The case for … cities that aren’t dystopian surveillance states | Cory Doctorow

Source: The case for … cities that aren’t dystopian surveillance states | The Guardian, by Cory Doctorow

Imagine your smartphone knew everything about the city – but the city didn’t know anything about you.

Why isn’t it creepy for you to know when the next bus is due, but it is creepy for the bus company to know that you’re waiting for a bus? It all comes down to whether you are a sensor – or a thing to be sensed.

homes were sensing and actuating long before the “internet of things” emerged. Thermostats, light switches, humidifiers, combi boilers … our homes are stuffed full of automated tools that no one thinks to call “smart,” largely because they aren’t terrible enough to earn the appellation.

Instead, these were oriented around serving us, rather than observing or controlling us… In your home, you are not a thing, you are a person, and the things around you exist for your comfort and benefit, not the other way around.

Shouldn’t it be that way in our cities?

As is so often the case with technology, the most important consideration isn’t what the technology does: it’s who the technology does it to, and who it does it for. The sizzle reel for a smart city always involves a cut to the control room, where the wise, cool-headed technocrats get a god’s-eye view over the city they’ve instrumented and kitted out with electronic ways of reaching into the world and rearranging its furniture.

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.

This is an example of how a smart city could work: a place through which you move in relative anonymity, identified only when needed, and under conditions that allow for significant controls over what can be done with your data.

If it sounds utopian, it’s only because of how far we have come from the idea of a city being designed to serve its demos, rather than its lordly masters. We must recover that idea. As a professional cyberpunk dystopian writer, I’m here to tell you that our ideas were intended as warnings, not suggestions.