Between Meghan’s elevation to Duchess of Sussex and yet another disturbed young man massacring his schoolmates in the US, it seems almost churlish to keep harping on the pell-mell digitization of our lives. But it is an issue that keeps coming up.
I’m talking about a culture that no longer understands itself because the forces of technological disruption are eating it alive. And no wonder: The pace of disruption gives us few peaceful moments to figure out what the hell is going on. No, I am not a Luddite; I’m actually fascinated by new, shiny digital toys. I want them, I do, though I have suffered for this addiction as we all do.
It begins with little things like a day spent trying to fix some kind of computer problem, which leaves you feeling stupid and small. Or the fact that, whether you need it or not, Microsoft will incessantly urge you to install updates on its products, thus invalidating your passwords and hard-won expertise. Or the irritation that you feel when your 88-year-old uncle decides that he hates email and simply stops being available that way, thus forcing you to write letters. Letters! Who does he think he is? More to the point, who do you think you are? A slave of the ease and convenience of the digital age; a person who has surrendered privacy and anonymity to Google, Facebook, Twitter.
And there is more! There are big things involved here, much bigger things like our democratic institutions, the way we interact with each other, how we spend our time. I hate to remind you, but most young and even old people spend their time staring at small screens; the algorithms running them are as addictive as heroin. And that is not by accident; it is by design and perfectly legal.
All of this is possible because we have been brainwashed to believe that new tech toys represent ‘progress’, because tech toys are so much fun, and because politicians have failed utterly to put into place the common sense rules needed to regulate them.
We do try: The governments of the UK and US have belatedly ‘grilled’ Mr Zuckerberg, and discovered that they actually didn’t understand the Facebook business model. But something good came out of it; everybody now knows that Facebook is snooping on us even if we’re not logged in or even a customer. And we now know they hold onto the data of where we went, who we talked to and what we bought forever.
But as the Guardian’s Dylan Curran pointed out, there is no reason why the data giants should be able to hoard your data points, like slave masters of old. “Tech firms keep our data forever; we need a Digital Expiry Date,” he writes, and of course, he is right. But even if a law to that effect were passed, who is going to enforce it? How?
Once they—Google, Facebook, Twitter et al, have you, they have you forever because they own the technical expertise. They can hide what they’re doing, easy peasy. And trying to untangle what and how they do what they do is no easy task, as the ‘whistleblower’ Chris Wylie, the brilliant Canadian lad from Victoria, tried to explain to the likes of Ted Cruz and fellow Senators when he testified in front of the House recently. It made for an interesting spectacle, the gay, pink-haired Wylie using extremely precise language to make sure he was getting his points across to technically barely literate senators. I give them high marks for at least trying to ‘get it’, but it was obvious that they were far more interested in scoring political points than understanding the wizard-like technology that enabled Cambridge Analytica to ‘harvest’ intimate details gathered by Facebook about millions of American voters, and then use that info to manipulate their election choices. To ‘weaponize’ it, as the phrase goes. That kind of power over people’s minds and hearts is something dictators and ordinary politicians have dreamed about since day one. According to Wylie, he has proof that both Trump and Brexit owe their existence to the clever algorithms and targeted ‘psyops’ of these companies. It will be fascinating to see if these inconvenient digital facts get any political traction in the real world.
Which is why I became rather agitated when I discovered that Alphabet, the parent company of Google and a spin-off company called Sidewalk Labs, is planning to design ‘smart cities’ for us dumb fucks. In Toronto, on a twelve-acre plot of crumbling downtown waterfront, they are going to build a digitized city called Quayside, a city that thinks for you so you don’t have to. It will be a utopian space with eco-friendly, sustainable buildings, self-driving cars, walkable parks with benches that track your every move, and talking fridges that tell you when to go shopping. Sidewalk Labs has been working on a pilot project since 2016 and is planning to start building in 2020. And they are investing no less than US$50 million. Impressive.
The good citizens of Toronto were invited to a public Town Hall of this wonder, where they listened to two distinguished white males, Will Fleissig, President and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, and Dan Doctoroff, Chairman & CEO of Sidewalk Labs, who did their best to convince the crowd that they only had the interests of ‘the community’ at heart. Denise Pinto, a charming young woman in a short white dress was the moderator, and called the proceedings ‘our fireside chats’, thus summoning the ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who actually did have the best interests of his community, the USA, at heart. But people were asking questions. About control and privacy. About affordability. About everything.
