For my latest podcast, I read my Guardian Cities column, “The case for … cities that aren’t dystopian surveillance states,” which was the last piece ever commissioned for the section.
The Guardian commissioned the piece after reading my Toronto Life blurb about how a “smart city” could be focused on enabling its residents, rather than tracking and manipulating them.
In the article, I revisit my 2015 Locus column on the idea of an Internet of Things that treats people “as sensors, not things to be sensed” — a world where your devices never share your data with anyone else to get recommendations or advice, but rather, where all the inanimate objects stream data about how busy they are and whether they’re in good repair, and your device taps into those streams and makes private recommendations, without relaying anything about you or your choices to anyone else.
As I’ve often written, the most important thing about technology isn’t what it does, but who it does it to, and who it does it for. The sizzle-reels for “smart cities” always feature a control room where wise technocrats monitor the city and everyone in it — all I’m asking is that we all get a seat in that control room.
It’s a safe bet that the people who make those videos imagine themselves as one of the controllers watching the monitors – not as one of the plebs whose movements are being fed to the cameras that feed the monitors. It’s a safe bet that most of us would like that kind of god’s-eye view into our cities, and with a little tweaking, we could have it.
If we decide to treat people as sensors, and not as things to be sensed – if we observe Kant’s injunction that humans should be “treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else” – then we can modify the smart city to gather information about the things and share that information with the people.
Imagine a human-centred smart city that knows everything it can about things. It knows how many seats are free on every bus, it knows how busy every road is, it knows where there are short-hire bikes available and where there are potholes. It knows how much footfall every metre of pavement receives, and which public loos are busiest.