Note — Sep 08, 2019

18 Big Thinkers Take a Critical Look at Sidewalk Labs

Seen in → No.93

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Toronto Life magazine “asked 18 super-smart people to tell us what they think.” From Doctorow to Zuboff and Florida, to Bianca Wylie who’s not only thinking about these issues but doing the hard work of changing things on the ground. The series starts with the backstory, followed by short pieces. As with all city-specific articles I share here, they are all lessons, warnings, or models for smart cities in general.

[Wylie] We as a society—and not just Toronto—don’t fully understand when and how to hold tech companies accountable. This invites democratic disruption and loss of resident power. It won’t happen with a bang. It will happen through gradual erosion over years and years. And it will be driven by profit. […]

Sidewalk Labs isn’t asking for explicit ownership or control of public infrastructure, or to privatize it outright. They wouldn’t be so direct. Think about how tech companies never “own” your data, but you grant them unlimited licence, and with it, power, control, and the capacity to monetize it. Now imagine that digital infrastructure and data running through every one of the proposed systems Sidewalk Labs seeks to design—energy, water, transportation, garbage and more. […]

[Zuboff] Toronto now stands first in line to become surveillance capitalism’s real-world petri dish. Sidewalk’s proposals reveal the full arc of the new logic. With astonishing audacity, it claims the city as its laboratory and the lives of citizens as its free raw material for data creation, ownership, computation and monetization. […]

The real outcome here is the privatization of the city. In this version of our digital future, algorithms replace laws, as the computational truths that expand private capital’s revenue streams replace democratic municipal governance. The city is no longer a crucible of creativity, which is innately unpredictable. Instead it becomes a zone of certainty for the sake of profit. […]

[Doctorow (I like his vision.)] A phone that knows about you—but doesn’t tell anyone what it knows about you—would be your interface to a better smart city. The city’s systems could stream data to your device, which could pick the relevant elements out of the torrent: the nearest public restroom, whether the next bus has a seat for you, where to get a great sandwich. […]

Your device could present you with a list of possible things to do and ways to do them without telling anyone else about it, because, frankly, it’s none of their business. You then choose what to do, and your device gathers feedback to help it improve its suggestions in the future. You become the intelligence, acting on your behalf, expressing your unique human ability to comprehend the world.