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The hidden ideology behind the "smart city"


Writing for the Verso blog, Adam Greenfield, the author of Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, parses the unacknowledged ideology that silently shapes the discourse around “smart cites.” Greenfield points out that the technological infrastructure—the software, hardware, and code—proposed for smart cities is too often regarded as politically and morally neutral, when if fact it is informed by a very specific and troubling worldview, one that tends to sees “technology” as inherently good, always and everywhere. Greenfield suggests that we not only need to become aware of the ideology shaping future of smart cities; we also need to intervene to shape them differently. Read an excerpt from his piece below, or the full text here.

This isn’t simply a classic Two Cultures problem, nor merely a matter of semantic distinctions (or “wordsmithing,” as every blithely ignorant boss you’ve ever had has characterized the notion that precision in language matters, and that different words actually have different meanings). History is replete with examples of software engineers who were both entirely conscious of the values enacted by the systems they devised, and intended for those systems to realize noncapitalist ends. In our time, though, after four solid decades of a regnant and seemingly unassailable neoliberalism in the core settings and institutions of global power, the overwhelming majority of those currently working on the smart city (as, indeed, on the algorithmic products and apps which now mediate so much of everyday experience) subscribe to that framework of values, more or less unconsciously. And they reproduce those values in every line of code they touch and every container they devise for the collection, storage and analysis of data.

And it matters profoundly. If we are to have any hope whatsoever of establishing the conditions of justice in the cities of the twenty-first century, we will need to raise the values embedded in software to the surface and force them to speak themselves. We will need to demand that the engineers who will craft the code that determines all the million material ways in which the networked city interacts with the people who live in it, and give it shape and meaning, are able to consciously articulate the things they believe (even, at the very most basic level, whether or not they conceive of the distribution of civic goods as a zero-sum game). We will have to stop treating the various networked technologies around us as givens, let alone uncomplicated gifts, and learn to see them anew as bearers of ideology. And we’ll need to understand the design of software as the level at which that ideology operates.