Smart Cities and Bad Metaphors: A Better Urban
Future

Smart Cities and Bad Metaphors: A Better Urban Future

The new book by Shannon Mattern, A city is not a computer explores the language, data and dashboards that prevent people from creating safer, better communities.

Maybe it’s a cliche–I think I’ve used it myself–to say that scientists’ and philosophers’ explanations for how the brain works tend to metaphorically track the most advanced technology of their time. Greek authors believed that brains were hydraulic water clocks. European authors in the Middle Ages believed that thoughts were controlled by gear-like mechanisms. The brain looked like a telegraph in the 19th century. It was much more similar to a telephone network a few decades later. Shortly after that, no surprise, people thought the brain worked like a digital computer, and that maybe they could build computers that work like the brain, or talk to it. It’s not easy because, metaphors aside no one really understands the brain. Science can be exciting like that.

Brains haven’t been stopped from learning metaphors. Sometimes they mistake a map for the terrain and confuse a metaphor with a valid theory. Complex systems interact on scales too large or small to be observed in all their details. This is easy. This is true of the brain. It’s a mass of thought-meat that generates an individual mind. Researchers believe it comes from around 86 million individual cells that are woven together into an electrochemical jelly network. It’s also true of a city: the dense network that connects millions of these individual minds to create a community. People who write about cities, including myself, tend to look for metaphors that can be used in science. The city can be described as a computer, an animal or an ecosystem. Perhaps a city can be described as a computer. Shannon Mattern is an urbanist, media studies writer and author. That’s the riskiest one.

Mattern’s latest book, August 10, is out. It’s a compilation (with revisions & updates) of some her brilliant work for Places Journal called “A City Is Not a Computer”: Other Urban Intelligences. Mattern examines how this particular metaphor has impacted the planning and design of urban areas in 20th-century America. This happens on every level, including monitoring individual citizens as though they are bits and overseeing the large-screen data required to maintain a functioning city. Mattern believes that of all the information ways it can move through urban networks, public libraries would be better than the centralized, panopticon-like dashboards many cities are trying to create. Problem is, the targets people set for themselves to reach are often determined by what metrics they track. These metrics become their own metaphors and are often wrong.

Courtesy of Princeton University Press

These essays were the first to be published, and still have the greatest impact. The “City Console”, a collection of info dashboards and control rooms that were created to provide urban data panopticons, is an amazing history. This informational hub collects input about how municipal systems work, whether crime is being policened, what education levels are available, etc. The mission control of freeways and sewers. Mattern’s book contains my favorite example, the 1970s efforts of Salvador Allende (then the Chilean leader) to create Project Cybersyn. It featured a “ops room”, with button-studded seats that would make Captain Kirk proud and wall-sized screens flashing with red lights. They displayed slides drawn by hand, as no real-time data was available in the city. It’s goofy, but there’s a direct line from Cybersyn to the ways lots of US cities now collect and display law enforcement and other urban data in CompStat programs. They’re supposed to make government accountable, but they often justify worthless arrests or highlight misleading numbers–on-time transit travel instead of number of people carried, let’s say.

Mattern’s next essay is the title one. He warns against Silicon Valley giants trying to create smart cities. (The Google project, from a sibling company called Sidewalk Labs, would have featured wood skyscrapers, pavement that used lights to reconfigure its uses on the fly, self-driving cars, and underground trash tubes.) Most of the tech-enabled smart-city projects that failed have been abandoned or reduced. Hudson Yards, New York’s smart-city project didn’t have the same level of surveillance and sensor technology that its developers had promised. Cities still gather and share all kinds of data, but they’re not exactly “smart.”

Mattern was my conversation partner last month when I inquired why technology companies have not succeeded in improving the cities they serve. Mattern believes they have missed some of the most crucial aspects of citymaking. Mattern states that many more data-driven and computational ways to think about cities can give the false impression of all knowing. People in cities believe they are seeing raw truth, but in reality the filters they use determine their perceptions. Mattern states that “when everything can be computed, or when it’s possible to operationalize the poetic and evanescent parts of a city as a datapoint,” Mattern believes, this makes it seem like a metaphor.

