Making Belfast More Human?

At the end of last year Belfast City Council launched its Smart Belfast Framework. Information from the event describes a ‘Smart Belfast’ as, “a city that exploits the transformative power of data and technology to empower residents, businesses and city agencies to create a liveable, workable and sustainable future for us all.” One speaker at the event asked the following question: “Digital disruption, IoT and artificial intelligence will forever change our lives, but could it also make Belfast more human?”

Could it also make Belfast more human? A strange and interesting question.

One that got me thinking.

We have been using technology since humankind evolved. Flint made fire, the ability to make fire gathered people, flint and people made tools, tools and people killed animals, flint fire and food gathered communities who watched as the embers of fires their technologies had created drifted upwards to a beyond about which myths — gods, fairytales and unicorns — were created, giving existential meaning to things past, present and future. Humankind, with the earth, formed technologies and technologies formed the earth and humankind. Day after day, as the farmhand pulled the plough the technology he was using changed him physically. As the mill worker, day after day, pulled the arm of loom back and forth she was changed by the technology. As the smoke from coal fires filled smelters lungs; the bakers boy peddled his bike while the baker kneaded the bread; the miner lifted his pick; the mason carved stone; and the teenager presses an imaginary button on a glass screen, all are changed by the technology they use. It is a story as old as time, but time has changed.

While technology has always physically and neurologically effected us, the access that it has and speed at which is travels has radically changed. This is the age of digital, integrated technology — smartphones, tablets, screens, 3, 4 and then 5G and so on. in the 1800’s the message moved at the pace of the messenger; now the message moves at an imperceptible speed; faster than the blink of an eye.

And, the possibilities of new technologies like this are exciting. I am not a technophobe.

But, the possibilities of new technologies like this are also daunting. I am wary.

I, like others (see for example Bernard Stiegler, Adam Greenfield, Susan Greenfield) am concerned about the affects that new digital technology is having on our habits, thoughts, actions, sleep, knowledge and creativity.

And, as someone who thinks a lot about cities I am concerned that new digital technologies are having an adverse effect on our urban environments.

Numerous networked information-gathering devices are already deployed in our cities, including cameras; load cells and other devices for sensing the presence of pedestrians and vehicles; automated gunshot-detection microphones and other audio surveillance devices; as well as advertisements and vending machines equipped with biometric sensors. Or quite simple the most powerful of all tracking, sensing, responding, advertising devices that demolishes our outdated categories of public / private space and fits quite comfortably into the shape of a pocket or the palm of our hands, flipping the way consumerism works, turning you into the product to be marketed to highest bidder — the smart phone.

For example, beacon technology is now a regular feature in many city centres where hidden in trees and on lampposts tiny black boxes transmit advertising, offers and information from local shops. The same technology has been employed in the Guggenheim museum NY where using smart phones visitors are tracked around the gallery and the data of which pictures they looked at and which areas they spent the most time in is used market additional products to them.

Or, consider the map. A subtle change has taken place. No longer do we stand with a map in our hands working out where we are; orientating ourselves in the world, but we stand with a small metal and silicon rectangle the size of our palms which contains a small piece of tech that costs little more than one pound, that knows if you are holding your phone flat, upwards, sideways etc…. It is that piece of technology that is radically changing how we see and experience the city. Where previously we orientated ourselves in the world we are now orientated in the world; we are helped to “perform the necessary cognitive leap between the abstraction on screen and the real world we see around us.” The information shown to us on Google maps is often directly related to the data that Google has already harvested from you and is based on your preferences — what they think you want to see. “Four out of every five [Google] consumers use the map application to make local searches [for retail outlets], half of those who do so wind up visiting a store within twenty-four hours, and one out of every five of these searches results in a “conversion,” or sale” — and Google knows this. As Adam Greenfield says in his book Radical Technologies “our sense of the world is subtly conditioned by information that is presented to us for interested reasons, and yet does not disclose that interest.”

This is what is called by many the ‘smart city’. But as Greenfield goes on to say; “Quite simply, we need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act. And at least as things stand today, nowhere in smart-city literature is there any suggestion that either algorithms or their designers would be subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability.” ….. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power”.

You do begin to wonder if there is anything particularly smart about ‘smart cities’. Maybe they will make the already smart humans who live in them less smart and less human.

To be continued …

Freelance journalist based in Belfast and Dublin writing for The Sunday Times, Irish Times and others.

Researcher at Dublin Institute of Technology