Smart City from Zuboff's Age of Surveillance Capitalism

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From Shoshana Zuboff's "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism - The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power"

(pages 271 - 275)

IX. To the Ground Campaign

Google’s declarations; surveillance capitalism’s dominance over the division of learning in society and its laws of motion; ubiquitous architectures of extraction and execution; MacKay’s penetration of inaccessible regions while observing unrestrained animals with methods that elude their awareness; the uncontract and its displacement of society; Paradiso’s ubiquitous sensate environment; dark data; the inevitabilism evangelists: there is one place where all these elements come together and transform a shared public space built for human engagement into a petri dish for the reality business of surveillance capitalism. That place is the city.

Cisco has 120 “smart cities” globally, some of which have embraced Cisco Kinetic, which as Jahangir Mohammed, the company’s vice president and general manager of IoT, explains in a blog post, “is a cloud-based platform that helps customers extract, compute, and move data from connected things to IoT applications to deliver better outcomes.… Cisco Kinetic gets the right data to the right applications at the right time… while executing policies to enforce data ownership, privacy, security and even data sovereignty laws.”73 But, as is so often the case, the most audacious effort to transform the urban commons into the surveillance capitalist’s equivalent of Paradiso’s 250-acre marsh comes from Google, which has introduced and legitimated the concept of the “for-profit city.” Just as MacKay had counseled and Weiser proselytized, the computer would be operational everywhere and detectable nowhere, always beyond the edge of individual awareness.

In 2015, shortly after Google reorganized itself into a holding company called Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs became one of nine “confirmed companies” under the Alphabet corporate umbrella. Whether what even Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff, a former private equity financier, CEO of Bloomberg, and deputy mayor of New York City in the Bloomberg administration, refers to as a “Google city” succeeds, the company has interested the public by recasting our central gathering place as a commercial operation in which once-public assets and functions are reborn as the cornered raw materials earmarked for a new marketplace. In this vision, MacKay and Paradiso’s conceptions come to fruition under the auspices of surveillance capitalism in a grand scheme of vertically integrated supply, production, and sales.

Sidewalk Labs’ first public undertaking was the installation of several hundred free internet-enabled kiosks in New York City, ostensibly to combat the problem of “digital inequality.” As we saw with Google Street View, the company can siphon a lot of valuable information about people from a Wi-Fi network, even if they don’t use the kiosks.74 Doctoroff has characterized the Sidewalk Labs’ kiosks as “fountains of data” that will be equipped with environmental sensors and also collect “other data, all of which can create very hyperlocal information about conditions in the city.”

In 2016 the US Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a partnership with Sidewalk Labs “to funnel transit data to city officials.” The DOT worked to draw cities into Google’s orbit with a competition for $40 million in grants. Winners would work with Sidewalk Labs to integrate technology into municipal operations, but Sidewalk Labs was eager to work with finalists in order to develop its own traffic-management system, Flow.75 Flow relies on Google Maps, Street View vehicles, and machine intelligence to capture and analyze data from drivers and public spaces.76 These analyses produce prediction products described as “inferences about where people are coming from or going,” enabling administrators “to run virtual experiments” and improve traffic flow.77

Doctoroff postulates a city presided over by digital omniscience: “We’re taking everything from anonymized smartphone data from billions of miles, trips, sensor data, and bringing that into a platform.”78 Sidewalk refers to its high-tech services as “new superpowers to extend access and mobility.” Algorithms designed to maintain critical behaviors within a prescribed zone of action would manage these data flows: “In a world in which we can monitor things like noise or vibrations, why do we need to have these very prescriptive building codes?” As an alternative, Doctoroff suggests “performance-based zoning” administered by the ubiquitous apparatus through the medium of algorithms. These processes, like Varian’s vehicular monitoring systems, are indifferent to why you behave as long as they can monitor and control the behavior you produce. As Doctoroff explains it, “I don’t care what you put here as long as you don’t exceed performance standards like noise levels.…” This is preferable, he says, because it enhances “the free flow of property… that is a logical extension of… these technologies.”79 Why should citizens have any say over their communities and the long-term implications of how luxury high-rises, hotels, or a residential building going commercial could affect rents and local businesses as long as an algorithm is satisfied with noise thresholds?

When Columbus, Ohio, was named winner of the DOT competition, it began a three-year demonstration project with Sidewalk, including a hundred kiosks and free access to the Flow software. Documents and correspondence from this collaboration eventually obtained by the Guardian describe innovations such as “dynamic parking,” “optimized parking enforcement,” and a “shared mobility marketplace” that reveal a more troubling pattern than the rhetoric suggests. Sidewalk’s data flows combine public and private assets for sale in dynamic, real-time virtual markets that extract maximum fees from citizens and leave municipal governments dependent upon Sidewalk’s proprietary information. For example, public and private parking spaces are combined in online markets and rented “on demand” as the cost of parking varies in real time, substantially increasing parking income. Optimized parking enforcement depends on Sidewalk’s algorithms “to calculate the most lucrative routes for parking cops,” earning cities millions of extra dollars that they desperately need but that arrive at the expense of their citizens.

