Thursday, 22 February 2018

Smart Tech Cities - the new company town

This is a vision of the urban future in which the tech companies’ own workers and whatever other people with skills the machines haven’t yet replaced are a new class of urban serfs living in small apartments, along with a much larger class of dependent persons living on “income maintenance” and housing or housing subsidies provided by the state.

So suggests geographer, Joel Kotkin in a critique of how the tech world is shifting from the dull and prosaic world of engineering to the far more exciting - and disturbing - game of designing cities and social environments. Kotkin suggests that we are entering a world akin to Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' with a scientific caste system dominated by elite engineers. For me the comparator is Yevgeny Zamyatin's 'We'. Most folk assume the novel was a critique of Soviet Russia but, in reality, it was an attack on Taylorism (an idea very popular with the Soviets, so they banned the book anyway):
We is set in the future. D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass, which assists mass surveillance. The structure of the state is Panopticon-like, and life is scientifically managed F. W. Taylor-style. People march in step with each other and are uniformed. There is no way of referring to people except by their given numbers. The society is run strictly by logic or reason as the primary justification for the laws or the construct of the society. The individual's behaviour is based on logic by way of formulas and equations outlined by the One State.
In the tech dystopia described by Kotkin, we see the concept of engineering turned into an ideology - everything can be planned, organised, directed if only we have enough data, the right algorithms and the proper systems. It is, as it were, the logical direction of scientific management, of the utilitarian idea of science and engineering.

Thus we see utilitarian, socialist (at least in the 'ordering of life' rather than the 'owning of assets' sense) and management science combined to create a sort of interventionist sociology underwritten by experts and controlled through surveillance. The giant tech enterprises seek to build company towns populated no doubt by sleeker and geekier versions of the man in Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons":
I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said "well, bless my soul"

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
It is not government's job to indulge this corporatism, yet the tech god kings seem able to control:
In Google, the longstanding idea of the corporate family, traceable to Peter Drucker’s “The Concept of the Corporation” (1946), may reach both its modern peak and its creative limit. Can one work in a giant lizard tank while doing acute, innovative work that serves the world outside the glass? Every family leader wants to build a generous homestead, but imaginative life is more often at home in walkups, in the messy parts of town.
The idea of business management as sociological experiment - social engineering, if you prefer - begins with folk like Peter Drucker and, for much of its time, has taken the form of seeking to shape corporate culture and values, drawing away from the mere number-crunching utilitarianism of Taylor. Instead this new corporate utilitarianism sought to shape the attitudes and outlook of the worker in anticipation that this would better meet the corporate objectives of the firm. Ideas like happiness and embeddedness arrive from social psychology as means of securing greater commitment from workers to the objectives of the firm. It is a short journey from here to the sort of world Zamyatin describes of lives ordered and directed towards to production and a managed life:
This “smart” urbanity revolves around surveillance and relentless data-gathering. Swarms of monitoring sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets will be constantly on duty. Google would collect data about everything from water use to air quality to the movements of Quayside’s residents, using that data to run energy, transport, and all other systems. In this controlled environment, consent over pillaging personal data “goes out the window straight away”...
Kotkin goes on to observe that the workers within the literal corporate bubble will find encouragement to be content (games, relaxation, approved food and drink, entertainments) but not to be distracted from the purpose of their lives - production for the corporation and the government measured in GDP, GVA and other tools of scientific economics. Above all this means that the environment will be antagonistic to the idea of children:
“Sometimes I’ll be walking through the city and I’ll see a child and think, ‘Hey, wait a second. What are you doing here?’” said Courtney Nam, who works downtown at a tech start-up. “You don’t really see that many kids.”
Cities respond by tarting up parks - even putting in some new ones - and talking about being child-friendly but the truth is that, for the corporate behemoths, children are a nuisance. And, for the foreseeable future, these corporates can import the people they need to do the work - ship 'em in, given a shovel and point them at the coal mine without worrying about providing childcare, schools or the expensive paraphernalia of bringing up families. Some other place, the rural mid-west, India, China, Mexico, will do the crappy distracting job of education and the tech biggies can float into the universities and select the very best and brightest to come and work in their shiny tech centres.

We need to change how we think about cities and local economies. Instead of seeing them as, so to speak, producers of producers, we should see them first as places to live and play, to do the things beyond the day job. Above all cities, suburbs, towns should be run by people not corporations - even if that corporation comes with the badge "city council". As Kotkin concludes:
When a city manager suggests that changes are dictated by data collected by the smart city operators, rather than popular sentiment, democracy itself has been unplugged.

This is the time to reclaim cities suited to human aspiration. We need to do this before control is ceded to a small tech elite that profits by shaping our future, stealing our privacy and nudging us toward a new era of mass serfdom.


Juliet 1946 said...


Juliet 1946 said...


Anonymous said...

I would defend Titus Salt (of Saltaire) because the times were so different then - true, he had a patriarchal agenda with moralising overtones but, in exchange, he offered his mid-19th century workers social standards unimaginable only a few miles away in festering Bradford. Healthcare, education, housing etc, all vastly superior to any other working environment at the time.

Any Western corporate now aiming to create the 'company town' would be doing it from a completely different base, with a completely different population. Western governments discovered with the Vietnam war that conscription was no longer feasible in their democracies - the same will be true of 'company towns', the people value their freedoms too highly, even their freedom to be wrong.