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It's always difficult to integrate new technologies into society, particularly in the realm of work. The automobile let people live miles from their jobs, giving rise to the suburbs, commutes, traffic jams, and increasing the pollution in a crowded urban environment. Information technologies have also had a significant impact on urban life, allowing individuals to work from their homes either part- or full-time and to manipulate data instead of metal or wood.
In Digital Places: Building Our City of Bits, author Thomas A. Horan examines how digital technologies have changed urban life. Horan, who is executive director of the Claremont Information and Technology Institute and an associate professor in the School of Information Science at Claremont Graduate University, says that "the rise of cyberspace begs an examination of its connection to the physical world, the world of bricks and mortar." Building on William Mitchell's thesis that technology allows individuals and individuals to reinvent places, Horan examines "digital placemaking in homes, workplaces, libraries, schools, communities, and cities."
In Chapter 2, Horan starts out by looking at how digital technology lets workers combine their living and work spaces. It is interesting to note that home-based businesses are more in line with the 19th century tradition than the 20th. The author cites the common practice of combining a business and residence into a single building, such as by having a drug store on the first floor and the druggist's private residence on the second. He also reiterates the oft-made but very important point that virtual spaces, regardless of their design, can't replace the "third places", such as cafes and parks, where people gather outside of home and work.
In Chapter 3, Horan moves his analysis up a level, from individuals in their homes to communities, as exemplified by public institutions such as libraries, schools, and community centers. Schools and libraries are often hailed as the centerpiece of any future growth plan, with rhetoric along the lines of "if we can just get out kids online, they can learn more quickly and with less difficulty". While simple connectivity doesn't lead to instant results, Horan does make the salient point that the school shouldn't function on its own, independent of the students and their families. Instead, the school should seek to involve students in the network as active participants, integrating them into the local community and exposing their work to their peers beyond the local area.
Libraries, an important part of the foundation of any community, have been at the forefront of information technology, whether making journal indexes available on CD-ROM or by allowing community members to access and download those articles from Lexis/Nexis. Unfortunately, some library designs have shifted the emphasis too much in the direction of the digital. One controversial institution is the New Main library in San Francisco. Even though the library has twice the book storage capacity of its predecessor, critics argue the resources devoted to meeting rooms, media rooms, and networking infrastructure has left no storage space for 200,000 books, caused staff shortages in the vital cataloging and reference sections, and run an increasing budget deficit. While the goal of the library's architects was to make the building a broader community resource, the trade-offs against traditional library functions indicate the designers may have gone too far in the digital direction.
Chapter 4 covers digital technology at the city and regional level, emphasizing the democratic design principle, which involves citizens in the planning process and takes everyone's needs into account. Horan discusses an active rural networking effort in Minnesota as a baseline for meeting the needs of rural populations, but he also cites a Department of Commerce study indicating the "digital divide" is particularly severe among the urban poor, where few families have Internet access.
In Chapter 5, Horan summarizes his arguments and offers a seven-point plan of action to build the city of bits. While the actions center on government accessibility, e-commerce, connected learning communities, and working from home, they all have the central theme of using connectivity to build communities. Rather than treat any one institution as a stand-alone entity, Horan re-emphasizes the need for democratic design and integration.
Digital Places is a good book. Though many of the themes are familiar, Horan outdoes City of Bits author William Mitchell (who wrote the forward for Digital Places) by offering much more than a breezy overview of the potential brought by digital connectivity. By offering substantial depth on the issues he chooses to cover, Horan has added to the debate on design in the digital world.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of nine books and three online courses, including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books.