A version of this piece was published at The New Statesmen / City Metric
The marketeers who put the prefix ‘smart’ in front of words like city; phone; watch; home; fridge and water (yes, water!) are not dumb. They are smart enough to realise that we are often dumb enough to believe that life without the technology that they say we cant live without is not as good as it was way back in the primitive 90’s when, like Neanderthals, we had to do things ourselves, like interact with real people for directions when lost, open the fridge door to see if we had run out of milk or actually remember how to spell words without being autocorrected by an algorithm.
Consider smart cities, where numerous networked information-gathering devices are currently deployed, including cameras; load cells and other ‘sensing devices that detect the presence of passing pedestrians and vehicles; audio surveillance devices that listen for the sound of gunshots; vending machines equipped with biometric sensors that can recognise your face. Beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — transmitting advertising, offers and other information to smart phones in the vicinity.
Or there’s the control centre that IBM built for Rio de Janeiro which the local Mayor claims is making the city safer while at the same time using the technology to deploy the Rio’s ‘special’ police unit to carry out the state's favela "pacification" programme. Something that Amnesty international is highly critical of: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas)– a 78% increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.
These kind of technologies often get called the internet of things, which presupposes that there is an internet of not-things, which there isn’t. The mineral Tantalum, used in the manufacturing of the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart-home- thingy-internetness — was mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the profits helped fund the deadliest civil war since WWll. Disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — travels at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called ‘fulfilment centres’ where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-now-1-click impulse-commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel is likely to go on and buy cat food a wireless router a teapot and a screwdriver. Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices.
The digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual / real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence. This is the so-called ‘smart city’, which presupposes that cities that are not smart are dumb, which anyone interested in the the millennia old history of cities from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia; the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to Londons public transport infrastructure, will know is not true.
As urbanist Adam Greenfield writes: “we need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act…nowhere in smart-city literature is there any suggestion that either algorithms or their designers would be subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability….The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.” This is the problem that a group of international academics are trying tackle.
The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler is investigating the ways in which so-called 'smart city' technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.
The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, says Fitzpatrick, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.”
One project is the development of a ‘clinic of contribution’ within Pleine Commune in Greater Paris (an area where 1 in 3 live in poverty) a clinic which attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children.
This forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence” which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area which responds to the loss of salaried jobs, due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society — which, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb stuff that digital technology, implemented in cities under the ideology of ‘smart’, is doing to us.