Sidewalk Labs is Google’s sister company that sells “smart city” technology; its showcase partner is Toronto, my hometown, where it has made a creepy shitshow out of its freshman outing, from the mass resignations of its privacy advisors to the underhanded way it snuck in the right to take over most of the lakeshore without further consultations (something the company straight up lied about after they were outed). Unsurprisingly, the city, the province, the country, and the company are all being sued over the plan.
Toronto Life has run a great, large package of short essays by proponents and critics of the project, from Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff (no, really, that’s his name) to former privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian (who evinces an unfortunate belief in data-deidentification) to city councillor and former Greenpeace campaigner Gord Perks to urban guru Richard Florida to me.
I wrote about the prospect that a city could be organized around the principle that people are sensors, not things to be sensed — that is, imagine an internet of things that doesn’t relegate the humans it notionally serves to the status of “thing.”
Our cities are necessarily complex, and they benefit from sensing and control. From census tracts to John Snow’s 19th-century map of central London cholera infections, we have been gathering telemetry on the performance of our cities in order to tune and optimize them for hundreds of years. As cities advance, they demand ever-higher degrees of sensing and actuating. But smart cities have to be built by cities themselves, democratically controlled and publicly owned. Reinventing company towns with high-tech fillips is not a path to a brighter future. It’s a new form of digital feudalism.
Humans are excellent sensors. We’re spectacular at deciding what we want for dinner, which seat on the subway we prefer, which restaurants we’re likely to enjoy and which strangers we want to talk to at parties. What if people were the things that smart cities were designed to serve, rather than the data that smart cities lived to process? Here’s how that could work. Imagine someone ripped all the surveillance out of Android and all the anti-user controls out of iOS and left behind nothing on your phone but code that serves you, not manufacturers or advertisers. It could still collect data—where you are, who you talk to, what you say—but it would be a roach motel for that data, which would check in to your device but not check out. It wouldn’t be available to third parties without your ongoing consent.
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.
A smart city should serve its users, not mine their data [Cory Doctorow/Toronto Life]
The Sidewalk Wars [Toronto Life]