Response: Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City by William Mitchell

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In his book Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, William Mitchell describes how information technology – specifically digital, wireless networks which are accessed primarily through portable devices – fundamentally changes how we interact with others. More than anything else, “[c]onnectivity had become the defining characteristic of our twenty-first-century urban condition” (11). For Mitchell, we have given up the virtual reality fantasy that dominated predictions made in previous decades in lieu of subtler revolution: that of the networked self, the Me++.

This type of technological innovation is not new for Mitchell. He states that such advances are part of our human heritage, from “[w]alking sticks [which] provided an early, rudimentary form of exoskeletal support” (20) to automobiles which replaced the legs as a mechanism for transportation. The concept of a networked self is also something which came before the technological advances of the 21st century. Mitchell describes that even sexual reproduction itself can be considered part of this system, as it “is constructed to interface with other, compatible sexual plumbing for the efficient transfer of genetic information in fluid format” (22). With this point in mind, Mitchell spends a large majority of his book describing the various “circumscriptions” (41) that make the 21st century urbanite distinct from homo habilis, whose use of crude tools ushered in the stone age. These advances, which include “wireless coverage” (49), “miniaturized machinery” (64), “dematerialized text” (84), “location-tracking technologies” (115), and “[m]odularized, parameterized, mobilized software” (141) combine into a single genre of technological innovation which provides a new framework for human interaction: the neo-nomad.

For Mitchell, this change is beneficial for humanity as a whole. It “offers liberation from the rigidities and interdictions of the predefined program … a release from ways of using spaces produced and enforced by dominant social orders” (160). By opening up multiple paths of resistance and communication, such technologies make a broader struggle against oppression possible. However, is this fundamental shift necessarily advantageous for marginalized groups who desire such freedom from dominating social institutions? The only example that Mitchell gives in support of this new resistance is an uncited instance where suburban and urban “kids” (160) used cell phones to coordinate both “street demonstrations” and “raves” (161). These digitally literate youngsters then discovered that they could program worms and viruses to “clog channels of communication” (161) presumably used by their enemies. Such a stratum seems hardly oppressed when compared to their inner-city peers. It must be emphasized that new technology is often a privilege of wealth and unavailable to most marginalized groups. In contrast to this nomadic resistance, we can remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, arguably one of the most effective social movements in recent memory, which advanced without these digital information networks at all.

Furthermore, even if such actions did constitute egalitarian political resistance, such occurrences are rare in the networked world. Instead of using the digital world to influence the physical, many acts of political resistance stay in the network. When resistance becomes as easy as friending a politician in Facebook or writing a blog post, is it truly effective? As the 2004 election proved, mobilization on the Internet – specifically the so-called “blogosphere” – failed to translate into significant real-world political action. It is possible that nomadic resistance is solely symbolic, carrying little weight. On the other hand, information networks seem to significantly benefit those already in power. Mitchell discusses this topic, but determines that such networks are amoral; that is, they can be used for “good or ill” (192), as he keeps reiterating throughout chapter twelve. However, such a conclusion ignores the systematic bias that such networks have towards those who control them. And despite what Time Magazine said, multibillion dollar corporations still own MySpace and Blogger, the U.S. Government still indirectly controls ICANN, Choicepoint still sells your aggregated personal data to the highest bidder (non-governmental or otherwise), and the NSA can still obtain phone and Internet conversations without a warrant. When it comes to new powers afforded by the network, the common person does not appear to even break even, much less those on the fringes of society.