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The worst part is already over

April 25, 2012

I’ve been doing a lot of research of the city of the future and it’s freaking me out.

Screens everywhere, sensors on everything, self-driving cars, the digital home. Helpful video feeds of your house while you’re away, virtual concierges, virtual conferencing, virtual museums, virtual everything. Skyscrapers, of course — you can’t do much without skyscrapers — no cash — that’s just a waste of time — robotic maids so everything’s always spic and span. The sentient city. The responsive city. The catering, loving city, that responds to your whims before you’ve even realized them yourself.

Bladerunner or Minority Report anyone? Is it too boring to bring up those same old tropes? The thing is they’re really building it — they’re building it now; people are already living there: New Songdo City, for example, in South Korea, where screens and cameras are thoughtfully inserted into your apartment, making nanny cams a service that’s easy to opt into. New Songdo City is slated to be finished by 2014 or 2015 but it’s already half inhabited, though the photos of its streets look scrubbed clean in a somewhat uninhabited way.

Martin Booister Flickr

It’s true that New Songdo is not just in Asia, it’s in Korea, a country where internet speeds are set to be 200 times faster than America, where building-controlled air conditioners are standard, where, according to a friend of mine, cars already have sensors embedded into them (that the government can access of course) — so that speeding becomes an incredibly moot point. It’s a culture that seems more open to the sweet conveniences promised by the “ubiquitous city of the future,” — one helpful ID key, whether it’s to park your car, take transit, or open your apartment. Let New Songdo be ubiquitous and smart and stay in Korea. It’s when you realize that it costs just 2.9 % more to build a connected city than your standard city, and that Cisco, the service provides, stands to earn over $15 billion for buy-in services (like a nanny cam, starting at $35 a month) that you realize we’re screwed.


Anything to do with the future invariably has two sides: “It’s going to be a nightmare.” and “It’s going to be awesome!” Let me cut to the chase: I, of course, am in the nightmare camp. We the nightmarists see the movie unfolding clearly ahead of us: there’s dark days ahead for us. The end of culture as we know it, increased surveillance, the collapse of human interaction. Pod people on their pod devices, and eventually, in their pod apartments.

The optimists, meanwhile , are looking forward eagerly to the future city. There, everything is efficient, interactive, accessible, and weirdly, conveniently, green. The old civic problems of parking and traffic have evaporated, aided by helpful apps offered at nominal prices by Cisco or IBM or whoever else has gotten into the city-as-business shtick by then. Everything in the future is magically green and sustainable — I don’t really get how having an iphone makes me greener — but that’s the idea. The optimists, quite frankly, strike me as a bit unhinged. It doesn’t matter. They have big business and sheer numbers on their side. Eighty percent of the world’s new cities will be in Asia. A country like China is especially happy to try a “city in a box” — an instant city. New Songdo is a model which can make a lot of money for its service provider for not a lot of infrastructure cost.

Pessimistic futurism might be right, but it’s quite frankly depressing. Even more problematically, it’s pointless. Clearly on the losing side, the naysayers harangue and nag for society to give up its devices and its conveniences while the optimists skip gleefully to the bank. I may be a pessimist by nature, but I also like to swim; when a big wave is coming, you’ll be better off diving in rather than trying to run fruitlessly back to the beach. Let us try to be on the winning side. Let us dive in, then, to the digital wave.


I don’t care for my actions to be tracked from my apartment, to the elevator, to my car, to the highway, to the mall. I don’t care for my purchases to be tracked so that the pharmacy can get free demographic data off me. I don’t care for a society which eagerly discourages me from leaving my apartment (with its convenient virtual services — English lessons, hospital visits, a work session). I don’t like the idea of visiting a city where government is so completely outsourced. These are not things I personally care for, but I can abide.

What really gets my heart racing is what a ubiquitous city really means — what digitization really entails. It’s not about the kindles vs. paper books — that’s kids’ stuff. It’s about the kind of digitization which comes where every element is in a feedback loop: info coming in, info coming out. Presumably a smart computer somewhere to change the situation based on the info in. Too hot in the mall? Turn down the A/C? Too loud? Turn down the Muzak.

I hate those smart computers somewhere. They always get it wrong. For me, at least. It’s not their fault — they’re trying so hard, learning from past habits, suggesting helpful ideas for the future. And I, fickly, just to prove them wrong, reject their ideas.

There’s two kinds of people in the world: people who like group tours and people who don’t. I do not do well with group tours for an extended period of time, no matter how caring, educated and articulate the guide. The ubiquitous city is in the end seeking to be a helpful tour guide for the confusing exotica of life.  What’s worse is that the helpful tour guide isn’t the delightfully human Yossi, bearded and astute and cheerful, or the annoying, jokey Inna, but a computer. A smart computer somewhere.

This is the part where I get anxious and start planning my escape. Come on — don’t you feel a slight sense of unease when you get into those elevators where you’ve pressed your floor while you’re waiting? Just step inside this metal box which will helpfully escort you along your way….


Nevada gave the Google self-driving car permission to test on public streets. The car’s license plate will include an infinity symbol.

It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.


William Gibson, the science fiction author who first came up with the word “cyberspace” talked in an interview (conducted by none other than David Foster Wallace) about how transformative Blade Runner was:

But the simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade
Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been
obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like
compost heaps—just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and
the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe,
that’s just life—it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in
American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new,
every square inch of it.

The good thing about being a pessimist is that you get to relax when the worst case scenario is on its way. The worst part — of waiting and hoping and imaging that it would some turn out otherwise — is already over. After that, there’s no more indecision: just action of making the worst case scenario a little bit better, a little more manageable.

So all of a sudden, the Blade Runner vision turns from dystopian to reassuring. Digitization is on its way — the worst part is already over — but humanity, with all its hodge podge and imperfect solutions, will actually always be around. That’s the funny part about the city of the future — the less perfect it is, the more human it is.



Bits and Scraps:


New Songdo Cities and Living PlanITs will built, with “urban operating systems” that slowly infiltrate the older cities. But humans being human, it won’t be perfect, far from it, things will break and not get updated.

Apple is often invoked when talking about these ubiquitous cities — “We’re building an iTunes store for the city” — with the idea that apps can then be bought to deal with the city itself. I don’t know how much I can go into this App model — what a BuildingApp and a PlaceApp might actually mean in real-life as opposed to marketing speak — but I do know that, in terms of space,  Apple stores are not the places where I feel most comfortable. A clean, well lit place when you can buy curated experiences. The thought of a city imitating the Apple aesthetic on a mass scale gives me the heebie-jeebies.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

I resisted for a long time from getting an iPhone. Finally, this fall, trying to play the young designer living in New York, I cracked, as did the phone, a few months later. And then I dropped it again, making it in danger of falling apart unless I put a case on it, that would physically keep it together. As luck would have it, I found an ugly faux-wooden case in my bike basket, as if sent by God. And then a friend donated a screen cover, which trapped air bubbles along the screen cracks. The thing works but I am the first to admit: it’s a bit ugly.

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