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Digital Capitalism Goes Analogue

Why we should be wary of Google’s smart city

Felix Simon
Jan 2, 2018 · 10 min read

Google’s parent company Alphabet wants to build the city of the future in Toronto. The project looks auspicious, but beneath its shiny surface lurks the cold hand of digital capitalism — and a threat to democracy.

The future begins in Toronto — © Wikimedia

The blueprint for the city of the future will be “a prime example to the rest of the world of how to build cities that have the greatest impact on our future.” We are talking about “Sidewalk Toronto”, the latest project of Google’s parent company Alphabet.

Right at Toronto’s waterfront, the Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs is planning to build a city that, according to the promotional video, will use “technology to enrich our daily lives”. It’s supposed to be the dream of technology optimists and forward-looking urban planners, a kind of Brasilia on drugs, adapted to the needs of its residents and steeped in the latest technology.

That Alphabet should be behind such a plan is hardly surprising. If there is one thing the Silicon Valley giant doesn’t lack then it’s ideas about how technology could change the world. With Waymo Alphabet works on self-driving cars, DeepMind is one of the leading artificial intelligence companies, Nest explores the “smart home” and with Calico, the Californian company hopes to conquer death itself. Thanks to the advertising revenue of Google Inc. money is hardly an issue. Alphabet’s interest in urban planning is only the next logical step in this line of endeavours.

The city as an open experiment

Unquestionably, there are enough reasons to act. With exploding population growth, cities around the globe find it difficult to keep pace. Many places get increasingly crowded which puts a strain on the infrastructure, public services and the overall quality of life. Solutions which help cities cope are urgently needed and Alphabet seems to be able to deliver. The solution: a smart city.

© Wikimedia

And the future begins in Toronto. It is here that the tech company plans to erect a model city which tries to address many of the issues of 21st century urban living: a networked district in which everything interlinks, a city which is “intelligent”. And Alphabet has many ideas for such a place.

The traffic system would use data from smartphones and other smart devices as well as thousands of sensors and cameras to determine the best routes for self-driving cars. Intelligent traffic lights, according to the first proposal, would detect pedestrians. Freight traffic, delivery services and garbage disposal would be managed by robots in tunnels. But that’s not all.

The vision is that sensors will keep an eye on almost every aspect of the model city, from overflowing rubbish bins to noise and pollution levels. In combination with other data sources, the planners hope, it would then not only be possible to minimise traffic jams and cut emissions but also to better regulate electricity and water consumption and even combat crime more effectively and efficiently. Lastly, Sidewalk Labs is also pondering the provision of “technology-backed primary health care” which would neatly integrate with other social services.

© sagesolar, CC BY 2.0

What makes Alphabet’s plans so remarkable is that the tech-giant wants to involve residents in the planning process — something that’s often not the case in urban development projects. This “bottom-up” approach, Alphabet argues, would not only provide solutions that could be implemented faster but also help the project to be tailored exactly to resident’s needs.

Alphabet claims that the results of the development process would not only benefit Toronto. Hand in hand with the evaluation of the resulting data, the company hopes to develop novel approaches to urban development which can be applied elsewhere. Sidewalk Toronto would then act as a master template for urban development projects around the world. Google’s parent company, with its years of experience in processing huge amounts of data and creating applications that users like to use, seems like the ideal candidate for such a challenge.

Brave new world that has such corporations in it

Alphabet’s vision for Sidewalk Toronto sounds good. Almost too good to be true. And indeed, the tech giant’s plans should send a chill down our spines. They provide a clear outlook on how digital capitalism will evolve in future. The times in which it was possible to believe in Google’s motto “Don’t be evil” are long gone. After the colonisation of the World Wide Web and the successful revolution of the media and advertising industry, Alphabet has now firmly set its eyes on every aspect of the analogue world. The Web is apparently not enough to please shareholders.

Eric Schmidt — © CC BY 2.0 JD Lasica/

“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.’” These are the words of Alphabet (ex-)board member Eric Schmidt at the launch event of Sidewalk Toronto. He was making a joke, yet his statement reflects the thinking behind many Silicon Valley projects.

Their promise is as simple as it is inherently ridiculous: one’s own technology will solve the problems that society and politics have not been able to cope with on their own. In this California ideology, Milton Friedman’s shareholder approach according to which entrepreneurial action is the optimal way to solve social problems mingles with an optimistic-naive technological determinism that sees technology and its heralds as redeemers for the world’s problems.

At Sidewalk Toronto we also encounter this way of thinking. But regardless of whether the technology will keep its promises, the conditions set by Alphabet in return for the construction of the district, are already more than questionable. Although Alphabet has announced that it will relocate its Canadian headquarters to Toronto and plans to invest $50 million in the development phase, it remains unclear for the time being who will end up financing the district and the technical infrastructure (and who will own it) once the “go ahead” has been given. The “Framework Agreement” between city and Alphabet remains under lock and key. To date, only a general summary is publicly available.

