In Memoriam: William Mitchell

Anthony Townsend's picture
I learned with great sadness about the loss of William Mitchell, 65, this past friday after a long battle with cancer. Bill was the chair of my Ph.D. committee, a mentor and a friend.


Bill's influence on my life has been profound - his 1996 book "City of Bits" arrived on my desk just weeks after I began my master's studies in urban planning at NYU. Not only did it confirm my hunch that something very interesting was going on at the intersection of physical place and the Internet, but laid out a whole road map of research questions and experimental avenues which shaped my entire career, and which I still expect to be exploring a decade from now. No one has stood astride the intersection between architecture, urbanism and information technology the way Bill did - and I doubt anyone will ever equal his foresight, insight and desire to engage in building the future through design.


More than just being one of the smartest people I'll ever have the chance to know, Bill was incredibly kind - a quality often in short supply in the competitive academic world of tenure, grants, and peer review. After a year in my doctoral studies at MIT, fighting against advisors who didn't understand my research interests or goals, I came to Bill. While I wasn't the sort of technical whiz kid Bill usually mentored, he must have recognized that I was lost in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where in 1998 few of the faculty understood why I cared about the geography of Internet infrastructure, or could see any significance of my research. By taking me on as an advisee, the infinitely busy Dean of the School of Architecture helped me develop my ideas into something both significant to the world, and meaningful to me.


One other thing that Bill brought to academia was his wit and humor. I remember reading his books and thinking "wow, you can be smart... and funny. What a novel concept." In a world of dry, soulless academic prose, Bill's writings sparkled with storytelling, big ideas and pointers to the diverse discourse from which he alone could glean the invisible threads of continuity. He delighted in the absurd, especially when it illustrated new disruptions at the intersection of emerging trends. He used his wit and humor to reach an audience far beyond the walls of the university, and get them excited about the future they could create. In a world of gloomy urban forecasts Bill was one of the few showing how we could sieze the reins of technology and change the bad designs of the 20th century, its cities and its transportation systems, into something better: an "e-topia" as he dubbed it. We all owe it to Bill's legacy to work towards that dream.
Anthony Townsend is a research director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, California.


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