Against the Smart City I

In this post, I strategically deploy strawmen. 

Now also on my to-read list: “Against the Smart City (The City is Here For You to Use)” by Adam Greenfield. I’ve read some reviews of the pamphlet and it looks very worth the read.

The “Smart City” is a proposition forwarded by my employer and other large enterprise technology firms. I don’t mean to shill for my employer, and obviously all of this stuff reflects my own thoughts and not those of […]

Anyway.

The arguments I expect to find in the pamplet are absolutely considerable, and I’ve outlined them below. But the bastardization of these points that I’ve seen in reviews ought to be divorced from the clean claims I’m making below.

Found via Zhan Li: “A Review of Adam Greenfields Against the Smart City

A sketch of the grievances:

  • Efficacy: Building cities ex nihilo is incredibly difficult and generally should not be expected to be a worthwhile endeavor. True.
  • Policy: Many concept Cities are de facto authoritarian and intrusive, with massive amounts of information collection and processing. True.
  • Policy: Information platforms are expected to be privately owned. No social or organizational innovations factored in. True.
  • Logical: Cities don’t have “goals”. True (in the sense that they mean).
  • Normal Accidents: Massive system integration create large, single points of failure. Very true, and very scary.
  • Flexibility: Much of a city’s vibrancy takes place in the cracks between systems and regulations, where humans are making special spaces or artifacts of some kind or other. Sure.
  • Amateur Urban Planning: Technology firms have failed to properly amass the insights of mid-century High Modernism/Urban Planning and are retreading awkward, inorganic city layouts. Okay.

Before obfuscating, let me be clear that I agree with every single one of these grievances.

In fact, most of you could stop reading here.

A Defense against the “Strong Argument”

This part of the post is pretty likely to make a strawman of the actual source. I’m writing this in response to a more vulgar interpretation that I’ve seen in some reviews, and one that I know is popular. Maybe it will also help to defend me politically when I read the book and give a more positive review.

Nearly no one goes to the large technology firms and tries to buy a new city wholesale. An excerpt from the review above admits this and counters it with an absolutely reasonable point: the “hubristic” promotional material of the whole city is disseminated through media, becomes easily searchable by government aides, and ends up as a go-to logic in government documents and discourse, creating a quiet, piecemeal ideology.

This is definitely something that citizens and policy-makers should be aware of.

It needs to be said, and perhaps I’m just bloviating here, but this is the purpose of promotional material. These large technology firms try to engage governments and other business as clients, and so the material is very clear in communicating the efficiency, the supposed costs-savings, etc. Of course cities are not really so static and clean. And of course the model of the future city is reductive, notably, to the things being sold.

How, exactly, does a business sell a vibrant but incalculable, arbitrarily more expensive city of the future? Is the onus for promoting these [what to call them, “humanistic”?] values on the business selling the technology?

Some of the rhetoric of the promotional material is not grounded, I admit that. One firm talks about “perfect knowledge of the user”, which is an insane thing to say for website analytics, let alone for a city. That rhetoric was irresponsible, especially if anyone anywhere believed it (which I will grant because I’ve met people before.)

These firms also sell systems to other businesses. These firms also have visions of the retail experience of the future, for example. These visions also involve large systems and sweeping overhauls. Bits and pieces of them will be tried by entrepreneurial client companies. Those companies also have humans in them, and cultures, and pre-existing processes. Some things will work very well and some things will require further development, and many of these future experiences will be only partially enacted, due to cost prohibitions or new social/technological disruptions or competing visions of the various departments of these organizations.

Nobody wants to live in a sterile city. But the strong version of the humanistic view of the city feels to me like it errs too far in the opposite direction, wherein cities are not just illegible but magical. They are not. We cannot anticipate or systematize everything, and trying to might be painful. In another five years there will be new cities of the future to balk at. Either way, cities change, and people are among the forces that change them.

“How might we use networked technologies to further the prerogatives so notably absent from the smart-city paradigm, particularly those having to do with solidarity, mutuality and collective action?”

That’s a question worth considering. But should city departments be the key drivers of these technologies? I don’t know one way or the other- perhaps, if we want a decentralized, ownerless platform, it should grow somehow else?

 

And what alternative conceptions of technology in the urban everyday might support the open, tolerant, feisty, opinionated character we associate with big-city life, above all that quality variously described as canniness, nous or savoir faire?

I do think that illegibility can be encouraged, and that certain sources can pretty reliably create it. Humans are reliable mess-makers. When given any raw material, we will try to use it to play or to serve more apparent needs. I think that new systems might kill certain ways of living, but humans reliably build new ones. And I don’t necessarily mean that to trivialize the ways of life that policies/technologies have destroyed (or “will destroy”). But any city with humans living in it cannot be a sterile city, and cannot be a totally legible city either.

 

Anyway, I will probably actually enjoy the booklet when I read it, probably next week’s flight as a short reprieve from note-taking on Democratic Surround.