Statements by Alphabet’s subsidiary Sidewalk Labs (which is responsible for the project) leave no doubt as to the motives of the US company. Toronto, according to early statements, will have to suspend many existing regulations in areas such as transportation and construction law in order to make the new neighbourhood a reality — demands which are eerily similar to those by the controversial companies of the sharing economy, which in the past have called for exemptions from levies and certain consumer protection laws. In the end, this form of deregulation always benefits the companies and their shareholders, while control is wrangled from the hands of the state, the city and its citizens.

However, the biggest problems lie elsewhere. Alphabet does not conceive of the city of the future as living and, within certain limits, as a growing organism, but rather as a platform with users: Facebook in analogue, if you will. And on the platform, the owner dictates the rules. But residents are not experimental objects, cities not web services that can be adapted and optimised at will. The ideas of (technology) planners on the drawing board are not necessarily congruent with what people need or want in their living environment. Alphabet promises to respect citizen’s concerns, but if this promise will be kept and whether residents will also be able to refuse supposedly “smart” ideas remains uncertain.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

While questions about ownership and the downsides of private-public partnerships certainly matter in the case of Sidewalk Toronto, the most pressing issues pertain to the planned unhinged data gathering in the new district. We are already surrounded by a wealth of systems that aggregate, link and evaluate the data generated by us with and without our consent. In a networked city, potential data sources multiply, potentially creating a powerful and largely unregulated surveillance system that can measure every little detail of urban life — our life. The amenities that go along with this will cost us dearly.

Sidewalk Toronto brings the idea that people and their data are mere goods to its logical conclusion. In the networked city, everything that can be collected will be collected and analysed. To improve the quality of life, certainly — but also most likely to sell the information to anyone who finds a way to turn it into revenue. If someone can figure out how to turn the information about your daily commute or how often you flush the toilet into some extra cash, why not let them?

© Wikimedia

Alphabet is, of course, well aware of these concerns. Consequently, we are reassured in their brochures that “the privacy and security that everyone deserves” will be guaranteed. But what does that actually mean? What kind of privacy and security do we deserve? And who defines what we deserve exactly? Alphabet? The city of Toronto? The state? Nobody knows. An “opt-out” option most likely won’t exist. If you want to live in a smart city the choice seems to be between “suck it up” or leave. A detailed insight into which data will be collected as well as how it will be used? Again, no and no.

In order to get the project up and running, it is even conceivable that the company will have to resort to data from the city and the state to which they do not yet have access. But such access, if granted, would mean even more data and influence for Alphabet. It would be yet another remake of the problems that have occured in the context of Open Data initiatives. Taxpayer-funded and generated datasets are made public, seemingly for the benefit of all, but in the end, only major companies that know how to analyse and monetise such data will benefit. The creation of the data doesn’t cost them a penny, but the rewards are plenty.

Surveillance City

Finally, the question arises which problems — beyond commercialisation, privacy issues and the infiltration of public structures — a project such as Sidewalk Toronto brings with it. One aspect in this regard is the safety of the technology. If the successful hacking attacks on states and big companies in previous years have proven one thing, then that even systems with the best security measures are not infallible. Criminals suddenly face a multitude of new targets in such a city of the future. The prospect of an elaborate cyberattack is the stuff of nightmares.

But not only criminals pose a threat. Civil rights are also at stake. Nobody can guarantee that the state will not use the new infrastructure to better monitor its citizens. Once installed, it becomes even more tempting to use these systems for widespread surveillance. Why waste potential? In a robust democracy like Canada, the risk to the individual may still be low, but if the concept of a smart, surveilling city is transferred to authoritarian states a quite different picture emerges.

In the worst of all possible scenarios, Sidewalk Toronto becomes the model for a surveillance system par excellence in which behaviour is covertly controlled and sanctioned using algorithms — adaptive norms that operate in a black box, their decisions inscrutable to the uninitiated outsider. Whether the control in this dystopian vision of the future emanates from the state or a company is almost of secondary importance.

© Sidewalk Labs

None of this is yet reality, some aspects may never be. Whether it will be possible to stop the worst excesses of digital capitalism in this and similar projects in the future depends entirely on how the public and above all politicians act. Citizens, activists and journalists have the task of demanding transparency from companies like Alphabet. The current information asymmetry must be balanced, otherwise, Google and Co will make the rules.

Politicians, on the other hand, must ensure that laws are created and enforced that protect citizens and their data and prevent companies like Alphabet from monopolising urban development as the next sector to which they bring disruption. If worst comes to worst we must not shy away from pulling the emergency brake, instead of just talking about it. Cities are not platforms which can be endlessly optimised and monetised. That critical vigilance is necessary is beyond question. How we will live in the future will crucially depend on it.

Felix Simon is a journalist and regularly writes for the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Die Welt”, the “NZZ”, “Telegraph” and other outlets. He holds a BA in Film- and Media Studies from the Goethe-University Frankfurt and an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford, where he works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He tweets under @_Felix Simon_.


Perspectives on the Internet, Media, Journalism, Society, Culture and Politics

Felix Simon

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Journalist & Researcher. Words in FAZ, Die Welt, Telegraph, NZZ, and others. MSc @OIIOxford & Research Assistant Reuters Institute, University of Oxford.


Perspectives on the Internet, Media, Journalism, Society, Culture and Politics