the best writing on the future has approached this uncertainty by setting up a variety of alternative scenarios. These can integrate the social, political, economic and technological while probing options. Though most will be wrong, their role in focusing discussion on what the future could be, and whether we want it to be like that, is useful in itself. Maybe this is a formula for Mitchell's next book, the third in an e-trilogy.

Barrie Evans is an Internet editor on AJ Plus

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