UPDATED: Politiken Byrum interview, May 2019
As a way of giving their audience a taster of my upcoming talks in Copenhagen, the folks at the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum recently interviewed me about the undead rhetoric of the smart city and other matters sundry. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirely, and I hope you enjoy it.
May 15th: Now UPDATED with answers to follow-up questions, in italics below.
What is a smart city according to you?
According to me? As is pretty well known, I guess, I don’t use the terminology, myself, as I think it’s pretty close to meaningless.
As to what others might mean when they deploy the term, they generally seem to mean an urban environment in which data collection and analysis and algorithmic response are harnessed to improve process efficiency and modulate the city’s performance, as assessed by a specified set of indicators and definitions, in something close to real time.
But not always, and that strategic ambiguity is key to the surprising tenacity of smart-city rhetoric over the past decade. Whenever someone points out that this vision of pervasive, eternal data collection and analysis is actually pretty dystopian, advocates invariably retreat to their fallback position, “Well, we didn’t really mean that, we simply meant that we can use networked digital technologies for education, or improved sanitation, or citizen empowerment.” After all, who could possibly be opposed to that?
What is wrong with the definition?
Beyond that it denotes a question-begging, intellectually untenable, commercially-interested, technocratic and frankly reactionary project, wrapped in the language of and trying to pass itself off as a public good? Nothing.
What is the risk of these so-called smart cities?
Because I’ve been cowardly in the past, and far too afraid of being dismissed as shrill, hysterical, ideological or unserious, I’ve generally confined my public comment on these technologies to the opinion that their deployment results in some pretty grim, airless, culturally sterile and psychologically fraught spaces. And it’s true: to the degree that they exist at all in the real world, “smart cities” clearly break all the ways in which cities actually generate meaning, value, order, security and pleasure.
But fairly early in the evolution of this domain of practice, we can already see that it’s far, far worse than that. It’s clear, for example, from how the Chinese state is using these technologies in its west to police, control, marginalize and suppress the Uighur minority that the worst-case totalitarian scenarios are far closer to being realized than I would have been willing to argue in print three or four years ago.
What’s happening in the Chinese west feels — in a word — genocidal, and I think it’s important to point out that the use of smart-city technologies toward just this sort of end was inherent in them all along. And anyone advocating for the smart city owns that. I’m willing to risk being labeled hyperbolic at this point, because where’s the harm in being called names compared to what the Uighur are being forced to endure?
Do you really consider that as a risk in democratic countries like The US, UK, and Denmark?
Firstly, of course, history teaches us that even nominally democratic countries are fully capable of using the technologies available to them in oppressive ways, either domestically or overseas. Secondly, there may well be lower-level polities or power groupings within a broadly democratic society that routinely act in oppressive ways, especially toward subject populations or outgroups, and you may wish to deny them the use of these technologies; it’s possible, for example, to harbor different feelings for the federal government of the United States than one has for the Chicago or the Baltimore Police Department, and to evaluate them separately. And finally, a country that you consider democratic now may not remain so. The retreat from democracy is a thing that happens, for all sorts of reasons, from an organic change in political sentiment to foreign subversion or invasion. And the problem, in all of these cases, is that once you’ve equipped an agency of state with the kinds of capabilities we’re discussing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to claw them back again.
Should we roll back the whole technological development and go back to how we made cities 10-20 years ago?
I try not to indulge counterfactuals. Whether “we” “should” or should not, no such thing is going to happen, outside of a general contraction of high-complexity, energy-intensive human civilization on Earth. I’m afraid we’re stuck with these technologies — and worse, their advocates — for the duration. The challenge before us is to figure out what, if anything, they’re actually good for, and prevent their spread outside those domains to others where their use is inimical to or corrosive of some important value we hold in common.
Don’t you see it as a positive gain that we can today anonymously track the movements of people on foot, on bikes, in cars, in public transport etc. in order to know how to improve our cities?
Well, firstly, dispense with the idea that there’s any such thing as “anonymity.” In 2019, anyone who argues that such-and-such a data set can be “depersonalized” or rendered anonymous is either culpably naive or simply not being honest with you.
But beyond that: “improve” for who, improve according to what set of criteria? When we can reach some kind of consensus regarding the answers to these questions, which are virtually never placed before the public for its consideration, then perhaps we can talk about the use of data collection and analysis to achieve those ends.
Improvement for instance in terms of infrastructure: less congestion, less pollution, less accidents. Don’t you see that as improvements made possible by data tracking, whether it is anonymized or not?
In a vacuum, obviously, all of those sound like worthy goals. But nothing in this world comes for free. There is always a trade-off involved in achieving those goals, and in the context of the smart city discourse the terms of the bargains involved are virtually never made clear to the relevant publics.
What seems plain to me is that were such terms made clear to the public, virtually nobody would accede to them. After all, there are manifestly other ways of addressing issues like traffic congestion and pollution that don’t involve the wholesale surrender of identificatory data, and it would be natural for an engaged populace to wonder why those measures weren’t pursued first.
You have once said that smart cities undermine the sense of neighborliness. Can you give an example?
Sure. We know that people subject to pervasive, highly-visible surveillance regimes consistently think of it as someone else’s responsibility to come to the aid of someone they see being mugged, or having a heart attack, or tripping and falling down, even if on some level they know there’s nobody actually watching the cameras in real time. Because they assume or believe that the incident has been logged and raised to the attention of uniformed first responders, they’re less likely to intervene, to lend a hand themselves. The technology of connection actually damages the ground of our relation to one another, and threatens to sunder that relation entirely.
