Reboot event with Shannon Mattern on her new book A City Is Not A Computer. Main summary and introduction on the Substack here.

Article Notes

Source: A City is not a Computer

Sidewalk Labs

Doctoroff, the founder of Sidewalk Labs: “What would a city look like if you started from scratch in the internet era — if you built a city ‘from the internet up?‘”

Sidewalk aims to be the ‘fourth revolution’ of urban infrastructure where the first 3 were

  1. The Steam Engine
  2. Electricity Grid
  3. Automobile

Constant theme of Doctoroff is that of constant move fast and break things-style of innovation. Their solution to the Collingridge dilemma is to constantly develop and “version” much like a software product in an agile process.

Cities as information centres

Not only for transmitting information within a generation (breadth-wise) but also between generations (depth-wise): generational learning and Theory of Niche Construction!

“By means of its storage facilities (buildings, vaults, archives, monuments, tablets, books), the city became capable of transmitting a complex culture from generation to generation, for it marshaled together not only the physical means but the human agents needed to pass on and enlarge this heritage.”

“What are the non-textual, un-recordable forms of cultural memory? These questions are especially relevant for marginalized populations, indigenous cultures, and developing nations.”

Especially related to quantization, how does always labeling and quantizing our data affect these forms of information? These forms cannot be reduced to ‘information’ nor can they be ‘processed’ easily within our digital systems. “Yet they are vital urban intelligences that live within bodies, minds, and communities.”

Event Notes

  • So much of how we interact with cities is through a computer; how can we reclaim cities for the people within them as people instead of just as data? What have cities lost in the transition to a data governed model
    • How we define computation matters a lot. It feels like something is definitely something is lost in this ‘generalization’ of people as data
    • Theres a lot of ‘messiness’ in history (e.g. why people were evicted, etc.) especially in embodied knowledge. Let’s think about what can’t be digitized and be put on a dashboard
  • What are potential solutions to this overly quantized technosolutionist approach? You mentioned indigenous knowledge and traditional knowledge as having potential
    • We can start to think more epistemologically broadly (how do we know what we know, are things inherently quantifiable or not)?
    • How can we provide public alternatives to privatized social systems (e.g. public interest Google)?
    • Maintenance and Care
    • What is the ‘dashboard’ in the proto-city?
      • Source: Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allendes Chiles (by Medina)
      • Feels like a lot of abstraction away from actual problems
      • Potemkin village control room! It only gives a semblance/facade of control rather than actual control/usefulness
  • Reboot has an ethos of techno-optimism, how do we reconcile this with humanists who vehemently reject technology as a whole
    • A lot of blanket rejection of tech and demonisation of the algorithm. However, this misses a lot of nuance! We have a lot of good algorithms, (e.g. predicting weather, modelling climate change, etc.)
    • Rather than just bringing humanists in, starting the collaboration on a more neutral ground and make it as participatory as possible
  • What can city governments do to help the ‘exclusion’ of previously ‘unseen’ or minority groups?
    • Design Justice approach, specifically acknowledge this bias and try to compensate (e.g. Data for Black Lives). And equity rather than equality approach.
    • We may not always be able to prevent ‘data harvesting’, and it sometimes might not all be bad! How do we fairly represent everyone?
    • How do we have agency over our own data and how we are presented within algorithms? Data sovereignty (e.g. GDPR? see also: data neutrality)
  • Would smart cities be any different if they prioritized the citizens and participation at the get-go rather than as an after-thought
    • Multiple definitions of smart cities (corporate extractivist approaches, civic approaches, improving democratic processes, open data, etc.)
    • How do we manage data and data privacy?
  • Ground-up emergence vs Top-down governance for cities
    • Historically a lot of data has been centralized regardless (e.g. libraries, town halls, etc., more in Seeing like a State)
    • Similar discussion to a an article thinking about hierarchies within cities: A City is not a Tree