The smart city is a perpetually unrealized utopia

What is interesting about both early and current views of urban detection networks and the use that could be made of the data they produced is the proximity and distance they are from Constant’s concept of what these technologies would bring. New Babylon’s technological images were a vision of a smart city no marked, like that of IBM, by large-scale data extraction to increase revenue streams through everything from parking lots and shopping to healthcare and monitoring of utilities. New Babylon was unequivocally anti-capitalist; it was formed by the belief that ubiquitous and conscious technologies would somehow, one day, free us from arduous work.

War and sensors

The apocalyptic news broadcast from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izium, Kherson and Kyiv since February 2022 seems far removed from IBM’s smart town planning. After all, smart sensors and sophisticated machine learning algorithms are no match for the brute force of unguided “dumb bombs” raining down on Ukraine’s urban centers. But the horrible images of these smoky cities should also remind us that historically, these same networks and sensor systems derive from the context of war.

Unbeknownst to Constant, the same “environmental” technologies he envisioned to allow the new playful city were emerging in the same period that his vision was taking shape, from Cold War-driven research in the U.S. Department of Defense. . This work reached its peak during the Vietnam War, when in an effort to stop supply chains flowing from north to south along the Ho Chi Minh Road, the U.S. military dropped about 20,000 acoustic sensors. battery-powered wireless, advancing General William Westmoreland’s view of “almost 24-hour real-time or near-real-time surveillance of all kinds.” In fact, what the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would later call “network-centered warfare” was the result of multimillion-dollar funding at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, among other universities. of the US elite, to support research into the development of distributed wireless networks. sensor networks: the same technologies that now fuel “higher lethality” for the smartest technology in the military.

satellite image of the city of Ukraine
Smart sensor networks are no rivals for the brute force of unguided “stupid bombs” like those raining over urban centers in Ukraine.


It is well known that the technologies originally developed by DARPA, the historic agency responsible for “catalyzing the development of technologies that maintain and advance the capabilities and technical superiority of the U.S. military” (as a Congressional report says) , have been successfully reused for civilian use. ARPANET eventually became the Internet, while technologies such as Siri, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), and the micro hard drive are now features of everyday life. What is less known is that DARPA-funded technologies have also ended up in the smart city: GPS, mesh networks for intelligent lighting systems and energy networks, and chemical, biological and radiological sensors, including genetic reengineering 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 Composition and Design Environment) explicitly compares “manned and unmanned aircraft,” which “share data and resources in real time” through connections through wireless networks, with the “critical infrastructure”. smart city systems: water, energy, transportation, communications and cybernetics. Both, he notes, apply the mathematical techniques of complex dynamic systems. A DARPA tweet puts this link more provocatively: “What do they have? in common smart cities and air warfare? The need for complex and adaptive networks ”.

Both visions — the battlefield full of sensors and the instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent city enabled by distributed detection technologies and massive data mining — seem to lack a central ingredient: human bodies, which are always the first. things to sacrifice, either. on the battlefield or on intelligent technology data mining machinery.

Spaces and environments equipped with sensor networks can now perceive environmental changes (light, temperature, humidity, sound, or motion) that move through a space. In this sense, networks are something similar to bodies, because they are aware of the changing environmental conditions that surround them, measuring, distinguishing, and reacting to these changes. But what about real people? Is there another role for us in the smart city apart from serving as convenient data repositories? In his 1980 book Practice everyday lifeJesuit social historian Michel de Certeau suggested that resistance to the “celestial eye” of power from above must be confronted with the strength of the “ordinary practitioners of the city” who live “below.”

When we assume that data is more important than the people who created it, we reduce the scope and potential of what various human bodies can bring to the “smart city” of the present and the future. But the real “smart” city doesn’t just consist of merchandise flows and information networks that generate revenue streams for Cisco or Amazon. Intelligence comes from the various human bodies of different genders, cultures, and classes, whose rich, complex, and even fragile identities 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 most recent book, Detection machines: how sensors shape our daily liveshas just been published by MIT Press.

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