Note — Jan 26, 2020

The Case for … Cities that Aren’t Dystopian Surveillance States

Almost twenty issues ago I featured 18 big thinkers take a critical look at the Sidewalk Labs plan, which included a piece by Cory Doctorow. This one is quite similar but longer so he makes his point in more details with more examples. Essentially, instead of a smart city we could have smarter things in cities, and we could be the sensors instead of being the sensed. Somewhat akin to AI on the edge, where the computing is done on-phone instead of being sent to a server; here each person would keep their personal data local to their phone, getting external data pushed to them and sharing only as needed and according to their own preferences, not for companies hoovering all the data they can.

The problem is that the smart city, as presently conceived, is a largely privatised affair designed as a public-private partnership to extract as much value as possible from its residents while providing the instrumentation and infrastructure to control any civil unrest that such an arrangement might provoke. […]

This device knows everywhere you go, it knows what you buy, it knows whom you talk to and how long and maybe even what about. In other words, it is extremely similar to the device you’re carrying around right now – with the vital difference that it keeps what it learns about you private. […]

Such a city depends on a responsive, legitimate government, and on devices that are open and transparent, freely auditable and secured through widespread scrutiny of their inner workings. It is a city and a technology and a government oriented around its people, designed to treat people “as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else”.