Cities are required to invest substantial public monies in Sidewalk’s technology platform, including channeling municipal funds earmarked for low-cost public bus service into “mobility markets” that rely on private ride-sharing companies such as Uber. The company insists that cities “share public transport data with ride-sharing companies, allowing Uber to direct cars to overcrowded bus stops.” The Flow Transit system integrates information and payment for nearly every kind of transport into Google Maps, and cities are obligated to “upgrade” to Sidewalk’s mobile payment system “for all existing transit and parking services.” Just as it requires public-transit data, Sidewalk also insists that cities share all parking and ridership information with Sidewalk Labs in real time.80 When asked, Doctoroff has emphasized the novel blending of public functions and private gain, assuring his listeners on both counts that “our mission is to use technology to change cities… to bring technology to solve big urban problems.… We expect to make a lot of money from this.”81 In April 2016 a “curated group of leaders” in tech, media, and finance met at the Yale Club in Manhattan to hear Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff’s talk: “Google City: How the Tech Juggernaut Is Reimagining Cities—Faster Than You Realize.”82 His remarks provide a candid assessment of the “Google city” as a market operation shaped by the prediction imperative. He could not have been more direct in articulating Sidewalk Labs’ approach as a translation of Google’s online world to the reality of city life:

In effect, what we’re doing is replicating the digital experience in physical space.… So ubiquitous connectivity; incredible computing power including artificial intelligence and machine learning; the ability to display data; sensing, including cameras and location data as well as other kinds of specialized sensors.… We fund it all… through a very novel advertising model.… We can actually then target ads to people in proximity, and then obviously over time track them through things like beacons and location services as well as their browsing activity.83

Later that year, Sidewalk announced collaborations with sixteen additional cities, noting that achieving scale would enable it to improve its Flow software products. Doctoroff referred to these collaborations as “inevitable.”84

The vast and varied ground campaign already underway turns the prediction imperative into concrete activity. In pursuit of economies of scope, a wave of novel machine processes are honed for extraction, rendering people and things as behavioral data. For the sake of economies of action, the apparatus learns to interrupt the flow of personal experience in order to influence, modify, and direct our behavior, guided by the plans and interests of self-authorizing commercial actors and the buzzing market cosmos in which they participate. In nearly every case the agents of institutionalization present their novel practices as if they are one thing, when they are, in fact, something altogether different. The realpolitik of commercial surveillance operations is concealed offstage while the chorus of actors singing and dancing under the spotlights holds our attention and sometimes even our enthusiasm. They sweat under the stage lights for the sake of one aim: that we fail to notice the answers or, better yet, forget to ask the questions: Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?

In light of these ambitions, it is not surprising that Doctoroff, like Page, prefers lawless space. Press reports confirmed that Alphabet/Google was actively considering a proposal for a new city and that more than a hundred urban planners, researchers, technologists, building experts, economists, and consultants were involved in the project.85 The Wall Street Journal reported that although it was unclear how the company would fund the tens of billions of dollars necessary for such a large-scale undertaking, “One key element is that Sidewalk would be seeking autonomy from many city regulations, so it could build without constraints.…”86

In October 2017, Doctoroff appeared with Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reveal that Toronto would be the site of Sidewalk’s planned development. Its intent is to develop the right mix of technology that it can then license to cities around the world. “The genesis of the thinking for Sidewalk Labs came from Google’s founders getting excited thinking of ‘all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge,’” Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported Schmidt as saying, noting that “he joked he knew there were good reasons that doesn’t happen.” Then, just as quickly, the paper related Schmidt’s reaction when he first learned that Sidewalk, and by extension Alphabet, had secured this opportunity in Toronto: “Oh my God! We’ve been selected. Now, it’s our turn.”87


73. “Digital Transformation Map,” Cisco, August 3, 2018,; and Anil Menon, “Announcing Cisco Kinetic for Cities,” Cisco Blogs, October 4, 2017, (italics mine). 74. “Titan and Control Group Become Intersection,” PR Newswire, September 16, 2015, Sidewalk acquired a company called Intersection to build and administer the kiosks. Intersection was formed in the merger of Control, an urban-focused-technology company, and Titan, an ad media firm. Intersection describes itself as “an urban experience, technology and media company [that] will work with cities to solve modern challenges and reinvent the urban experience, creating more connected, livable and prosperous cities. The company will leverage the groundbreaking engineering and design capabilities of Control Group, which has more than a decade of experience with merging digital technologies with real-world user experiences in urban environments, with Titan, one of the country’s largest municipal and transit media companies and a leader in digital out-of-home advertising.” 75. Conor Dougherty, “Cities to Untangle Traffic Snarls, with Help from Alphabet Unit,” New York Times, March 17, 2016, 76. “Sidewalk Labs | Team—Alphabet,” Sidewalk Labs, October 2, 2017, 77. Dougherty, “Cities to Untangle.” 78. See Dougherty. 79. See Diana Budds, “How Google Is Turning Cities into R&D Labs,” Co.Design, February 22, 2016, 80. Mark Harris, “Secretive Alphabet Division Aims to Fix Public Transit in US by Shifting Control to Google,” Guardian, June 27, 2016, 81. Google City: How the Tech Juggernaut Is Reimagining Cities—Faster Than You Realize, 2016, 82. Google City. 83. Google City. 84. See Budds, “How Google Is Turning Cities into R&D Labs.” 85. Jessica E. Lessin, “Alphabet’s Sidewalk Preps Proposal for Digital District,” I nformation, April 14, 2016, 86. Eliot Brown, “Alphabet’s Next Big Thing: Building a ‘Smart’ City,” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2016, 87. Shane Dingman, “With Toronto, Alphabet Looks to Revolutionize City-Building,” Globe and Mail, October 17, 2017, ing/article36634779.