Against the Smart City
Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware, has a new “pamphlet” out, Against the Smart City, a kind of first installment of a larger book in progress, The City is Here for You To Use. It’s a valuable polemic against the rhetoric of “the smart city” as presented especially in the marketing and publicity of corporate urban planning projects based on ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things. Like William Gibson, Greenfield recognizes the importance of a shift, a new context for understanding such technologies (and the hype surrounding them), what Gibson calls the eversion of cyberspace.
In an earlier time, during a period in which the physical world and the virtual were widely believed to be separate and autonomous spheres of being, this lapse of sensitivity [on the part of “smart city” planners] might have passed without comment. Both history and whatever urban texture that history gave rise to were thought of as impediments, sources of friction. things that might safely be discarded.In the last decade or so, he says, things changed.
But sometime between the Clinton administration’s 2000 decision to offer a clean GPS signal to non-military operators and the rise of Facebook as clearinghouse for unitary identity, circa 2008, the virtual was folded back onto the physical very decisively. In the process, much of what had once “passed into cyberspace” passed right back, if it had ever truly left. Far from dematerializing the self into a permanent state of “bodyless exultation,” our technologies of biometric recognition now increasingly moor it in and to the individual body. And as the world has, block by block and building by building, been translated into ones and zeroes—both mapped in ultra-high resolution by Google’s fleet of Street View cars, and parceled into discrete, geocoded Foursquare venues—we can see that the virtual realm those embodied selves occupy is one largely layered onto the actual, even at many points coextensive with it. As they have always been, then, the urban design challenges we find ourselves confronting in the networked era remain to a very great degree those associated with the movement of real bodies through real spaces. [Kindle edn., loc. 305]“Layered onto the actual” is right, which is why I don’t think the metaphor of the world’s being “translated into ones and zeroes” really serves the argument. As Greenfield said in the first place, it’s no longer assumed that the physical and the virtual are “separate spheres of being.” What Street View cars are doing is more like tagging for their own use (in both the markup and graffiti sense) an already data-soaked environment. Real spaces, with real radio waves radiating out from those houses, WiFi to be snooped on while wardriving. Anyway, it’s a stimulating and important book (or pamphlet).