The Guardian Saturday Interview: William J. Mitchell. 26 November 2005

William J Mitchell does not look much like a cyborg. When I meet him in London, in the bookshop of the imposing Royal Institute of British Architects building in Portland Place, he seems every inch the retiring, self-effacing middle-aged family man, taking time out of his morning to buy some books for his sons. But as soon as we walk outside he makes a slightly eccentric observation. Across the road is the Chinese embassy and atop the building, Mitchell points out, sits a vast nest of telecommunications aerials and equipment. The thicket of wires and steel is imposing and a little sinister when you see it, but it is also strangely invisible.
Mitchell is the world’s leading guru of how city life has changed in the age of wireless communication, and author of the rather cultish book Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. He hails from Sydney, Australia, but is now a professor at MIT’s super-futuristic Media Lab in Massachusetts, where the technologies of the near future are given a test-run by some of the brightest minds in academe. Granted a couple of hours of his time, I ask him to take me on a tour of the digital, wirelessly connected world that is still being built all around us – in a city that he doesn’t really know.
We arrive at the top of Regent Street and pause for a coffee. While I order, Mitchell tells me – in a dry, languorous voice not unlike that of his countryman Clive James – how the new wireless technologies are making much office space in cities redundant. If you go into corporate offices today, he says, the private offices are closed and dark; the workers are out in hotel rooms or on the move. The wireless laptop culture, he says, is increasing the value of sit-down space just like this. “Unassigned space, what used to be thought of as non-productive space, is actually where all the real action happens.” Like this coffee bar, he suggests, above the sound of Frank Sinatra and the whirring of coffee machines.
Mitchell’s theory is that the city has always been moulding us into technology-dependent cyborgs, but that the new communications technologies have made all this more vivid by overlaying on the urban landscape a kind of central nervous system that plugs us deep into the wireless ether. Mobile phones, for example, have become so intimately a part of ourselves that they are a kind of umbilical cord, anchoring us into the information society’s digital infrastructure. A whole ragbag of new gadgets and wireless technologies hold up the promise of navigating our way through cities in exciting new ways.
The real impact of all this, argues Mitchell, is often better understood by culture and art. Take James Joyce’s Ulysses, he says. The book opens our eyes us to the romance and the hidden possibilities of Dublin as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus spend a day traversing its walkways, wandering in and out of each other’s lives. The story is sustained by random encounters, and it progresses using the technology of the time – the characters are forever jumping on tram cars, for example. But if the characters had gone armed with mobile devices, says Mitchell, the whole structure of the novel would have changed. It is the kind of book, he reckons, that needs to be rewritten for the digital era.
We have finished our coffees, and are now running a little late on our own city stroll, so I suggest we catch the bus. We stand on upper Regent Street waiting for the No 453, headed south towards Trafalgar Square. I need change for the ticket machine, and ask him if I can cadge 20p. Mitchell does not have any change, but instead offers the helpful prediction that these ticket machines will soon have outlived their usefulness. Much preferable, he says, would be an electronic tag on your person that would do away with even an electronic ticket. But what about privacy? Technology already exists that could make all our digital transactions anonymous, he says. With a little will, technology itself could be used to keep us out of the clutches of marketeers and away from the tentacles of government. He is beginning to sound like a watery utopian.
On its slow route south, the bus crosses the magnificent thoroughfare at Oxford Circus. It is in retail hotspots such as these, says Mitchell, pointing up towards Oxford Street, that mobile phones are already quietly improving human coordination. Schoolchildren, for example, are increasingly going out comparison shopping by exchanging text- messages, like a little consumer army. The bus passes the famous neon billboard displays that frame Piccadilly Circus, and again Mitchell is exercised by the possibilities. If those billboards were programmed with a coherent artistic vision rather than just advertising, he says, they could be used, a little like the old Georgian squares of London, to give an aesthetic consistency and a unity to the area. It’s already being done in various places around the world, he says – those in the know call it “dynamic architecture” – and it’s getting cheaper and more practical. The displays could be themed to change with the seasons or even at different times of the day. Piccadilly Circus could be made into a free speech zone, he says wistfully, a kind of digital speaker’s corner activated by citizens dialling in from their mobile phones.
At this point, I feel compelled to throw a spanner into Mitchell’s digital works. What about this guy, I say, pointing indelicately at a young man who is plugged into his iPod and staring blankly at the floor. He looks lost to the world. Well, yes, he says, but mobile devices can also increase your awareness of what is going on around you – people exchanging digital content, for example. Young people do it wonderfully, he says. They can switch attention, multitask, be involved in a real conversation at the same time as they surf the internet and send messages on their mobiles. But are they not not in danger of becoming permanently distracted? Not at all, says Mitchell. In his graduate classes at MIT, all his students bring in wireless laptops, and many of them check Google to verify and enrich what he’s telling them. The result, he claims, makes lessons much more open-ended and dynamic.
The bus arrives in Trafalgar Square, and Mitchell is immediately impressed at how wirelessness has encouraged a more flexible use of the space. The large groups of teenagers we see on the square, he says, will have converged here by making shifting arrangements to meet via mobile phone – so-called approximeeting. When they get here, they have a choice of chatting with each other or having a conversation with someone else on the other side of the world. We spy a businessman working at a bench and Mitchell wonders, wearing his anthropologist’s hat, what he might be working at and why. In the corner, a group of children are gamely chasing away pigeons, those unemployed relics from an earlier communications era.
When we leave the square and make our way up St Martin’s Lane, Mitchell notices a sign on a lamp post reminding us that we are being watched by CCTV. It is chilling, he says, but he supposes that that is the point. In public space, you understand that you are going to be seen, so it shouldn’t make much difference whether you are going to be observed by other people or on CCTV. In any case, there are ways in which we can get our own back on Big Brother. One student of his is in the habit of taking pictures of CCTV cameras in shops and retail spaces using his mobile phone. The idea is to make surveillance symmetrical and democratic – it also has the effect of driving shop owners crazy. In the Rodney King case, he reminds me, it was the use of a hand-held digital camera by a citizen that turned the situation around – a good example of how a democracy of surveillance can overcome the use of technology for political control.
Further up St Martin’s Lane, we stop for lunch. I turn my digital voice recorder back on, and it prompts a conversation about how difficult it is to escape leaving behind a data trail. But if we remain committed to the robustness and the inviolability of public space, Mitchell says, there is no limit to what could be done in the cyborg era. We could, for example, create electronic clouds of information, gossip and graffiti and attach them to public places to be read by other passers by. He could even, he says, review this restaurant for an invisible, wireless magazine – tipping people off, for example, that “this place sucks”. Mitchell has left his pallid-looking baguette nearly untouched, and I take his hint that the wireless future cannot come along too soon.