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Fear of a Smart Planet

Masdar City. Credit: Flickr User arwcheek

Readers unfamiliar with Adam Greenfield might flip through his new digital pamphlet, Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use), and wonder if the writer and urbanist is anti-technology in general. He’s not. For example, he helped devise this prototype interactive information service, which is definitely high tech. And the book — we’ll call it a book, even if it stands at a slim 150 pages — ends with a call to use technology to make what’s best about cities even better.

Still, sometimes the tone of Against the smart city sounds anti-technology. At least it did to me, and that question distracted me as I went.

The book is really about a specific suite of technologies, or maybe it’s better to say a specific deployment: The centralized, “war room” technology. Scaled, municipal level informatics. The city dashboard, much like the room from which Adam Susan rules Britain in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

For research, Greenfield went and found out everything he could about three smart cities — Masdar, SongDo and PlanIT Valley — which represent pretty much all of what the book is about. It’s not about smart cities in general, nor civic tech at large or even the idea of deploying more technology to manage urban life. Instead it explores these three specific places, and how their owners sell them, at great depth. There are asides into other cities, to help elaborate on certain points. In the end, though, it’s a detailed investigation with a narrow focus.

You can roughly break down Greenfield’s argument into three parts. First, the smart city is presented as generic and equally applicable to all places, even those that aren’t places yet (Masdar, SongDo and PlanIT are still under construction). As Greenfield points out, what’s important about cities is usually their specificity. “We act in historical space and time,” he writes, “as do the technological systems we devise and enlist as our surrogates and extensions.”

He then moves into the question of whether the smart city, as described by IBM, Siemens and Cisco, can work as promised. He doesn’t think it can, and argues that the smart city’s proprietary nature makes it too inflexible, that its excess of specification ignores how the world changes in unforeseeable ways, and that the idea of its many parts working together without breaking down is silly on its face.

Think about it this way. Has your printer ticked you off lately? How many years are we into the personal computer revolution? Thirty? Forty? You’d think we would have worked out the whole word processor/printer thing by now. Which is to Greenfield’s point: Computing technology is never seamless. In fact, the more it strives for seamlessness the harder it is to work with when trouble arises. “When systems designed to hide their inherent complexity from the user fail,” he writes, “they fail all at once and completely, in a way that makes recovery from the failure difficult.”

This all moves slowly toward his final point: That the technology hides a political agenda, despite its creators going out of their way to present the work as neutral. Nothing is neutral, of course, but Greenfield makes some of his strongest points in undermining the trustworthiness of the smart city salesmen here, by pointing out that each of the three cities advertises a loose regulatory and worker protection framework. Really, he argues, these cities are all about making profit and not any of the things that make cities important and meaningful. “The purpose and charter of municipal governance,” Greenfield writes, “in this literature, extends little further than the imperative to maximize shareholder value.”

From the beginning, Greenfield notes that at the absolute most ambitious, Masdar and PlanIT Valley are unlikely to reach much more than a quarter-million people. SongDo, meanwhile, is more of a curiosity within a larger Korean megacity. So why bother giving these cities such a careful treatment? They aren’t much more than showpieces of some compelling/unsettling technology, and not much is at stake in their future.

To which he would reply, I think, that the point lies not so much the cities themselves as in what they trying to sell. Many say that General Motors’ Futurama display at the 1939 World’s Fair sold America on a drivers’ destiny, and look where that got us. Showpieces are powerful.

Yet we are talking about entire cities here, not a diorama. While reading Greenfield’s treatise I found myself drawing on Daniel Brook’s A History of Future Cities and the story of St. Petersburg. Peter the Great built St. Petersburg at breakneck pace, at the cost of many lives. It was his own autocratic smart city, meant to strengthen and give glory to his rule by forcing Russia into modernity. In the end, though, St. Petersburg helped bring revolution — maybe the most significant revolution of the last century. It’s easy to look back on that story and consider the Czar naive for thinking he could give his people a great university and worldly perspectives without leading them to question his tyranny, but that’s the advantage of hindsight.

And that’s not to say Greenfield is wrong for coming down so hard on what he refers to as the “canonical smart cities.” His arguments are sound. In the penultimate chapter he writes that the three cities were all designed in ways that would have earned approval from Le Corbusier, who believed cities worked best when uses were kept in planned isolation from each other. We have known for almost half a century how wrongheaded that approach is. Yet don’t be surprised if, once the three smart cities get going, they confound the heirs of their creators as much as St. Petersburg did the heirs of its namesake.

In the same spirit, the larger goal of the three cities is not to privatize municipal services, but to own them. Here I find myself nodding along: It’s easy for salespeople to trick city officials into taking an IT product they don’t understand, resulting in stifled democracy. That’s why Philadelphia didn’t allow regular voters to see detailed election returns until much later than their suburban neighbors.

My all-time favorite short story is probably “‘Repent, Harlequin,’ said The Tick-Tock Man,” by Harlan Ellison. Published in 1965, it tells the story of a future in which all time is governed by The Master Timekeeper, a man who allocates minutes to everyone’s life. In his autocracy, people who are late cost the system. Even though no one knows when The Master Timekeeper has set their heart to turn off, they know that every time they let the system down they are punished by losing some more life. It’s a future that doesn’t seem so implausible when you read about companies that aspire to have “perfect knowledge” of residents’ energy usage and travel habits, as Siemens has promised city leaders in the materials Greenfield reviewed.

Yet technology has a way of taking on a life of its own. One can imagine that the Defense Department might have been a little more cautious about creating ARPANet if it had anticipated how the Internet would level the playing field for non-state actors. But it couldn’t have foreseen Wikipedia, just like Greenfield can’t foresee whether Cisco and Siemens and IBM’s switchboards will centralize power further or create weaknesses in the autocrats’ armor. It could go either way. Nothing creates unknown unknowns like new tech. And if there’s one thing time has shown us, it’s that eventually technology becomes available to everyone. That’s why, even by the end of Greenfield’s pamphlet, I was neither convinced that there was much to fear from these three non-places, nor that I want their developers to quit building them.

We decided to shoehorn this into the Book Club this month. You should still look forward to our take on Charles Montgomery’s Happy City by November 12.

Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Technical.ly Brooklyn.

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Tags: culturetechnologysmart citiesst. petersburg