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Google’s Guinea-Pig City - The Atlantic - 2018

Will Toronto turn its residents into Alphabet’s experiment? The answer has implications for cities everywhere.

Alphabet division Sidewalk Labs (a sister company to Google) is poised to spend $50,000,000 to redevelop a piece of Toronto waterfront called Quayside, filling it with "modular, dynamic" buildings that can be reconfigured as their uses change, data-gathering sensors that will help Sidewalk refine its own products and also allow Quayside to tune its zoning, usage, and management from moment to moment, as well as a new Google headquarters and a bunch of startups, and "affordable" micro-apartments starting at 162 square feet.

Molly Sauter's excellent critical piece on the Sidewalk/Toronto deal in The Atlantic shows how masterfully Sidewalk played the process, presenting incredibly detailed plans for the development that wooed lawmakers and citizens, and then later quietly announcing that these plans were really just guidelines that may or may not be followed in the final build-out; they also managed to get their agreement with the City of Toronto declared a secret, so that virtually no one -- not even key city councillors -- have been allowed to see it.

Sauter interrogates the promises of Sidewalk's smart city, raising the questions the city should have answered before greenlighting any action on the project, such as whether all those shiny startups will benefit Canada, or, as is customary, whether they will relocate to Silicon Valley as soon as they're successful enough to do so -- and also, how families are supposed to live in 162-square-foot apartments.

Google wants to run cities without being elected. Don't let it - The Guardian - 2017

"Alphabet, the parent company of Google, does not suffer from a lack of ambition. Its subsidiaries are tackling topics ranging from autonomous vehicles to smart homes, artificial intelligence to biotech life extension. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Alphabet has decided it will plan, build, and run a city, too – well, part of a city. It’s a bit more surprising that a major city is happily handing Alphabet a neighborhood of prime real estate to call their own. .../... There’s no doubt that urban labs can help in the design of powerful, useful technologies. But building the smart urban future cannot also mean paving the way for tech billionaires to fulfill their dreams of ruling over cities. If it does, that’s not a future we should want to live in."

Google’s plan to revolutionise cities is a takeover in all but name - The Guardian - 2017

"Aside from the institutional investors shopping for entire city blocks, Alphabet understands the real audience for its cities: the global rich. For them, the narratives of data-driven sustainability and algorithmically produced artisanal lifestyles – Sidewalk Labs even promises “a next-gen bazaar” replenished by local communities of makers – are just another way to justify rising values of their property portfolios. That Alphabet’s “urbanism as a service” might not appeal to the residents of Toronto does not matter. As a real estate project, its chief goal is to impress its future missing residents –above all, millions of Chinese millionaires flocking to Canada’s housing markets. Doctoroff was not equivocating when he told the Globe and Mail that Alphabet’s Canadian venture “primarily is a real-estate play”."

some choice quotes from Morozov and Bria's RLS paper

from p.6

"Combined with ever-improving drones and a new generation of policing robots, smart tech- nologies foster a context of heavily militarized urbanism previously restricted to hotspots like Fallujah."

- see also Graham, Stephen. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Ur- banism. Verso Books, 2011.

fuck off IBM! IBM is focussing on security related services - security for the reliable extraction of profits from dweebs. from p.7

" IBM solutions generally focus on law enforcement, predictive policing, and crime prevention, leading to the establishment of “Intelligent Law Enforcement Centers” and “Real Time Crime Centers.” In Atlanta and Chicago, for instance, IBM uses facial recognition, advanced video monitoring, and other pervasive surveillance technologies to provide police with accurate information allowing them to detect crime patterns based on Big Data analytics.."

most of the "smart city" solutions just use existing data feeds and turn them into extractive agents (usually through government contracts) that data could in principle be used to make life better but the finance markets are winning out by promising "innovation" and, especially security. from p.8

"Much of the value added of these technologies resides in system integration: Specifically, they take existing data feeds emanating from municipal departments and private suppliers and integrate them into an easily manageable and highly visible interface promising swift and immediate problem-solving at the turn of a knob, or—more likely—the click of a mouse.."

fuck off Goldman Sachs! from p.12

" t requires the ability to monitor and extract the maximum amount of value from resources under management, which entails perpetual surveillance coupled with nudging and other forms of producing de- sired behavior. Moreover, should monitoring capacity prove insufficient, it would be advantageous to have the means to produce statistics so obscure and impenetrable that the operating entity—in this case, Goldman Sachs— can claim that it has in fact met its target and should be paid the amount due (as regularly happens in actual projects financed through social investment bonds). Surrendering control over such statistical and computation capabilities—an inevitable consequence of the privatized smart city—is a sure way to be swindled by private service providers on a regular basis..

...The model’s obvious downside is chronic underinvestment into long-term facilities and planning of the infrastructure in question, as investors adopting a short-term perspective are not motivated to undertake expensive infrastructural upgrades. This is only part of the problem, however, as investors also seek to extract as much value from the asset under management in the short period of time they own it as possible, often degrading it much faster than a longer-term operator or owner would.

...Such models typically incentivize the operator to cut costs (e.g., by eliminating maintenance) and extract maximum rents (e.g., by charging users different rates depending on how much of the resource they consume or, say, their ability to pay). The ubiquity of “smart” and always-on sensory infrastructures allows investors to pursue both of these strategies at once: costs can be minimized and completely pushed onto users, while the ability to recognize the user and link any act of consumption with their entire life history facilitates a price that the user is unlikely to turn down. Thus, the proliferation of sensors, connectivity, and data analytics into the built environment is likely to entrench today’s highly financialized model of infrastructure provision.."

the Smart City is bait and switch p. 15

"In practical terms, the appeal of quick technological fixes to city bureaucrats cannot be explained by their ideological confusion or technocratic faith alone, for there are actual structural factors which make the enlistment of technology firms in the business of running the city as well as generating income for some of its inhabitants such an attractive choice. Understanding these structural factors should, at the very least, make us aware that articulating and executing a vision for a truly non-neoliberal smart city is much more difficult than it first appears, for it is not merely a matter of building different technologies or alternative property regimes around data generated in the city. These are necessary, but not sufficient conditions.... There are two sides to this regime of privatized welfare: One draws on advanced technology to deliver significant savings to consumers, thus concealing their rapidly falling real incomes, while another draws on the same set of technologies to produce either short-term, extremely flexible (even if highly precarious) employment opportunities in the gig economy, or quick speculative gains in the sharing economy, most- ly by turning one’s house—should one be lucky enough to own one—into a permanent hotel that also doubles as an ATM.