Will smart cities necessarily be lonely cities?

This piece thinks about how smart cities might affect social relationships and the prognosis is not good:

By 2050, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in so-called “smart cities.” These are metropolitan areas where everything will be digitally connected. Today, some people have “smart” thermostats, refrigerators, or smoke detectors. Tomorrow, we’ll have smart hospitals, farms, and highways, and it’s likely they’ll all talk to one another. Connected devices will monitor everything from air quality to energy usage and traffic congestion…

We can also expect more part-time work, distance working, and the blurring of our work and personal lives. Some worry that the rise of robots could force governments to legislate for quotas of human workers.

But city-dwellers will see incremental changes outside of their workspace, too. Thanks to self-service checkouts and home delivery services, technology is creating less of a need for us to actually interact with those around us. Message bots, like Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa, will soon be able to suggest restaurants, hotels, and other local landmarks. This is already happening in places like Tel Aviv, where everyone over the age of 13 can receive personalized data, such as traffic information, and can access free municipal Wi-Fi in 80 public zones. Populations will be encouraged to make good use of these ever-personalized digital services, since this gives companies our precious data, which will be integral to smart cities…

But it’s doubtful that these interventions will be enough to counteract further encroachment of technology on cities’ infrastructure. Resistance needs to be on a grander scale. One solution may lie in the preservation of public spaces such as parks, community centers, cafes, and shops. “If cities are to remain viable places for people to develop the strong associational and social life fundamental to healthy human existence they must incorporate a range of public spaces and ‘third’ places outside of work and home, in which urban citizens can come together,” writes John Bingham-Hall, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science.

I’ll throw out two counterpoints that might lessen the concern:

  1. While new technology could move us toward more private lives, it doesn’t necessarily have to. We don’t have to end up in a futuristic setting and narrative as depicted in Her. Such claims have been made for centuries with the spread of industrialization and urbanization: new technologies would reduce the humanness of life. Think of the Luddites and their concerns about changes to manufacturing in the early 1800s. Marx was also worried about the alienation being brought about by the forces of industrialization and urbanization. At the same time, we could theoretically end up with more time for social interaction if these new technologies free us up. We’ve heard these promises for decades: people won’t have to work as much or take care of their possessions because it can be done for them. (Put it this way: what does it say about us that even though we have devices to help us reduce our labor, we continue to labor a lot? Are we trying to escape more social interaction?) I would ask: are we blaming the technology too much or should we think harder about how we could utilize what has been invented for our common good?
  2. Early sociologists were concerned about the individual being lost in the big cities of the modern world or noted that city life was a major change from small village life to which many in the world had grown accustomed. (See the work of Simmel, Durkheim, and Tonnies.) Yet, cities continue to attract people and social life continues – even if it has changed in certain ways. Still today, it seems that it might be important that people are around other people regularly (which commonly happens in dense cities), even if they don’t have strong relationships with many people. I would ask: is it really cities that are in danger of being lonely places or would the technology affect everyone in similar ways in coming decades?

Smart cities don’t have to be lonely cities. We could be lonely all over the place or we could make decisions about how to direct technology toward things we might want (such as increased or deeper social connections).

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