The smart city is a perpetually unrealized utopia

What is interesting about both early and current insights into urban sensor networks and the use that can be made of the data they produce is how close they are to Constant’s concept of what these technologies will achieve and beyond. The technological images of New Babylon were a vision of a smart city Not It has been distinguished, like IBM, by mining data at scale to increase revenue streams through everything from parking and shopping to healthcare and facility monitoring. New Babylon was unequivocally anti-capitalist. It was shaped by the belief that pervasive, conscious technologies would somehow, some day, free us from the hustle of work.

War and sensors

The apocalyptic news broadcasts from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izyum, Kherson and Kiev since February 2022 seem far from smart urbanism for IBM. After all, smart sensors and sophisticated machine learning algorithms are no match for the brute force of unguided “dumb bombs” raining down on Ukrainian urban centers. But the horrific images from these burning cities should also remind us that historically, the sensor networks and systems themselves derive from the context of war.

Unbeknownst to Constant, the highly “ambient” technologies he imagined to enable the new fun city were actually emerging in the same period as his vision was taking shape – from Cold War-fueled research at the US Department of Defense. This work came to a head during the Vietnam War, when in an effort to stem the supply chains flowing from north to south along the Ho Chi Minh Road, the U.S. military shot down some 20,000 battery-powered wireless acoustic sensors, advancing General William Westmoreland’s vision of “quasi-surveillance.” Instant of all kinds, 24 hours a day.” In fact, what the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) later called “network-centric warfare” was the result of billions of dollars in funding at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, among other elite American universities, to support research into the development of distributed wireless sensor networks – The same technologies that are now working on the “greater lethal force” of the army’s smartest technology.

A satellite image of the Ukrainian city
Networks of smart sensors are no match for the brute force of unguided “dumb bombs” like those raining down on Ukrainian urban centers.

Maxar Technologies

It is well known that the technologies developed by DARPA, the storied agency responsible for “stimulating the development of technologies that maintain and enhance the capabilities and technical superiority of the U.S. Army” (as a congressional report put it), have been successfully repurposed for civilian use. ARPANET eventually became the Internet, while technologies such as Siri, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), and a small hard disk are now a feature of everyday life. What is less well known is that DARPA-funded technologies have also ended up in the smart city: GPS, grid grids of smart lighting systems and power grids, chemical, biological and radiological sensors, including genetically re-engineered plants that can detect threats. This link between smart cities and military research is very active today. For example, a recent DARPA research program called CASCADE (Complex Adaptive System Configuration and Design Environment) explicitly compares “manned and unmanned aircraft,” which “share data and resources in real time” thanks to communications over wireless networks, to “critical infrastructure systems.” Smart Cities – “Water, Energy, Transportation, Communication, and the Internet.” Both, he points out, apply mathematical techniques to complex dynamical systems. A DARPA tweet places this link even more provocatively: “What do smart cities and air warfare have in common? The need for complex and adaptive networks.”

Both visions – the sensor-studded battlefield, the smart, interconnected city with distributed sensing, and massive data mining – seem to lack a central element: human bodies, which are always the first things to sacrifice, both on the battlefield and in the data mining mechanism of technologies. smart.

Spaces and environments equipped with sensor networks can now perceive environmental changes – light, temperature, humidity, sound or motion – moving through and through space. In this sense, networks are something akin to objects, because they are aware of the changing environmental conditions around them – measuring, characterizing and reacting to these changes. But what about the actual people? Is there another role for us in the smart city other than serving as convenient repositories of data? In his book in 1980 daily life practiceJesuit social historian Michel de Certeau suggested that the resistance of the “heavenly eye” to force from above should be met with the power of the “normal practitioners of the city” living “below”.

When we assume that data is more important than the people who created it, we limit the scope and potential of what diverse human bodies can bring to the “smart city” now and in the future. But a true “smart” city is not only made up of flows of goods and information networks that generate revenue streams for the likes of Cisco or Amazon. Intelligence comes from diverse human bodies of different races, cultures, and classes whose rich, complex, and even fragile identities ultimately make the city what it is.

Chris Salter is an artist and professor of immersive arts at the University of the Arts in Zurich. his latest book, Sensor machines: How sensors shape our daily livesjust published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

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