Doctorow led off with the bold assertion that he had learned a lot from his mistakes working on a huge urban renewal project in New York, under then Mayor Bloomberg. One of these was to do too much up front planning and not enough listening to ‘the people’. In this case, he insisted, they had ‘no plan in place’, and had come to listen so that they could create ‘something truly historic’. And tackling the troubling problem of housing affordability was top of mind, he said. I am sure he was sincere.
But here’s the thing: how does he propose to solve a problem that isn’t of his making? The reason why people in Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and London are being priced out of the housing market is, after all, nothing less than out of control globalization driven by out of control amounts of money looking for a place to land. And finding it in condos and houses that nobody ever lives in; they are, after all, investments vehicles. So when Doctorow talks about ‘affordability’, and how this smart city is going to solve that, I get a little antsy. I simply can’t believe him.
The other problem that they tried to address is the pesky one of ‘privacy’. Of course, the smart infrastructure would have to be open, and everyone would know exactly what kind of information is going to be collected, stored and sold. He was soothing and making promises, but also dreaming about how this would not end up as a ‘tech enclave’ but instead prove to be something they could prototype and ‘scale up’, in other words, sell to the world. He knows that other attempts at smart cities have ended up as half empty failures because they were sterile, expensive and a bit creepy. So this time, it’s not going to be like that. The community will be involved; they will have a voice. It will all be good.
Except that the basic model won’t allow for it. This is because technology is power, and companies like this make money because their technology is not free to you and me. It’s secret, it exists to make money. Questions like, how much of this data that this smart city is gathering is going to be sold, kept forever, or do we get to have any say in this process, were not answered. According to the BBC, quoting Toronto’s deputy mayor, Denzil Minnan-Wong,“The public has a right to know… the contents of a deal of this significance and this importance.” Absolutely! But Wong has seen the legal contract the city signed with Sidewalk Labs. Unfortunately, he was not allowed to share what he knows or comment on the content. He voiced his concern, but he also signed on the dotted line. As always, politicians 0, company 1.
The citizens of Toronto still don’t know what exactly it is they agree to, once they live in this digital Google paradise. And in any event, these well-meaning men are operating on an old and discredited model called capitalism and endless growth. We have known for ages that the planet simply cannot support it; that we must find other ways to live with each other and Nature.
Sidewalk Labs is not the first to venture into planned, smart cities. Two years ago, in October 2016, I stumbled on a European version, a gorgeous creation called Regen-Village, with similar characteristics though the focus was on building a village that was able to grow its own food, recycle its waste and turn it into energy. The ‘smart’ portion was downplayed though it was there. It wasn’t very clear who exactly was bankrolling this ambitious plan for a completely self-sufficient and digitized village, so I began an email conversation with a professor James Ehrlich at Stanford, whose name was listed as a contact person. It wasn’t until I asked him about the money that he got suspicious and basically bailed, never to come back. But I did find out that this project had the Obama administration’s stamp of approval. The State Department loved it. So much power in such few hands sent shivers down my spine and I wrote a blog: This is not what environmentalists dream of.
Revisiting Regen-Village now, I find it is flourishing in Holland, expanding all over the globe, and Ehrlich giving TedTalks about it. Yet, it seems quite benign compared to Quayside in Toronto. It’s serious about solving food sustainability, and that is something we can all understand and relate to. There are a few other smart cities, scattered across the globe. What all these projects have in common is a veneer of ‘community’ pasted over top-down, technocratic planning in the hands of a few very smart and powerful people. All they ask of us is to trust them. The Regen Village as well as the Quayside project both reference the mounting Climate Change issues re food and sustainability: it’s because of that disaster that we, the great unwashed and scared, should let them design a better life for us all.
And there’s the rub: I think trust in our elites, even if they are truly well-meaning, is eroding more quickly than the glaciers are melting. Unless that process can be reversed, through genuine openness and the willingness to admit that it is the capitalist juggernaut of unending growth that we must reign in first, we will solve nothing. Indeed, we will simply make things even worse. At the moment, it is clear that the technological speed and power to disrupt life as we know it is far outstripping our ability to adapt, socially and politically. Silicon Valley types are making dumb fucks of us all.
Proposing that yet more secretive technology will fix a world overwhelmed and confused by constant technical change is like saying we should build more pipelines to combat Climate Change.
Real vision can only come from the people at the grassroots. The dumb fucks, who know more about what they need and want than all the technocrats put together. Nobody is going to save us; we have to do that for ourselves. That is what democracy has always been about. If we can harness it so that our technological wonders can be our servants instead of our masters, we will solve our problems, we will create a new, better world. If we allow technology and endless growth capitalism to rule us, we are lost.