This is a bad thing. The game isn’t over. Mattern states that even though some of the most charismatic ideas didn’t materialize, they did plant seeds and show possibilities. Mattern says that even though the most charismatic projects didn’t materialize, they planted seeds and showed possibilities. But the replacement might be corporate housing built by Google or Facebook in Silicon Valley that automatically pings cell phones and relies on biometrics to keep track of its residents. Maybe the residents won’t mind because no one is creating much housing. Tomorrow, company towns might seem as appealing to workers as in the 19th Century. But now each apartment comes with Alexa wired into it.

Mattern was a chemistry undergraduate and then did a PhD on media studies. He also worked in architecture, anthropology, and other fields. The book is a reflection of the way that a variety of academic disciplines view urbanism and how it can be made a place where everyone lives. Public libraries are a great place for city dwellers to learn about and access information on resources, education and jobs. Today’s libraries are very different from when Matern was writing her dissertation in 1990 on them. The stacks and cards catalogues of the past have been replaced by plazas, cafes, performances, web access and digital collections. Gen X is the only generation that can appreciate the joy of flying through a microfiche landscape at high speed. Although it’s sad to lose media, Mattern says that libraries are now more than just places to consume information. They also allow local communities to create their own collections and carry them out. They are a kind of antithesis of all the speed sensors and Bluetooth location sensors that “smart cities” may use to steal data from their residents.

Between the time Mattern wrote the essays and their collection into a book, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. There’s a terrible irony in that; you can’t really have a pandemic without cities. Viruses and bacteria can’t do as much if there aren’t many people within a reasonable distance from one another.

History of public health can be described as the history of urban design and urban theory. There are many links between urban theory, public health, and urban planning.

The twin epidemics of Spanish flu and tuberculosis combined with the fanciful ideas about wellness for those who could afford it, led to the birth of something else. As the architectural historian Biatriz Colomina has written, that was Modernism, with its clean lines, honest materials, porous relationship between the indoors and outdoors, more sunlight, more ventilation, and solid surfaces that were easy to clean. Modernism was much more than aesthetics. It was also a way to prevent disease.

A similar transition can be made again if we have a better understanding about how shared air transmits diseases such as Covid-19. Mattern states, “Rethinking workspace and office and wondering if flexible schedules can help to make a more humane workplace and aid with social distancing. We’ve been on quite the rollercoaster.” There was much to be hopeful about. There was a need for public space, parks and alternative modes of transport. We then see depressing arguments over infrastructure bills, and our inability to increase what is considered infrastructure.

This is where I realize that the metaphor crises in public and urban health history are intertwined. The issue is being driven by our own dashboards. Americans spent summer 2020 changing their web browsers to avoid Covid deaths, wildfire locations, and air pollution levels. We weren’t searching for community via TikTok or Facebook. Social media is nothing if it’s not our personal dashboards. The data that you gather will determine what information you have. Project Cybersyn had pointed the metaphor needle towards a Roddenberry-esque utopia. 2020, however, turned the dial to a disaster straight from William Gibson or Octavia Butler. Sci-fi dystopia, however, is not a good metaphor to avoid the end of this world.

Mattern’s expert dissection of metaphors about cities shows how they can lead to misguided thinking. It is a sign of failure in imagination and a lack of ability for a city to fulfill its main function, which is to protect against catastrophe. Cities are built by humans to protect themselves from economic failure, natural disaster, and human cowardice. When they are working, the city walls protect them. Cities are where machines are daisy-chained together to make houses, according to Mies van der Rohe, an architect. Cities are machines that enable cooperation and sustain life.

The recent disasters caused by climate change and diseases highlighted the dangers that these machines might fail. It has become clearer than ever in recent years that there are dire consequences for economic and racial inequality around the globe, especially in America. The warning lights are all flashing red: A conversation about cities can no longer be about the invisible data of surveillance cameras and stock trades. The visible and human-scaled creation of something better must be the focus. It is no longer possible for the built environment to be an accident. That would lead to disaster. It’s not a metaphor. Mattern states that the built environment is the result of many institutions and agencies, which often work in the background. It’s difficult to assign responsibility for this,” she wrote. Cities are not computers. But I could still use that analogy to suggest a simple idea: Cities need serious upgrades in their software. This is how justice and survival depend.

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Publiated at Tue 10 August 2021, 11:15:29 +0000

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