21st: Who says the Net makes cities obsolete?

Salon 21st: Who says the Net makes cities obsolete? By Thomas J. Campanella. Webcams are just one sign that cyberspace can give new life to our cities of brick.

Published September 7, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

digital technology -- and the Internet in particular -- is often accused of contributing to the deterioration of place. It has been construed as the antithesis of the carbon-based world our grandparents paved, knitted and nailed together with sex and sweaty palms. The networked computer, it is feared, will create an increasingly alluring "mirror world" with many of the features and few of the dangers of downtown. It is often posed as an inevitability that this online metropolis, this city of bits, will render the city of bricks obsolete.

Cyberspace is indeed an ethereal realm, one floating above the tangles of geography and place that have for millennia anchored our being-in-the-world. This is hardly surprising, given that the Internet itself began as the ultimate anti-spatial exercise. ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, was conceived specifically to subvert place -- at least the unlucky place a Soviet warhead might land. ARPANET was developed by the military to distribute intelligence and create an indestructible knowledge organism; it would be everywhere and nowhere at once.

The placelessness of cyberspace and the Net has encouraged some gloomy predictions about the fate of the city. Indeed, from a purely practical standpoint, we don't really need the city anymore, regardless of how much we may love its cafes and galleries and the life of the flbneur. Many of the chores of daily urban life -- from dealing with business clients to renewing a driver's license and purchasing theater tickets -- can be handled from a stream bank in Vermont. And so Marshall MacLuhan declared that new media would make cities obsolete: "New York, Chicago, Los Angeles," he wrote, "all will disappear like the dinosaur." Digital technology and the Internet appear to challenge the very raison d'jtre of urbanism.

In America, this has particular appeal. We have historically been an anti-urban nation, and one that has long sought respite in a salubrious "middle landscape" equidistant from both the city and the wilderness. What the streetcar and the automobile initially delivered -- a suburban life in a manicured pastoral setting--the modem and motherboard have made productive. Now, in theory at least, the "middle landscape" is no longer an inert bedroom landscape, a place to which we retire at dusk; it can now be the site for a life both close to nature and fully engaged with the "great world" of affairs and ideas that for centuries only the city could provide.

The American quest for a mythic pastoral has not been lost on at least one savvy computer company. An ad campaign produced last year for Packard Bell by Saatchi & Saatchi makes a shameless appeal to middle-class fears of the city and the allure of a wired life in the countryside. Featuring an urban apocalypse worthy of Fritz Lang, the unsubtle message of this corporate parable is that the modern metropolis is hell, and the only path to a happy life is to flee its grip for the hills of rural America. The film and its message are frightening: aging patrons shuffle in resignation through a gloomy banking hall; the public library is patrolled by Nazi-like guards; a child hides behind an ancient edition of "Paradise Lost." Then, in a remarkable sequence, the viewer is swept skyward past skull-studded parapets and off to a fresh, green landscape. The clouds break and the sun comes out, shining brightly on a single-family home surrounded by rolling hills and a picket fence. Away from the city, close to nature, life is good again. The voice-over asks: "Wouldn't you rather be at home?"

Taken to an extreme, the combination of digital technology and fear of the urban environment can lead to a fractious, bifurcated society. When all the knowledge workers have bought modems to work at home, who is left to tend the city? Those with the education and means to flee the "evils" of the city will do so (in their sport-utility vehicles), while the others -- the impoverished, largely nonwhite underclass -- will be forced to remain (Packard Bell's use of light and dark is revealing indeed). Poverty of information will further alienate the marginalized, while the cognitive elite build themselves a virtual metropolis in the ether -- a world perhaps like the Apartheid Burbclaves in Neal Stephenson's "Snowcrash" ("Big ornate sign over the main gate: WHITE PEOPLE ONLY. NON-CAUCASIANS MUST BE PROCESSED"). On the other side of the fence, the Great Unwired will scrap together a living. A question like, "Wouldn't you rather work at home?" is somewhat lost on the homeless.

This is an admittedly radical view, and highly unlikely. Most evidence so far suggests that the city has prospered in the digital age -- from the proliferation of new software and multimedia districts (such as Multimedia Gulch in San Francisco and Silicon Alley in New York) to the generally robust health of the economy, due in large measure to the information technology industry and its phenomenal growth. Rather than wash away its purpose and vitality, the bitstream has given new life to the city of bricks.

In the future, cities will likely play even more strategic roles in the global economy of the information age -- particularly great metropolitan centers like New York, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. These are the pulse-points of the global network of information; any increase in the volume and intensity of its flow will add immeasurably to the power and influence of such centers. Admittedly, there are costs associated with maintaining a physical presence in the city, and many urban institutions will find it increasingly difficult to justify such expense when the products and services they offer are available digitally. But the "economy of presence," as Bill Mitchell and Oliver Strimpel have described it, works both ways; there are real and tangible values to "being there." The placeness of the city is something that can never be replicated digitally. No miracle of virtual reality can ever reconstruct the full sensory whirlwind of a New York City street corner at rush hour.

With webcams we can, however, watch the real thing. And that we want to do so reveals much about the values we have attached to the physical landscape -- values that have withstood, and perhaps have even been strengthened by, the winds of the digital revolution. Instead of eroding our attachment to place, webcams have, in a modest yet compelling way, reaffirmed our attachment to landscape, place and the built environment.

By Thomas J. Campanella

Thomas J. Campanella writes about landscapes, cities and the impact of technology on the built environment. He is a doctoral candidate in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. While procrastinating from his dissertation, he created the Wired Eye, which Cybersmith has called "the best, most organized webcam site we've ever seen."

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