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 …

I write.

Interested in cities, technology and philosophy.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Worth a read:

    In addition, your paragraph about the emergence of technology was largely driven by the opportunity to create surpluses thereby giving birth to capitalism: probably the least abstract of all economic philosophies.

  • mickfealty

    Studying the algorthym won’t tell us too much, since we are largely at the stage of making it up as we go along. Try this game David:

  • doopa

    “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power”

    The architects are in the ascendancy. The big decisions for society are made in the corporate HQ of google, apple, fb and increasingly not in local assemblies or governments. They have bypassed the traditional mechanisms of power – such as governments. They are dealing direct with consumers/constituents. I’m surprised that political discussions don’t focus more on the fact that they are losing out power to the tech companies. Especially as the likes of Amazon inevitably move into new sectors such as healthcare. Tech companies (the architects of the future) are slowly wrestling power from democracy. Whilst there are problems with this (see the bias in AirBnB listings) they are quicker to address problems than the state ever was.

    Is it really so bad if the tech companies take over?

  • Brian O’Neill

    Interesting post David but I think you are concentrating on the negative.

    I remember the misery of trying to navigate around ireland in the days before satnav. Google maps is a godsend.

    Also the primary purpose of beacon technology is to count users in a area or attraction. In your gallery example it helps the gallery understood visitor flow so they can place the more popular exhibitions.

    The environment agency also uses beacon technology to count visitors to remote attractions to help them gauge the popularity of the attraction and also for practical purposes like how often they need to empty rubbish bins at a site.

    As for beacons transmitting ads and offers as someone with an IT / marketing background this just does not exist. An app on your phone may give you an alert for a specific area eg TripAdvisor gives you a prompt about restaurants in an area but third parties can’t transit offers to your phone.

  • hgreen

    Great post David. As you indicate the value for business is in the data harvested and not the IoT devices used to gather the data. It will be the responsibility of govts to control how this public realm data is used (algorithms etc) and that will require something like a code of practice or an extension of data protection regulations such as GDPR.

    That said smart city technologies have the potential to reduce pollution and congestion and improve safety so not all bad.

  • hgreen

    Not sure if your last sentence is a joke. Critical public services should not be provided for profit.

  • Call me sceptical, but it seems to me that there a couple of dubious claims being presented as fact in the original post.

    In particular, I’d call into question the claim that “technology has always physically and neurologically effected us”.

    Since that text is linked to Susan Greenfield’s website, has the Baroness Professor gotten around to producing any peer-reviewed research to support her controversial pronouncements in this area? [See neurological definition – “relating to the anatomy, functions, and organic disorders of nerves and the nervous system. ‘neurological diseases like dementia'”.]

    I ask because she been making such pronouncements for over a decade, and 6 years ago Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre pointed out that that would be a more appropriate way for her to proceed with this theory. [22 October 2011 – there are links in the original text]

    This week Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of pharmacology at Oxford, apparently announced that computer games are causing dementia in children. This would be very concerning scientific information: but it comes to us from the opening of a new wing at an expensive boarding school, not an academic conference. Then a spokesperson told a gaming site that’s not really what she meant. But they couldn’t say what she does mean.

    Two months ago the same professor linked internet use with the rise in autism diagnoses (not for the first time), then pulled back when autism charities and an Oxford professor of psychology raised concerns. Similar claims go back a very long way. They seem changeable, but serious.

    It’s with some trepidation that anyone writes about Professor Greenfield’s claims. When I raised concerns, she said I was like the epidemiologists who denied that smoking caused cancer. Other critics find themselves derided as sexist in the media. When Professor Dorothy Bishop raised concerns, Professor Greenfield responded: “it’s not really for Dorothy to comment on how I run my career”.

    But I have one, humble question: why, in over 5 years of appearing in the media raising these grave worries, has Professor Greenfield of Oxford University never simply published the claims in an academic paper?

  • More damning still look who is their brain of the century 🙂 Well, too much back story to explain this one in detail

  • Reader

    hgreen: Not sure if your last sentence is a joke. Critical public services should not be provided for profit.
    How about food, is that critical?

  • Brian O’Neill

    Electric supply, broadband, housing, food etc these critical services seem to manage fine in the private sector.

  • hgreen

    Wasn’t sure that food was a public service.

  • hgreen

    I’m guessing that this is another joke. Energy privatisation has been a fiasco relying on huge govt subsidies. As for housing, I’m surprised you raised it and think it’s working fine.

  • epg_ie

    I don’t think you show that electronic maps are an experientially different technology to paper maps. If anything, the new services are embarrassingly retrograde. Of all the products out there, only Google’s Street View is a major and useful step forward from the 2D depiction of an area from an elevated vantage point most humans will never occupy. Their route-planning features don’t offer improvements over the human eye: OpenStreetMap is a little better than Google Maps, which even tells you that it doesn’t know whether pedestrians can use its recommended walking routes!

  • Cadogan West

    Remove the dreadful Carbuncle attached to GOH and reopen the staircase and the crush bars, take up two rows in the stalls, widen and deepen stage and orchestra pit to accommodate additional instruments eg Waldhorns, Wagner Tubas, so we can have Parsifal and Der Ring des Nibelungen