Article by Zhile Xie: “This is not a surveillance system—nobody is watching it 24 hours a day,” said Erik Caldwell, director of economic development in San Diego, in an interview where he was asked if the wide deployment of “smart” streetlights had turned San Diego into a surveillance city. Innocuous at first glance, this statement demonstrates the pernicious impact of artificial intelligence on new “smart” streetlight systems. As Caldwell suggests, a central human vision is important for the streetlight to function as a surveillance instrument. However, the lack of human supervision only suggests its enhanced capacity. Smart sensors are able to process and communicate environmental information that does not present itself in a visual format and does not rely on human interpretation. On the one hand, they reinforce streetlights’ function as a surveillance instrument, historically associated with light and visibility. On the other hand, in tandem with a wide range of sensors embedded in our everyday environment, they also enable for-profit data extraction on a vast scale, under the auspices of a partnership between local governments and tech corporations.
The streetlight was originally designed as a surveillance device and has been refined to that end ever since then. Its association with surveillance and security can be found as early as 400 BC. Citizens of Ancient Rome started to install an oil lamp in front of every villa to prevent tripping or thefts, and an enslaved person would be designated to watch the lamp—lighting was already paired with the notion of control through slavery. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch has detailed in his book Disenchanted Light, street lighting also emerged in medieval European cities alongside practices of policing. Only designated watchmen who carried a torch and a weapon were allowed to be out on the street. This ancient connection between security and visibility has been the basis of the wide deployment of streetlights in modern cities. Moreover, as Edwin Heathcote has explained in a recent article for the Architectural Review, gas streetlights were first introduced to Paris during Baron Haussmann’s restructuring of the city between 1853 and 1870, which was designed in part to prevent revolutionary uprisings. The invention of electric light bulbs in the late nineteenth century in Europe triggered new fears and imaginations around the use of streetlights for social control. For instance, in his 1894 dystopian novel The Land of the Changing Sun, W.N. Harben envisions an electric-optical device that makes possible 24-hour surveillance over the entire population of an isolated country, Alpha. The telescopic system is aided by an artificial “sun” that lights up the atmosphere all year round, along with networked observatories across the land that capture images of their surroundings, which are transmitted to a “throne room” for inspection by the king and police…(More)”.