By Guy Crittenden
In her excellent article for The Intercept, "Google's 'Smart City of Surveillance' Faces New Resistance in Toronto," writer Ava Kofman reviews problems the world's largest digital technology company has encountered as it attempts to design and build an experimental community of the future or "smart city" on the port lands of Toronto, Canada's waterfront. The project — known as "Quayside" — aims to build an urban neighbourhood "from the internet up" i.e., construct an uber modern community with all the latest information technology embedded in it, to facilitate ease of living and a host of promised goodies. Quayside's website invites the public to join in as the developers "explore the potential to create precedent-setting standards for building affordable, sustainable, inclusive and prosperous communities."
"How to implement smart cities while respecting the full rights of citizens needs to be worked out if we're to live in sustainable communities, and not open-air digital prisons."
At first blush Quayside sounds exciting. Doesn't the world need smart neighbourhoods that utilize the latest built-in information technology? Isn't this the start of the Third Industrial Revolution (or the Fourth, depending who you listen to) that will use digital technology for a range of benefits, including greater energy efficiency and exploitation of "green" energy systems, better traffic flow, digital integration of public services, and so on? This is what Jeremy Rifkin extols, and it's why the new super-fast 5G wireless technology is being rolled out in cities around the globe.
Yet something has gone wrong. Terribly wrong. Kofman's article reviews fierce public criticism the world's largest smart city project encountered since last fall, when the plans for Quayside were first revealed. The project — a joint effort of the Canadian governmental agency Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc.) — will develop 12 acres of prime waterfront the southeast side of downtown Toronto. The criticisms mostly relate to the corporation's plans to collect personal data from residents via the heavily wired and connected infrastructure of the new neighbourhood. You can read Kofman's account to glean the details of why this is potentially nefarious, but it mostly relates to vagueness and even misleading statements about who will ultimately access or control to the personal data.
The matter is only the latest high-tech evolution in a trend that's been in place for decades, which is sometimes called the "privatization of public space." We see it in the hollowed-out cores of North American towns and cities, and the sprawling archipelago of shopping malls and office buildings in urban and suburban areas. Where people once enjoyed public parks and other places to congregate where their rights as citizens are respected, people increasingly find themselves with fewer options for socializing outside corporate-owned spaces where their movements are monitored by security cameras, and where a security guard will ask you to move along if you linger too long or (God forbid!) lie down on a bench.
I'm as enthusiastic as the next person about new forms of development and construction that incorporate smart grid technology and green energy. But the whole "smart city" concept is in real trouble, and for good reason. First, the roll-out of the new 5G wireless technology that's supposed to network everyone in the so-called "internet of things" that Rifkin extols is being revealed as possibly very dangerous for human health. If you research this on the internet you'll find no end of positive articles designed to convince us that 5G is perfectly safe, but some scientists are sounding the alarm, like the more than 230 scientists from 41 countries who "have expressed their 'serious concerns' regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices already before the additional 5G roll-out."
"They refer to the fact that 'numerous recent scientific publications have shown that EMF affects living organisms at levels well below most international and national guidelines.' Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans. Damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plants and animals."
Even beyond 5G, we can't evaluate projects like Quayside without being reminded that corporations such as Google and Facebook have engaged in questionable practices in terms of how they collect people's personal information and then use it, for their own purposes or to sell that information to third parties. And they've changed their algorithms to censor information and collaborate with governments in "narrative management" for such things as proxy wars, as Australian blogger Caitlin Johnstone reminds us on occasion. Google/Alphabet's approach at Quayside is not reassuring in terms of precedent.
All of this must be understood in light of a larger macro-issue, which is the corporate capture of regulatory and other agencies, with dubious or dangerous results for consumers and citizens on a range of issues. (Big Pharma is just one good example.)
Certainly the resources and inventiveness of high-tech companies is something to exploit and incorporate in forward-thinking urban development schemes. But corporations — especially powerful ones like Google — must be tightly regulated and monitored in terms of such things as data collection and privacy. Agreements must be carefully negotiated with communities and elected officials need to protect the public interest and not quickly acquiesce to company demands for total access, for full spectrum surveillance of "consumer" citizens. The potential also exists for smart city projects to be nothing more than gentrification with lots of sensors, when we must build cities that benefit people from all walks of life and from every economic strata.
Near the opening of this article I used a phrase deliberately that has a certain creepy connotation. I referred to "experimental communities of the future" which was a reference to Walt Disney's Experiment Community of the Future (EPCOT) which was supposed to be an actual futuristic community. The scheme was modified in light of its disturbing and crypto-fascist dimensions, that would have seen mostly "white" American families living in a fanciful high-tech neighbourhood where they'd experience a goldfish bowl existence with spectators. In the end, the high tech vision for EPCOT became a theme park with that name at Walt Disney World in Florida. The physical community of homes morphed into Celebration — a purpose-built suburb of Orlando/Kissimmee near the theme parks, where the emphasis is less on Flash Gordon-type sci-fi futurism and more on a rather cloying Norman Rockwell nostalgia for an imagined and idealized United States of yesteryear where traditional antebellum homes rise above meticulously manicured lawns, and residents are subject to bylaws that control such things as the colour they may chose for window draperies (to maintain uniformity). Martha Stewart would fit right in.
EPCOT was abandoned in part because of the creepy quasi-fascist dimension of its tight controls and social ordering. Google/Alphabet's Quayside holds plenty of promise in terms of innovative design and smart technology implementation, but the company building it will have to embrace truly democratic approaches to succeed. No one wants to live in an EPCOT or Celebration where their personal information is collected from all their interactions — even just walking around and shopping — for later sale to private or governmental parties. The superficial story is inviting, but the possible darker corporate agenda is repulsive. How to implement smart cities while respecting the full rights of citizens needs to be worked out if we're to live in sustainable communities, and not open-air digital prisons.
Environment and business journalist and award-winning book author (The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls, Apocryphile Press) based in Innisfil, Ontario, Canada and Principal of Crittenden Communication. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org