Interview: Jathan Sadowski on the Future of Cities

Earlier this fall I sat down with Arizona State University’s Jathan Sadowski, a writer on technology and society and a researcher on the future of cities. This interview is the third in our series of deep dives with creative thinkers from a variety of different backgrounds. You can read the other entries here.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Jathan Sadowski: Currently I’m a Ph.D. student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program at Arizona State University (ASU), which is part of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes. I’m also affiliated with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at ASU. I have a master’s degree in applied ethics, also from ASU, and my undergraduate degree is from the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I started off as a polymer chemistry major but after a couple years I shifted focus to political philosophy, sustainability, ethics, and the philosophy of technology.

My primary research interest is cities and urban systems, and my interest in that grew out of working with researchers from the Center for Nanotechnology in Society on a project called Futurescape City Tours, which is a participatory public engagement project about urban technology and the future of cities. That project revolved around taking participants on an urban walking tour of their city—it took place in a handful of cities around the country—as a way of deliberating about the role of sociotechnical systems in urban life, especially the “invisible” infrastructural technologies that are often taken for granted.

I’m currently working on my dissertation, which is about “Smart Cities” and how information and communication technologies are influencing and shaping new forms of urbanism.

JE: You also do a lot of writing for popular publications, right? Can you tell us more about that, and maybe about a couple of recent articles you’ve written?

JS: I do write for a number of different popular outlets, including Slate, Wired, The New Inquiry, and others. I do that because it’s a way to reach a broader and wider audience with ideas about politics, social justice, and technology—and I think there is always more room for people to be thinking in a serious way about those issues and trying to influence the public discourse. So over time I’ve started thinking of myself as less of a technology writer, and more of a political writer who cares about technology.

U.S. Army, used under a Creative Commons license:
U.S. Army, Creative Commons:

In July I had a piece in Al Jazeera America about the emerging political economy around biometrics. We’ve seen a rapid expansion and implementation of technologies like facial recognition and iris or fingerprint scanning—ways of identifying or verifying people’s identities through some sort of biological characteristic. This allows for the creation, storage, and sale of somatic, bodily data. All of a sudden people are able to be broken apart into hyper-specific streams of data, which can be valuable commodities to marketers and to governments. We’ve all heard about Big Data and the data economy, but maybe we need to start thinking about the face economy or the iris economy or the gait economy.

Also in July The Baffler published a piece I wrote about the myth of the “digital native.” I looked at the history and use of that term and the vast set of faulty or unfounded assumptions that are baked into it, as well as who is propagating it and profiting from it. It turns out that the main proponents of the concept of these “digital natives” are education technology consultants and gurus and proprietors. Their narrative is that all of a sudden you have this whole new generation of students who are much more comfortable and productive when they’re plugged in online than when they’re sitting in a classroom, and how are these un-savvy “digital immigrant” teachers ever going to educate the next generation if they’re stuck in the old analog world? The problem, though, is that the moral panic these profiteers stoke mostly benefits them, and not the students and teachers.

JE: In addition to all of this great work for the popular press, you’re writing a dissertation on “Smart Cities.” What is a Smart City?

JS: It’s funny—every time someone finds out that I’m working on Smart Cities, inevitably their first question is “What is a Smart City?” And I don’t really have a neat, pat answer, because a major thrust of my research is looking at the narratives and discourses around Smart Cities. There isn’t a dictionary definition, and this is a very contested field right now with a lot of actors, from government agencies and policy analysts to technology reporters and corporations. Just like with the “digital native,” there is a lot of power behind the definition of a buzzword like “Smart City,” and the definition that wins out will do a lot to shape the future of actual cities.

An important underlying commonality in the definitions floating around now is that Smart Cities merge information and communication technologies—things like sensors, mobile computing, surveillance and data gathering apparatuses—with urban environments. Of course, how these technologies will be used, and to what end, is another question entirely, and a hotly contested one.

JE: What kinds of Smart Cities exist today? Is there a shining example?

