Smart city is a utopia that cannot be realized forever

What’s interesting about both the original and current vision of urban sensor networks and the use of data they generate is that they are both close and far away from Constant’s concept of what such technology would bring. again. The new Babylon’s technological image is a vision of a smart city Not flagged, like IBM, by extracting large-scale data to drive revenue streams through everything from parking and shopping to healthcare and utility monitoring. New Babylon is clearly anti-fundist; it is shaped by the belief that one day, pervasive and cognitive technologies will free us from the drudgery of labor.

War and Sensors

Doomsday news broadcast from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izium, Kherson and Kyiv since February 2022 seems far-fetched for IBM’s smart city. After all, smart sensors and sophisticated machine learning algorithms can’t match the brute force of the unmanned “silent bombs” that are pouring down Ukraine’s urban centers. But the gruesome images from these smoldering cities should also remind us that historically, these networks and sensor systems themselves originated in the context of war.

Unbeknownst to Constant, it was the “ambient” technologies he imagined to enable the playful city that actually emerged during the same period that his vision was taking shape — from research promoted by the Cold War at the United States Department of Defense. This work culminated in the Vietnam War, when in an effort to prevent supply chains from flowing from North to South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the US Army dropped about 20,000 airborne acoustic sensors. battery-powered cords, enhancing General William Westmoreland’s vision of “near real-time or near-real-time 24-hour surveillance of all kinds. In fact, what the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) later called “cyber-centric warfare” was the result of billions of dollars in grants at MIT and Carnegie. Mellon, among other elite U.S. universities, to support research and development of distributed wireless wireless networks of sensor networks — the very technology that is now providing “more lethality” to information technology. the most intelligent of the army.

satellite image of the city of Ukraine
The network of smart sensors cannot match the brute force of unguided “stupid bombs” like those that hit Ukraine’s urban centers.


It is well known that the technologies were originally developed by DARPA, the agency responsible for “catalyzing the development of technologies that maintain and enhance the capabilities and technical superiority of the United States military” ( as stated in a congressional report), has been successfully reused for civil use. ARPANET eventually became the Internet, while technologies like Siri, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), and micro-hard drives are now features of everyday life. What is less well known is that DARPA-funded technologies are already present in the smart city: GPS, grids for smart lighting and energy grids, and chemical, biological and radioactive sensors radiation, including genetically engineered plants that can detect threats. The link between smart cities and military research is very active today. For example, a recent DARPA research program called CASCADE (Design environment and complex adaptive system components) clearly compares “manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles”, “sharing data and resources in real time” through wireless connectivity, with “critical infrastructure systems” of smart cities—“water, electricity, transportation, communications, and cyberspace. Both, it noted, apply mathematical techniques of complex dynamical systems. A tweet by DARPA puts the link more provocative: “What do smart cities and aerial warfare have in common? The need for complex, adaptive networks. ”

Both of these visions — a sensor-filled battlefield and an interconnected, smart city powered by distributed sensor technology and massive data mining — seem to lack a central component: the engine. The human body is always the first to be sacrificed, whether on the battlefield or in the data-mining machines of intelligent technologies.

Spaces and environments equipped with sensor networks can now sense environmental changes — light, temperature, humidity, sound, or motion — moving back and forth through a space. In this sense, networks are like something like bodies, because they are aware of the changing environmental conditions around them — measuring, discriminating, and reacting to these changes. But what of the real people? Is there any other role for us in the smart city other than serving as a convenient data store? In his 1980 book Practice daily lifeThe Jesuit social historian, Michel de Certeau, argues that the opposition to the “divine eye” of power from above must be met by the forces of “common practitioners of the city” living “down there”.

When we assume that data is more important than the people who create it, we reduce the scope and potential of what the diverse human body can bring to the “smart cities” of present and future. future. But the real “smart” city is not just about the flows of goods and the information networks that generate revenue streams for companies like Cisco or Amazon. How the intelligence that comes from the diverse human body of different genders, cultures and classes, whose rich, complex, and even fragile identities ultimately make up the city .

Chris Salter is an artist and professor of immersive art at the University of the Arts Zurich. His latest book, Sensors: How sensors shape our daily livesJust published by MIT Press.

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