Adding another layer of cynicism to the “smart” city revolution
There was an interesting essay by Jacob Silverman in the New York Times last week called Just How ‘Smart’ Do You Want Your Blender to Be? (hat tip Ernie Davis).
In it, Silverman makes a few really great points. First, that we are sold “smart” products like the Nest thermostat or the my.Flow tampon or cell phones, and all we really get is surveillance and a lack of control over our own stuff (because it’s called “hacking” if we try to fiddle with our phones). Plus he goes into the old English definition of smart – a verb meaning “causing sharp pain,” as in “that smarts!” – as another reason that we might not want a smart version of everything.
All true, but I think there’s a couple of important points missing in his narrative. Specifically, I don’t think he was being sufficiently cynical.
First of all, something very old-fashioned is going on. Namely, people are marketing things as “smart” because they want to claim they have new products so they can then claim they have a business.
In other words, I’m imagining 95% of the smart products were invented like this: hey, let’s figure out an old product we can add sensor technology to and then sell it like it’s a new product. Blenders? Tampons? Can we add sensors to tampons to figure out when the tampon is drenched in blood? WOULD PEOPLE PAY FOR THAT?
The answer is, generally, no fucking way, but there’s too much money in Silicon Valley for that answer to be heard. So these ridiculous companies keep making their ridiculous, unnecessary products.
The second and more cynical point is focused on the “smart city” fad. Silverman rightly points out that we now have free “smart” wifi kiosks all over NYC but we still don’t have public bathrooms. I’d add that we have “smart” tampons but still don’t make normal tampons available to, for example, homeless women or high school girls.
That’s totally fucked up in both cases, but it’s not because we are in love with the concept of “smart” technology. It’s because that’s where the money is.
Some entrepreneurs have decided that it’d be a
smart shrewd investment to install a bunch of wifi kiosks in old telephone booths, grab everyone’s telephone data as they walk by, profile them, and then tailor advertisements to them. They expect to make a big profit from this investment, which you can infer reading the misleading answer to the question, “how is LinkNYC Funded?” on their website:
Let’s think, by contrast, about how public bathrooms work. They cost money to build and to maintain. And yes, having a good public bathroom system would prevent a lot of nasty things from happening, like a bunch of arrests of people for being poor and having no place to pee, not to mention poop on the street. It’s the right thing to do. But, since we don’t think we will ever get more than half a billion dollars in revenue from them, no thanks.
Similarly, it’s not profitable to give poor women tampons, it’s merely the right thing to do (and it boosts attendance rates of poor girls).
The smart city fad is a boondoggle, a way of giving public space access to private advertising companies in exchange for a few nickels and a surveillance state. It’s kind of ingenious, because it’s in a sense selling a commodity – public space, and the concept of anonymity within a large city – that we didn’t even know we could measure, never mind commoditize. And in the meantime, we cannot expect actual ongoing problems to be addressed. Because we’re too busy being smart.