Who gets to compute the city?

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This week I’m thinking about the defeat (and possible resurrection) of the Amazon HQ2 deal in New York, plus the new wave of resistance to Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, and wondering how the fight over urban technology might change in shape.

Beating back the richest companies in the world feels like a victory for municipal self-determination – but also a sign of how bad things have gotten. Economic development officials are more than willing to give away billions to tech companies. Cities often don’t have their own vision for connected public services. Stopping the privatization of basic infrastructure is still an underdog effort.

As platforms aim for the bottom of the urban computing stack, I’m hoping that recent activism offers a way forward for tech justice at the scale of the city. 

Fighting Amazon in New York required a broad group of movements to mobilize around tech’s involvement in labor, housing, policing, and other systemic issues. By campaigning as a coalition, they brought a lefty analysis of technology into the organizing umbrella that’s strengthened progressive power here since 2016. Coalition members successfully pressured elected officials by pointing to tech’s simultaneous roles in gentrification, deportation, and union-busting.The state’s attempt to bypass local oversight also highlighted New York City’s lack of a comprehensive, participatory planning process (caution ⚠️ that link is a very deep rabbit hole). In contesting the deal, activists made clear that the city needs a democratic decision-making structure for major projects – one that actually involves communities who are most vulnerable to change.Torontonians have also been denied a good-faith process over two years of “partnership” with Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary hoping to develop a wired neighborhood from the ground up. Sidewalk has created a quasi-public entity to negotiate with government while repeatedly gaslighting the public over privacy and other concerns. In closed-door sessions, the company has tried to assume responsibility for public infrastructure, land use, lots of personalized data, and even tax revenue. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the CEO of Sidewalk Labs is Dan Doctoroff, the Bloomberg consigliere whose sweetheart development deals paved the way for HQ2). As Bianca Wylie keeps writing, resistance is finding a foothold in Toronto by loudly pointing out Sidewalk’s attacks on the very idea of democracy.

Alphabet has integrated more layers of “urban intelligence” than maybe any other organization. Between hardware like the LinkNYC kiosks, interfaces like Google Maps, and political entities like Waterfront Toronto, the company has pretty much built an operating system for privatizing the city.But plenty of other companies have already reshaped our experience of urban space by slotting into existing patterns of behavior and commerce. By linking recommendations to social graphs and digital maps, tools like Foursquare have created new mechanics of gentrification. Amazon Prime and Seamless deliveries have become indispensable by exploiting existing groups of low-wage workers even more deeply.Last year Kevin Roose wrote that “the entire economy is MoviePass now,” meaning people depend intimately on these apps because venture capital has subsidized them so deeply. What we don’t see is how they coerce labor, drive up rents, and erode cities’ tax bases in the process. As users, we interact with seamless experiences designed to obscure the violence that enables them.To turn the built environment into a proprietary platform, tech companies need us to view the city as a set of problems that need solving. They have to normalize their monopoly position and do for space what gig economy platforms have done for work and social media has done for communication. This has already happened in a handful of sectors: think how often you hear people use “Seamless” or “Uber” as verbs. Unless activism provokes consumers into seeing platforms in a different light, like #DeleteUber did after the Muslim ban in 2017, this kind of thinking becomes second nature.If we want the city to keep existing as a diverse and poetic social body, we need to defend our imagination of the public sphere as a physical space where generations of people have coexisted, celebrated, eaten, danced, fought, prayed, and made common cause. This is something #NoAmazonNYC did over and over and an idea that Shannon Mattern sums up perfectly in the title of her wonderful essay, “A City is not a Computer.” (I think this should go on a billboard or a flag or something.) 

From the vantage point of NYC, it feels like the best hope for protecting the public interest from urban tech lies with the kind of progressive activist networks which stepped up in Queens.At the same time, coalitions like this one don’t usually see much participation from the disciplines responsible for designing big tech. Those fields are whiter, wealthier, more educated, and far more male than the city as a whole, which gives their members very different stakes. They’re likely to see upsides where low-income people and communities of color see new layers of oppression.And there aren’t many forums where technologists and planners can reflect on the implications of their work. Instead we have organizations like Y Combinator, which wants urbanists and engineers to measure “KPIs” for cities, and Tech:NYC, which lobbied hard for Amazon HQ2 and took local politicians to task for opposing it.Two welcome exceptions are the Tech Workers Coalition (which just expanded to NYC, and which I’ve joined for a few meetings) and the DSA (feel free to eye-roll) Tech Action Working Group, which was part of the #NoAmazon coalition. I also had an amazing time at Code Ecologies at the School for Poetic Computation in December, and I’m lucky to know some of the incredibly smart and optimistic folks at Soft Surplus. I really hope to find myself in more of these space and conversations.For now it feels like we’re just characters in a game played by VCs and megacorps, but that could change faster than we might imagine. I’m looking forward to more opportunities for solidarity as the year goes on :)

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With hope,