Civics for a Digital Age

Jathan Sadowski  in the Atlantic on “Eleven principles for relating to cities that are automated and smart: Over half of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and that number is rapidly growing according to the World Health Organization. Many of us interact with the physical environments of cities on a daily basis: the arteries that move traffic, the grids that energize our lives, the buildings that prevent and direct actions. For many tech companies, though, much of this urban infrastructure is ripe for a digital injection. Cities have been “dumb” for millennia. It’s about time they get “smart” — or so the story goes….
Before accepting the techno-hype as a fait accompli, we should consider the implications such widespread technological changes might have on society, politics, and life in general. Urban scholar and historian Lewis Mumford warned of “megamachines” where people become mere components — like gears and transistors — in a hierarchical, human machine. The proliferation of smart projects requires an updated way of thinking about their possibilities, complications, and effects.
A new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, by Anthony Townsend, a research director at the Institute for the Future, provides some groundwork for understanding how these urban projects are occurring and what guiding principles we might use in directing their development. Townsend sets out to sketch a new understanding of “civics,” one that will account for new technologies.
The foundation for his theory speaks to common, worthwhile concerns: “Until now, smart-city visions have been controlling us. What we need is a new social code to bring meaning and to exert control over the technological code of urban operating systems.” It’s easy to feel like technologies — especially urban ones that are, at once, ubiquitous and often unseen to city-dwellers — have undue influence over our lives. Townsend’s civics, which is based on eleven principles, looks to address, prevent, and reverse that techno-power.”