Computers changing the essential nature of cities

October 25, 2011

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(AP/Joe McDonald)
Global cities, particularly megacities, are increasingly functioning like computers, Barry Weisberg argues.

The great historical turns in the evolution of the city have been agriculture, industrialization, globalization and now, what has been called the “information revolution” in the last thirty years. Digital logic circuits have produced continuously faster, more powerful and smaller computers, mobile telephones, smart phones and countless other innovations. The fruits are many. The WorldCat allows librarians to access 1.75 billions entries from 72,000 libraries in 170 countries. Perhaps the most universal emblem of this era is the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are constantly clutching their mobile phone as if they were awaiting word of a heart transplant. This revolution has profoundly changed the city, its relationship to nature, and our relationship to each other. 

Today the digitization of the city reaches almost every urban resident in some manner, from traffic lights to observation camera’s on the corner. According to McKinsey & Company, internet sector consumption and expenditure is bigger than either agriculture or energy. Computers are used for a huge variety of functions that, we are told, make the city more efficient, safer and intelligent.

The first electronic computer emerged in 1946 and the worldwide web started in 1989. Computers store 40% more data annually. But computer ownership and internet use are still the privilege of a minority worldwide. Few people have done as much to escalate the digital divide as Steve Jobs of Apple. He was devoted to produce beautiful products that are not affordable by hardly anyone worldwide, and is alleged to have strenuously objected to price reducing initiatives. Although the executive of the richest corporation in the world, he made no effort to narrow the digital divide.

Cities, particularly large cities, are increasingly functioning like a computer. The traditional language of the city is also the language of the computer; “networks”, "gate," "port," "pipeline," "cache," etc. Cities are becoming more like computers. The “smart city” of the future will control movement, climate, communications, consumption, health, crime, energy and virtually every aspect of human experience. Feeling and thinking are not required for city life. As the connection to nature and to each other is increasingly regulated by computer people are alienated from nature and each other.

The euphemism for this transformation has been the “Smart City” or the “Intelligent City,” promoted by corporations such as Siemens or IBM. The direction of this transformation is "Super Intelligence," or machines that are more intelligent, and more capable, than human beings. This was portrayed in the character of Data on Star Trek, or the robots in I-Robot with Will Smith. Nowhere has this “intelligence” been utilized to greater effect than the military drones. Digital logic circuits, and their successors, are now co-producing our evolutionary future.

Charles Darwin declared that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” How well is our species adapting to this information revolution? As cities grow “smarter,” do they become more just or ecological? Is artificial intelligence better than human intelligence? Or is there a Faustian danger of trading ones soul to obtain greater information and power? Unfortunately, it has been intelligent people that led the planet into the current condition of ecological peril. And of course, intelligent people have unleashed some of the most barbaric episodes in human history.

What are the values of the information revolution? Technology is not neutral. Every technology contains the values of the people that designed it. Albert Einstein understood that, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Never has this been more so than today. We have utilized our sophisticated technology to occupy, dominate and threaten every ecosystem on the planet. Today, our technology dominates our cities, and us.

Increasingly digital networks are replacing people networks. The character of the digital relationship is not the same as a personal relationship. The quantity of the communication is not the same as the quality of the communication. One documentary on the Intelligent City boasted that “humans don’t have to make any decisions.” The seduction of communication, or technology, for its own sake is far different than the production of value. Some argue that information is the glue of society. While information has its value, we are glued together by the emotions we share, by love, not the information we acquire. The homogenization of experience, which is the result of the digital city, runs contrary to our development as a species.  Oliver Sacks said, “We must humanize technology before it dehumanizes us.” Or is the genie out of the bottle until death do us part?

It is often stated that computers can be used for extreme invasions of privacy and lead to extraordinary levels of vulnerability. The recent breakdown of the Blackberry is an instance of this vulnerability. What if the impact of the computer, and the entire information revolution, is the homogenization of the human being and therefore, our cities. What if the price of being plugged in is to be turned off?

 

Barry Weisberg is global cities contributor for Worldview. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.