It is clear that “normal” camera surveillance can have that effect, but do you also see/fear the undermining of neighborliness due to data tracking and other “smart city” features that cannot see heart attacks or assaults like normal camera surveillance?
Sure. One of the primary unstated organizing principles of the smart-city discourse as it’s evolved over the past twenty years is homophily — the idea that urban life can somehow be optimized according to each individual’s tastes and preferences, so that to the greatest extent possible we are only ever exposed to people who look, think, believe and act like we do, share similar tastes and hold similar conceptions of the good. What is this other than a form of induced narcissism, under the sway of which the psychic and emotional tools it takes to negotiate difference are allowed to erode? “Neighborliness” has to mean the ability to treat people who are different from us across multiple axes of consideration with courtesy, consideration and goodwill, or it is nothing at all.
What do you see as the negative outcomes of this? Loneliness, depression, stress?
Look around you. Or simply ask yourself how you feel — right now, wherever you happen to be at this moment.
I mean, look, it’s obviously a self-selected population, but whenever I give a talk I generally ask my audiences for a show of hands: who here feels desperate, overwhelmed, exhausted or burnt out by the demands our technology makes of us whenever it shows up in our lives? Now remember, these are, by and large, exceptionally privileged people, in relative global terms. And yet anywhere from half to two-thirds of the audience raises their hand — maybe some of them tentatively at first, but with more confidence once they see just how many other people feel the same way.
There’s only been one exception that I can think of in the past two years, at a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few months ago, to an audience mostly composed of architects. So maybe young Dutch architects have something going for them that the rest of us do not. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, the age of networked information doesn’t seem to be going particularly well.
The technologies of communication, mediation and knowledge production we’ve embraced are throwing up all sorts of unintended consequences for who we understand ourselves to be, the ways in which we organize ourselves as publics and the ways we identify, construct and address matters of public concern. And even if we ourselves have been lucky enough to avoid some of its uglier manifestations personally, we feel the general tenor of the shared sociotechnical regime in our bones, as a rising but so far mostly inchoate sense of dread. What smart-city advocates are arguing for is more of the same techniques and practices that produced this sense of dread in so many of us, and I don’t see any way to understand that except as either blithe privilege, conscious malice or frank insanity.
Can’t those feelings be due to so many other things, like for instance work and family problems? It seems like a lot of responsibility to put on technology.
I don’t place the responsibility on technology, or not entirely. I place the responsibility on technology as it has been developed inside late capitalism, in a way that places the needs of private concerns, venture capitalists, shareholders and markets far above (and generally to the exclusion of) any other set of prerogatives.
Where are those work and family problems coming from, anyway? Isn’t it at least worth taking seriously the notion that our truly ubiquitous technologies of communication and mediation may be undercutting our ability to maintain separate spheres for work and for intimate life, to cultivate stillness and silence, to spend time recuperating from the vicarious exposure to trauma that goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous mediation, etc.?
Do you see a risk of smart cities unwillingly becoming surveillance societies?
All smart cities are, by definition, predicated on the legitimacy of state surveillance. I don’t think “unwilling” enters into it. It’s chosen.
Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”
Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.
I once interviewed a scientist who argued that the political system including the public servants in municipalities and governments are not prepared for the digital revolution that society (including cities) is undergoing. Do you agree?
I do agree, in that all through the neoliberal era, municipal administrations have tended not to nurture as an organic institutional competence the technical sophistication that would have allowed them to parse and assess information-technical value propositions in-house, and are therefore generally far too willing to take the claims of technology vendors and other interested parties on faith.
How do you see this? Do you have an example?
I think what’s happening with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a pretty good example.
How would you define a city?
On one level, my own definitions are material, and tend to center on things like the density of individuals and institutions, the frequency of exchanges among and between them, and the complexity and degree of ramification of infrastructural and social networks. But there’s also an ineffable quality I think of as cityness, and it absolutely cannot be faked or willed into existence. At best it’s susceptible only to a kind of Potter Stewart test: you only know whether or not you’re in a real city when you’re actively citying and being citied by it. And if you do happen to be in one, the sensation is unmistakeable.
What is the purpose of a city?
Cities have no purposes. People have goals and they form institutions to achieve those goals collectively, which endows those institutions with a purpose.
We can certainly number civic administrations, in any number of flavors, among such institutions, but it’s a deadly category error to confuse the civic administration with the city itself.
What is a well-functioning city?
One in which the lower-level Maslovian needs of inhabitants and visitors alike are comprehensively provided for, and in which through physical form, institutional design and cultural preference all people are helped to become fully realized as individuals, self-determining as a collectivity and considerate as participants in the broader, extra-human ecology.
Can’t a city become too inefficient?
Again, there’s no such thing as a global, uninflected “efficiency.” We have to think in terms of efficiency-for-whom or efficient-toward-what-purpose.
If a city institutionally tolerates the clogging of its arterial streets with private vehicles, and that in turn suppresses emergency-vehicle response time, then yes, I’d agree with you that this is inefficient and steps should be taken to redress the situation. If, on the other hand, a city’s people choose to spend a large portion of their time discussing the issues before them in public assembly, so much so that it impacts their contribution to economic growth, I’d ask what other goods might that commitment be generating that aren’t showing up in the key performance indicators you’ve chosen to focus on?