Home > Uncategorized > Adding another layer of cynicism to the “smart” city revolution

Adding another layer of cynicism to the “smart” city revolution

June 20, 2016

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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 7.15.57 AM

Can we all agree that’s not what most people mean when they ask, how is this funded? This is more like an answer to the question, how will this make money? Please tell me if you can figure out who actually funds LinkNYC.

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.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 20, 2016 at 8:01 am

    I suspect I’ll wear smart-Depends before I’ll ever wear a smart watch…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Peter
    June 20, 2016 at 9:15 am

    Just to add the Nespresso bluetooth nonsense – you have to be physically at the coffee machine to load the capsule, but, instead of pressing the button on the machine its a lot smarter to press it on your phone (in bluetooth distance).


    • June 20, 2016 at 9:23 am

      That’s definitely an example of a “who would pay for this?” product.


    • A. Nony Mouse
      June 20, 2016 at 11:13 am

      I assume the idea is that you have the capsule pre-loaded, then when you are in the lobby of your luxury building you start the coffee, and it’s ready as you enter your penthouse.

      Oh, wait, Cathy is right, who would pay for this?


  3. Charles
    June 20, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    SMART = Surveillance Marketed as Revolutionary Technology

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Stephanie
    June 20, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    I agree that most “smart” products are just old products + sensors. Some of it is useful but most of it is not. But in cases like this markets are self-correcting: if it adds value, people will buy it and if it doesn’t, no one will buy it and the business will fail.
    Where you really lost me though is in the connection to public bathrooms and free tampons. I’m not sure how private investments in things like “smart” blenders have anything to do with public services for women. It’s not as if the counterfactual is that the company would have used the “smart” blender investment money to provide free tampons. What am I missing here? Is LinkNYC costing taxpayers? If so, I see the issue. Public dollars should go to the needs that are most urgent, and bathrooms would go before WiFi. But if LinkNYC is paid for through ad revenue then the public is basically trading their data for internet. I see where people might object to this because it isn’t really voluntary and the terms aren’t made clear to the user. But what does this have to do with public bathrooms?
    I guess what I am saying is that what do privately funded investments have to do with the need for public goods? The opportunity cost of “smart” blenders is NOT free bathrooms and sanitary products for students. So where is the connection?


    • June 20, 2016 at 2:59 pm

      I didn’t say there was a connection. I simply made two separate and cynical comments.


      • Stephanie
        June 20, 2016 at 3:49 pm

        Ah okay, makes sense! I misunderstood your underlying point, sorry 🙂 I still find it hard to be troubled by “smart” products, other than that they are annoying to hear about. I’m curious what you find objectionable about things like LinkNYC? If they aren’t preventing anyone from getting actual necessary services like bathrooms etc, and they are providing free-ish WiFi (it’s really a trade, for your data). That’s actually REALLY valuable to some people, especially those who don’t have expensive data plans. Apologies for pressing you on your light-hearted rant. Fee free to ignore! I only ask because I had a similar follow up question to the topic on Saturday’s Slate Money podcast (but I’ll keep my questions on that for that website!).


  5. Auros
    June 20, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    This seems to be the sort of problem you expect when income (which is to say, votes on how we should allocate the output of the economy) is increasingly concentrated among people who already have most of what they need.

    If you spread money into the hands of more people, those people would be willing to spend their money on more basic goods. But given “capital biased technological change”, plus concentration of capital in the hands of a few (r > g), what we’re seeing is pretty much what we should predict.

    If you simply jacked up the progressivity of the tax code, and redistributed a TON of money down to the poorest (perhaps via a very aggressive Universal Basic Income — like, $2.5k per month to every adult citizen), then a lot of people would quickly set about figuring out what those folks want and re-gearing the economy to provide whatever that is — restrooms, tampons, basic housing, etc… It’s not a cure-all, since a lot of poverty is driven by mental illness, and there really is no private-sector way to deal with that (since the folks who need the services often can’t come and offer to pay for them — as long as they need help, they can’t recognize that they need it). But it would put a huge dent in the problem.

    Done right, you probably also would reinvigorate “innovation” in the consumer economy, just by shuffling money around in a way that gave the middle class more power to start buying stuff that’s currently seen as “luxury”. Like, we’d start selling a lot more compact immersion circulators and sous-vide gear to hobbyist chefs. We used to see products emerge as luxuries and move rapidly down to being mass-market (see: microwave ovens); the downward movement seems to have slowed down a lot, as income growth among the lower 90% stalled out.

    The problem we have currently is that, since nobody can afford to pay for anything, all of our “innovation” is geared toward trying to figure out how we provide free services and then make money on the side somehow. If we put disposable income into everyone’s pockets, we could actually start selling stuff again.


    • Auros
      June 20, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      BTW, I do think that making wifi internet ubiquitously available for free, as a public utility, is a great idea. For better or worse, even relatively poor people tend to have smartphones now, and there has to be at least _some_value to them of having access to data service for free all over town — if nothing else, it likely helps coordinate childcare and that kind of thing. Obviously there are other things that would be as-or-more valuable to them, but I don’t think we should dismiss wifi kiosks out of hand.


    • Duunk
      June 23, 2016 at 12:41 pm

      Of course, once you start “re-distributing” as you say then more and more people will find less and less reason to “figure out what those people want” because it is far easier to have money redistributed to them than to actually be forced to work or do without. The whole equal results for everybody idea sounds wonderful until you actually think about what will happen in reality versus the initial Utopian idea.


  6. jkw
    June 21, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Smart products have nothing to do with “smart cities”. Smart city projects are about installing sensors to measure things like traffic flows, air pollution, bacteria levels in sewage, and micro-variations in weather so that we can better understand what problems a city has. With better traffic flow measurements, we can improve traffic light timing and have a better understanding of when are where people want to park. Extremely local temperature measurements are being used to diagnose building energy efficiency so that public money spent upgrading buildings can be better targeted., Putting wifi in old phone booths is not part of building smart cities, other than by providing a network for all the sensors.

    MIT is doing a lot of research on smart cities. Cambridge and Boston are benefiting from this research. Most of the sensors can’t identify people even if someone wanted to, although the sewer sensors can tell what kinds of food people in a small group of houses are eating.


  7. Andy
    June 22, 2016 at 9:41 am

    The problem with public bathrooms is that a small number of a awful people will create a nasty mess that ruins it for everyone else.


    • Auros
      June 22, 2016 at 5:51 pm

      I suppose in theory a “smart” public restroom could identify when it’s going from a state of acceptably clean, to waste being smeared everywhere, and figure out some way to sanction the people that are causing problems. (Maybe activate a spray down while they’re still in there? *g* More seriously, maybe you set things up so there’s a way to capture images of them on their way out (not while still in the stall, but at least as they’re emerging from it). Maybe you even require folks to provide some kind of payment method or ID to enter (though this only works if we arrange things so that such things are truly ubiquitously available), so if you’re reliably identified as damaging the facilities you can be fined…


    • Peter
      June 23, 2016 at 3:48 am

      The only way to avoid this, keeping it a public service (no police, no cameras, no payment, no ID) is to spend money on frequent and good maintenance, the way Sweden does. Many workers fixing damages. Slowly this will lead to the “awful people” being minimized and marginalized, as their acts will not have the impact they expect, and “good people” will become more active.


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