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Can cities survive the Net's global village?

Rather than simply looking at how the unfolding cybernetic age is likely to affect individuals, William Mitchell's "e-topia" promises a more intriguing approach: an examination of how it will shape urban life.

He begins with a set of three eulogies for urban life as it has been: a fireplace at the center of a house, a well at the center of a desert village, and finally a Buddha under the Bo tree.

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Each scene notes major transformations of technology and social interaction with poetic brevity and suggests the kinds of change we are just entering into. The book itself, though suggestive and insightful in flashes, however, lacks the integrated vision this introduction suggests.

Unlike many writers on new technology, Mitchell avoids extremes of enthusiasm and is well-versed in historical examples that give his work ballast. Yet, if he avoids steering readers horribly wrong, he's lacking something to steer them wonderfully right. There are moments one feels moved by Mitchell's genuine appreciation of urban life, but they are fleeting, no match for his continuous fascination with the unfolding impacts of technology.

Ironically, one of the strongest aspects of "e-topia" is the frequency with which he points out the existence of multiple possibilities, choices that exist before us as groups joined either by geography or interest. Yet, because he rarely discusses what's needed to actualize these possibilities, he inadvertently increases our sense of powerlessness.

Since new technologies always interact with established ones and the customs that surround them, Mitchell convincingly argues, the future will be far from homogeneous. He provides a few scattered examples of how existing cities or types of business are likely to adapt.

Past periods of rapid technological change - England in the early 19th century, America in the later 19th century - have usually brought about convulsive social conflicts, involving severe urban distress. The question naturally arises: What will be needed to avoid repeating those mistakes on a global scale? Here Mitchell is virtually silent, save for one brief, resonant passage where he eloquently states some of these problems at the end of the chapter "Reworking the Workplace."

Despite these flaws, "e-topia" represents an important way of looking at the future, taking seriously the multiple intersections of the historical, the eternal, and the futuristic. There are brilliant passages here and there, suggesting the dawning of a way of thinking ourselves through the problems of urban future that are already growing around us. Those eager to explore these ideas will find more hints and hunches here than anything else. It's an uncertain beginning, but a beginning nonetheless.

*Paul Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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