The Internet as a City
May 2, 2019

As part of my work on Citizen Hacks, it's been suggested that I read some classic texts on ethical technology and privacy. The following is a reflection on one of these books.


I just finished reading "City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn" by William J. Mitchell, the late dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. Mitchell compares the internet to a city in progressively greater levels of abstraction, starting with a single interaction in real life versus on the internet and moving to the human body, then building, city, and the world. In doing so, he shows how the internet, as a new mode of human connection, is causing our communities to grow beyond their immediate surroundings—towns, cities, countries—and span the globe.

Many aspects of the real world have parallels on the internet, but they also differ in fundamentally different ways. For example, you can have particular places in a city, like Central Park or Times Square, and on the internet, like my blog or this website. However, you can't describe the shape and dimensions of a place on the internet or give a stranger directions on how to get to it like you would with Central Park. Where the real world is spatial, the internet is antispatial, transcending physical form and borders. As well, our interactions in real life are synchronous—they happen face-to-face, in real time. On the internet, this is still possible through Skype or FaceTime, but most communication happens asynchronously. You don't have to reply immediately to an email or a DM, and waiting is fundamental element of these forms of communication.

In a city, different spaces serve different purposes—libraries are for reading and studying, shopping malls are for buying items, and your living room is a place to spend time with friends and family. But the internet has changed how we interact with these spaces. Spaces that were originally decomposed by use are now recombined in new ways. You don't have to perform tasks in particular locations around the city—you can buy clothes, do banking, study, and watch television with your family without leaving your living room.

Walls, roofs, and locked doors delineate sheltered and private spaces, while open squares and unlocked gates are characteristics of public spaces in cities. Similarly, encryption and authentication systems protect data from prying eyes on the internet, while other sites and resources are accessible by anyone with a wifi connection from anywhere in the world—these are the public realms of cyberspace, and they extend beyond jurisdictional limits.

Cyberspace has changed the fundamental principles guiding civic life, posing tough questions. Whose laws must be obeyed in cyberspace, if any? If the internet is international, who's in charge? Who has the legitimate right, or authority, to control access to digital information?  

Even though the book was written in 1995, these questions are still being seriously discussed, and are playing out in different ways. China has built its own isolated cyberspace and is quickly becoming a surveillance state that monitors and controls the behaviour of its citizens. Meanwhile Facebook, WeChat, and many other tech companies collect and own the data of their users and sell it to third parties, with the consequences shaping even the results of national elections.

Today, social challenges that we've already faced in our cities and countries—of jurisdiction, privacy, social change—have taken on a new, digital dimension. The internet is a powerful tool for human connection that is being used to shape society, both online and offline, for better or worse. At the same time, it is connecting and extending our communities on a global level. As Mitchell writes, "[t]his unprecedented, hyperextended habitat will transcend national boundaries; the increasingly dense and widespread connectivity that it supplies will quickly create opportunities—the first in the history of humankind—for planning and designing truly worldwide communities."  

You could say that software developers, computer scientists, and UX designers will be the architects and urban planners of the 21st century, with the formidable responsibility of building this new global space. But the internet has the potential to break down even the barriers between designers and users. So this responsibility ultimately falls on all of us. As internet users, how can we all take part in shaping a global society that works for everyone? How can software engineers and designers support and guide this process?