Anti-Smart City graffiti in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Paul Keller/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license:
Anti-Smart City graffiti in Rio de Janeiro, by Paul Keller, Creative Commons:

JS: Existing Smart Cities today take a number of forms. The first is the retrofitted Smart City, where initiatives are implemented in existing cities, layered on top of existing infrastructure, to make the cities “smarter” in one way or another. In Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, they’ve built this big central control center that is constantly monitoring the city through surveillance arrays and sensors tracking things like traffic patterns, crime, energy use, and so forth. This is a very security-oriented version of the Smart City, but the endpoint is that the city is networked and connected in such a way that it can be monitored as one big industrial system. Importantly, a lot of the hardware and software is built by U.S. technology corporations. In the case of Rio, IBM was the main actor who developed most of the underlying technology.

A second type of retrofitted Smart City is oriented primarily towards efficiency—cutting costs, being more sustainable, cutting down on things like utility costs and transit times. New York City has implemented a number of initiatives that, rather than securitizing the city, are aimed at making all of the different flows of the city run more smoothly: traffic, infrastructure, water, utilities. This involves using data analytics, collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data about the city. Just like with Rio, the narrative is that the city is an urban system, a technical or industrial gestalt. The goal is to quantify the chaos of urban life in order to make tweaks that reduce and control it, to create a cleaner and more efficient system.

Then you have top-down Smart Cities that are built from nothing. The most well known example of this is Songdo in

Songdo, South Korea, by Dongho Kim, Creative Commons:
Songdo, South Korea, by Dongho Kim, Creative Commons:

South Korea, although it is yet to be “brought online.” The idea here is that instead of layering information and communication technologies on top of existing urban infrastructure, the technology is built in as a fundamental feature of all aspects of the city’s design and development. I would argue that Songdo is as much Cisco Systems’ city as it is South Korea’s, because they have most of the contracts for the hardware and software that power it.

In this built-from-nothing model, you’re looking at an urban environment where every single aspect is monitored and controlled in very specific and granular ways.

The key thing to think about in terms of implications is where to draw boundaries about how information is collected, how it is used, and who has access to it. Of course it’s helpful to have a sensor on the side of a building that is able to detect how weather is affecting that building’s durability and structural integrity. But if that sensor is then connected to a massive, seamless web of other sensors and all of that is being closely and actively monitored and tweaked and scrutinized, that’s a different story entirely. There’s a gestalt in that the whole of all of the sensors in a city is much greater than the sum of its parts.

JE: No one sensor by itself is “the problem,” or presents a particular threat, but if you take the whole system as a unit, it becomes more eerie.

JS: Right.

JE: So it’s easy to see why this idea of the Smart City is attractive to citizens and governments: more efficiency, more security. What are we not thinking about or talking about enough? Where are the blind spots in our image of the Smart City?

JS: I don’t think enough people are thinking seriously about how the boundaries between these urban technologies and the people and bodies within them are starting to blur. Part of what I’m working on in my own research is trying to think about this connection among the city, the human body, and technology in a different way, specifically using Donna Haraway’s ideas about the cyborg as a lens.

We have to think about interfaces—points of connection between people and our cities. You don’t really live in a city; it’s not a passive relationship. You live with the city and you live through the city. Being in a specific city fundamentally changes who you are, the way you think, and how you can live your life. Cities have very fundamental effects on us, when we interact with them and they simultaneously interact with us.

The boundaries are not as discrete as we think. We tend to think, “well, there’s technology over there, there’s the city all around me, and then there’s me, complete in myself.” But in reality those boundaries are blurred—and these sensors and surveillance technologies just make those connections, those interpenetrations more obvious.

So the term I’m using to think through this is “cyborg urbanization”—a term that comes from some of the newer literature in urban studies and political ecology—which pays careful attention to these boundaries, these frontiers or points of contact, and tries to incorporate an understanding of relationships and interfaces into the way we design cities and the technologies that we build into them. The key outcome is to design cities that amplify and emanate the values we have as people: human agency and autonomy, the right to move through the city freely, the ability to flourish.

JE: How can we think hopefully about the future of cities, using these ideas you’ve been developing? What is an image of the future of cities that are designed with attention to the values you just talked about?

