Smart cities the wrong way. Built to shill. Extended Intelligence. Dare to declare capitalism dead. ‘Unbelievable’ facial recognition machine. — No.77

This week: Thinking of smart cities the wrong way. Built to shill. Extended Intelligence. Dare to declare capitalism dead. An ‘unbelievable’ facial recognition machine. A beautiful book house. Chestnut agroforestry.

A year ago: What Will Our Society Look Like When Artificial Intelligence Is Everywhere?


You’re thinking about smart cities in completely the wrong way

Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s dynamic chief technology officer, explains their thinking around smart cities for citizens, starting with four ways to “ensure that the future of cities remains bright, inclusive and democratic.” 1. Tech can help citizens solve problems without waiting for “remote bureaucracies” (big tech). 2. City leaders have to be humble and trust citizens to find answers with them, the bureaucrat of the future does not preach, s.he learns. 3. To re-establish trust, urban leaders have to make sure that citizens’ data is “not only safe but that it’s actually generating public, not just private, value.” 4. Leaders have to reconcile private, often short-term, preferences with longer term public good.

Bottom-up democracy inverts how our top-down cities are run: it promises to make cities people-first, not technology-first. Done properly, it will also enable new forms of solidarity and collective action – not just the perpetuation of the “solutionist” mindset that reduces all problems to the level of the individual user or consumer. […]

Cities should be proactive in setting up a system of digital rights, informed by a “privacy by design” approach, that will take any guesses out of the game: citizen data should not to be commercially exploited under any circumstances. Cities can become key agents in the transition from surveillance capitalism, where data ownership is opaque, to a model where data is a common good, co-owned by all citizens.

Built to Shill — The fiction of convenience makes cities less livable

The author assembles some of the thinking in Samuel Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State and Raquel Rolnik’s Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance to show a few of the ways in which the “real estate state” operates. How the FIRE industry (finance, insurance, and real-estate industries) orients urban development to build “cities as investment vehicles instead of homes and shops for people,” and how Silicon Valley’s larger players are adding to the problem with the measuring, surveilling, and (eventual) automation of their vision of smart cities.

“[C]apitalism makes the best of planning impossible,” Stein writes: “any good that planners do is filtered through a system that dispossesses those who cannot pay.” Such is the fate of anyone living under what he calls the real estate state: “a political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the lives we lead.” […]

[V]acant homes outnumber the homeless three to one and self-sustaining neighborhoods succumb to the economics of chain retail and corporate rents. City budgets wither away as they take on all the financial risk of financing construction and maintaining infrastructure while developers build cheaper, flimsier, more self-similar buildings. […]

Big tech is poised to take the inscrutable filtering and sorting methods used on your Facebook Newsfeed or your Google search results and apply them to the streetscape. […]

[I]f the poor and over-worked only have enough money and time to shop at Walmart or order from Amazon, this is the system working as it was intended. With each attempt at saving today’s meager earnings you feed the hyperobject, giving it more power to extract more from you tomorrow.

Forget about artificial intelligence, extended intelligence is the future

It’s a short piece so there are spots that would have warranted expansion instead of a quick formulation but still, I agree with Ito’s main idea here. Considering our place in complex systems of systems, instead of the Singularitarian view of AI it would be better to aim for extended intelligence and to “design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems.”

We need to embrace the unknowability – the irreducibility – of the real world that artists, biologists and those who work in the messy world of liberal arts and humanities are familiar and comfortable with. […]

In order to effectively respond to the significant scientific challenges of our times, I believe we must respect the many interconnected, complex, self-adaptive systems across scales and dimensions that cannot be fully known by or separated from observer and designer.

Found via this John thackara tweet which is also worth pondering:

Welcome insights from Joi – although I’d re-phrase this to say that extended intelligence already exists – in the biosphere as a living system. Our future is about (re)connecting with that reality more than building a new layer from scratch.

Dare to declare capitalism dead – before it takes us all down with it

George Monbiot explaining how, after years of blaming different forms of capitalism, he has come to declare capitalism itself dead because it’s based on growth, growth can’t be decoupled from extraction and externalities, and through extraction “the entire planet becomes a sacrifice zone.” Also, an interesting view on communism which he sees, like capitalism, as based in growth and “willing to inflict astonishing levels of harm in pursuit of this and other ends.”

A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. There must always be an extraction zone – from which materials are taken without full payment – and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution. […]

This seizure of common goods causes three further dislocations. First, the scramble for exclusive control of non-reproducible assets, which implies either violence or legislative truncations of other people’s rights. Second, the immiseration of other people by an economy based on looting across both space and time. Third, the translation of economic power into political power, as control over essential resources leads to control over the social relations that surround them. […]

Another part arises from the creation of a new conception of justice based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere, shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.

Further: He also mentions this piece of his from 2017 on private sufficiency and public luxury, a framing I quite like.

We Built an ‘Unbelievable’ (but Legal) Facial Recognition Machine

This is pretty chilling. A NYT team used publicly streaming cameras, a service by Amazon (Rekognition), and headshot images collected from the websites of companies near their experiment. Result? Easily identifying people walking by for less than $100 USD and a couple of days work. Click through the see the images matched to identify the man in the story, completely different angle and yet they matched at 89%.

Over decades, businesses and individuals have installed millions of cameras like the ones we used, inadvertently setting up the infrastructure for mass surveillance. […]

But our experiment shows that a person equipped with just a few cameras and facial recognition technology can learn people’s daily habits: when they arrive at the office each day, who they get coffee with, whether they left work early.

Miscellany