Digital Native: How smart cities can make criminals out of denizens

People download information and share it without knowing about the intellectual property rights. On social media bullying, harassment and hate speech find easy avenues.

I first heard about smart cities in 2003. Sitting in India, it seemed to be a very strange concept being developed in the Netherlands, where the planners were trying to arm an entire city with smartness. The idea was that if we deploy enough cameras, devices that see, machines that hear, and data connectivity that envelopes the city in a seamless cloud, it might lead to more order, discipline, and control. To me that felt like a strange experiment because under all of those different imaginations of the city as a neat, organised, controlled environment, were assumptions that were alien to my Indian sensibilities.

It was strange to look at all the promises that “smartness” would deliver — it would make human life easier. It would increase safety and create order out of chaos. It would build new lifestyles that are filled with assistive technologies. In all of these, was the imagination of the city as a laboratory — controlled and efficient, as opposed to riotous and serendipitous. The cities were positioned as filled with intention, so that the interruptions of people, animals, festivals, traffic and crowds would be removed through the deployment of these digital devices and networks. What needed to be preserved was the city and its infrastructure, rather than the individuals and communities that make the city alive and exciting. We wanted our infrastructure to be smart, taking decisions on our behalf, and shaping our lives through the algorithmic protocols that they were coded to embody.

In that faraway time, these had felt like idle speculations. Fifteen years on, I have now come to realise that the biggest motivation for building smart cities was not really facilitating human movement, habitation and habits. Indeed, at the heart of the smart city project was the setting up of a massive surveillance apparatus that would clinically diagnose the unwanted people and processes in the city, and surgically remove them — with the assistance of predictive technologies that would be implemented in policing and planning these city spaces.

Smart cities were not constructed to make people’s lives easier. They were constructed because, increasingly, all the people in a city are imagined as “users”, who need to be instructed through terms of services, how they must behave and live in these city spaces. One of the biggest cultural turns in the massification of the digital web was that almost all users were imagined as potential criminals by the very virtue of them being connected. Internet service providers and regulators knew that if people are connected, they will be violating the law at some point or another, sometimes unknowingly. People download information and share it without knowing about the intellectual property rights. On social media bullying, harassment and hate speech find easy avenues. The largest traffic on the internet is for pornographic and often banned material which finds its audiences on the connected web. Spammers, viruses, hijacked machines, and, often, searches for unexpected items lead people onto the dark web where the questionable human interactions happen frequently.

The introduction of the digital terms of services was essentially to presume that the user was a potential criminal who leases hardware and software, and, platforms from proprietary companies and governments could then control and discipline the user through comprehensive surveillance practices. Construction of smart cities performs a similar function in the physical space. Instead of thinking about citizens as co-owners who shape city spaces, smart cities establish a service level agreement with its occupants, and reduces them to users. Any deviation results in punitive action or devaluation, often curbing the movement, and the rights of belonging to the city spaces.

While it is true that smart technologies can facilitate certain aspects of human life, they depend on unfettered data collection, predictive profiling, correlative algorithms and conditions of extreme invasion and control — which are all predicated on the idea that you will falter. And when you do, the technologies will be there to witness, record, archive, and punish you for the daily transgressions till you are wiped into becoming a predictable, controlled, cleaned up drone that travels in docility across the networked edges of the city. We will be assimilated. Resistance will be futile.

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