JS: It’s not enough just to think about these interfaces and boundaries critically; we also need normative and ethical principles. I think that a hopeful vision of a future city would have to attend to what urban studies scholars call “the right to the city,” which is a normative principle, or even a tagline or slogan that says that city dwellers should have a right to make choices and control the cities they live in. This sounds straightforward but it’s quite radical when you apply it to every aspect of a city. The right to the city concept means that people would have a say in every aspect of what is called the “urban metabolism”—all of the things that flow in and out of a city, including commerce, capital, labor, energy, water, people, knowledge, institutions.

The geographer David Harvey, in a punchy way, gets at the essence of “the right to the city,” what it entails, and why it’s important:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.

I believe that information and communication technologies have a big part to play in this future. When I write about Smart Cities I’m often suspicious of the way that the technology is used to control and monetize people and communities, but it’s not that these technologies are inherently good or bad. It’s a question of politics: who has authority and power over the technology, how is it used and interpreted, and why. Are sensors being used to create a city where the residents are easier to monitor and control, or where their information is being turned into a revenue stream for corporations or other entities? Or are they being used in a more democratic way where people are able to access the data on their own and use it to enrich their lives?

JE: Is the recent movement for governments to make more data public and open a promising development for you?

JS: Simply making data open and available doesn’t go far enough. You can have open access data or open source technologies at the city level, but that will have little or no effect if people aren’t able to understand it and use it. Data needs to be designed in a way that makes it easy for citizens to actually use it and then in a meaningful way influence how the data is used and policy is derived from it. It’s not enough just to have open access as a principle; it needs to have actionable results for the people that governments are supposed to be there to serve.

JE: Right. Information literacy and accessibility need to be factored in, or else you just have massive reams of data that is inscrutable to most people.

JS: That’s right, but it’s not just a question of literacy, because that puts the onus on the individual city dweller to increase their literacy and seek out additional education and training. We used to have this idea of governance and government where the public sector was there to, first and foremost, actually help and aid the public as a whole—rather than to create and maintain markets and profitable business environments for the private sector. Governments should have the obligation to not just throw open the vault to data, but actually design it and make it available in ways that are actually helpful to people. The onus is on the people in power to make that data accessible, not for us to adjust to the way they have it formatted and packaged.

Too often the people benefiting from open government data are big technology corporations, which now have access to huge free troves of data that can be used and manipulated in any number of ways. But that’s the thing—it often takes the infrastructure and abilities of a large corporation to actually make use of this information.

JE: What story has inspired you most in thinking through these issues about Smart Cities and the future of cities?

Ghost in the Shell posterJS: Ghost in the Shell is a mid-1990s anime science fiction movie that really engages with questions of the cyborg, and also depicts the future of the city in really interesting ways. The film features a cyborg city where people not only have a technological body but are actually able to interface with and reconfigure the urban environment.

I’ve read some quotes from one of the lead designers and animators, and he talks about the exact ideas we’ve been discussing—the boundaries and interfaces among people, technologies, and cities. He uses the metaphor of a spider and its web: we create this huge system that is interconnected and networked and encompasses everything, but the human isn’t the spider that constructs and controls and oversees the web. Instead, each of us is just a thread in the web: we can become engulfed by the systems we create.

Ghost in the Shell’s city is very much along the lines of what I’ve started calling “Frankenstein’s Metropolis”: a situation where the things we create rise up and start to control us, fight back against us, and encompass us within their complexity. And so the master doesn’t always remain the master. The creator doesn’t remain the creator.

Editor’s Note: The Hieroglyph anthology features two visions of the future of cities: Madeline Ashby’s “By the Time We Get To Arizona” and Annalee Newitz’s “Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy.”






One response to “Interview: Jathan Sadowski on the Future of Cities”

  1. Randall Hayes Avatar
    Randall Hayes

    “The onus is on the people in power to make that data accessible, not for us to adjust to the way they have it formatted and packaged.” John Oliver did an excellent piece on this.

    On a more serious note, biology has been wrestling with this for a while. Genes make up cells, cells make up bodies, bodies make up species. What’s the “real” causal level? As a field we’re beginning to come around to the concept of multi-level selection, or multi-level regulation, where what’s good for an individual cell may not be good for the body (cancer is basically individual cells dividing at the body’s expense), and vice versa. Skin cells are basically disposable, while neurons and germ line cells are more valued. The same set of issues have to be confronted at each and every level (cooperation vs. competition), but the mechanics of how they are solved may be different at each level.