This week Cory Doctorow’s podcast features a reading of his article “The case for … cities that aren’t dystopian surveillance states“. It’s a pointed argument that we can get all the rich benefits of smart cities without the truly dangerous surveillance and needless complications that too often accompany projects that could otherwise improve our lives.
Imagine a human-centred smart city that knows everything it can about things. It knows how many seats are free on every bus, it knows how busy every road is, it knows where there are short-hire bikes available and where there are potholes. It knows how much footfall every metre of pavement receives, and which public loos are busiest.
What it doesn’t know is anything about individuals in the city. It knows about things, not people. All of that data is tremendously useful to the city’s planners and administrators, of course, as a way of planning and optimising services, infrastructure and future building.
Now, equipped with your device, you are prepared to be a sensor, rather than a thing to be sensed. As you move around your smart city, the things around you stream data about their capabilities, limitations, prices, uses and nature. Want to find a loo? Your device not only knows which ones are free, but also what time you habitually pee, and whether or not you’ve been drinking a lot of water and might need one. Want a free seat on a bus? Likewise, the device will tell you where there is one free. When you stand at a bus-stop, your presence, but not your identity, is registered, so that the transit system can adjust the vehicles and routes.
All of this is simply broadcast to all the devices in the vicinity, and your device can “tune in” to a stream of data simply by plucking it out of the electromagnetic spectrum, without activating a connection to the server that would leave a record of what you took an interest in.“The case for … cities that aren’t dystopian surveillance states” by Cory Doctorow