Be skeptical of calls for new pandemic tech

Issue 137

Hey urbanists,

I’m trying out a bit of a different format today, which may be what I stick with for the time being: an essay on an urban issue, paired with a selection of links on urban, tech, and climate. I hope you like it!

I have a request this week: if you listen to my podcast Tech Won’t Save Us, please share it with a few friends or colleagues you think might also like it, and leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts if you have access to that platform. I have reviews in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, UK, and US — and the more reviews, the better the chance more people will find the show. It’s been doing really well so far and I want to keep up the momentum. Thank you!

I hope you’re staying safe and healthy.

— Paris Marx

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Sidewalk Toronto may be dead, but the push to get more tech into our cities isn’t over yet.

In response to COVID-19, there’s been a big push for tech solutions from governments that seem to be using them as an excuse not to make the investments we need in public services — health, child care, housing for the homeless, support for domestic violence victims, etc. Instead, they’ve been pushing questionable contact-tracing apps, despite the fact that, as Lizzie O’Shea told me on Tech Won’t Save Us, “the people who are most vulnerable to contracting the virus … tend to be people who are less likely to be online, less likely to be able to use an app like this.” In Iceland, 38% of people downloaded the app, but officials said it “wasn’t a game changer.”

So, what does this mean for cities? I was reading a piece by Emily Sohn in National Geographic about what post-pandemic commutes might look like, and there was a lot of talk about technologies that could be integrated into transit during the pandemic: seat booking, passenger counts, weight sensors, location-tracking apps like those for contract tracing, facial recognition, immunity cards, and even using Google’s “crowdsourced” information.

I want to be clear: I don’t think all of this would necessarily be bad. Maybe there are equitable ways to integrate some of these technologies, but I immediately worry that the broader effects are not being considered, especially when smartphone ownership, data access, and digital knowledge are far from ubiquitous. My first thought on hearing about the possibility of booking transit seats was when San Francisco started letting tech bros book public park space, leading to a backlash from communities. It’s a possible first step down a very slippery slope.

But if we do need some new technologies to help, how should we approach that?

I’ve already argued that if we need new urban technologies, they should be developed publicly with teams in local governments or transit agencies. When I spoke with Bianca Wylie, a leading activist against Sidewalk Toronto, she provided an alternative approach: instead of simply inviting in big tech companies and having faith they’ll do good, use the power government can wield through procurement to set the parameters for the technology, how it can be used, and whether the company developing it has any access to the data that comes of it. As she writes in Boston Review,

Technologies, of course, have a role to play in our cities. But cities and the public must be allowed to define how our digital infrastructures function; how they impact how we live, work, and play together; and how we pay for them. We already have experience in designing frameworks for projects of similar complexity, such as environmental assessments, which importantly include a “do nothing” option. Once we establish defensible ways to understand the impacts and trade-offs of technology, and the types of ways we do and don’t want to commodify data and digital infrastructures, we will be able to properly use tech as one tool of many to address the deep and pervasive problems we face in our cities.

In short, technology in itself isn’t the solution; it’s how we use the technology (and whether we use it in the first place) that matters. Even though tech billionaires would have us think otherwise, the primary question is political, not technological.

I still prefer publicly owned and controlled technology, but if we need new tech in the short term, we should heed what Bianca says: think through exactly how we want to use it, then ensure it does exactly what we need it to, not let some tech giant have its way then have to try to fix the problems that arise from it down the road.

Critical urbanism

In March, 50 billion fewer miles (80b kms) were driven in the United States. UK government forced a terrible bailout on Transport for London. A New Zealand recovery fueled by renewables, transit, and public housing could generate a permanent trade surplus. The pandemic doesn’t mean the United States faces another urban exodus. E-bikes are basically sold out in Germany. New Zealand pilots are getting jobs driving trains. New York City broke a record for 58 days without a pedestrian death. We need more housing co-ops.

Montreal is adding 327 kms (203 miles) of bike and pedestrian lanes. Toronto community group calls for 100 kms (62 miles) of bike lanes. Newcastle unveiled a beautiful redesign of a central street. Auckland is turning its main downtown street into a transit mall. London is closing a bunch of streets to cars.

Tech dystopia

Seven Amazon workers have died of COVID-19 as Jeff Bezos continues to rake in billions. Alphabet could get hit with antitrust lawsuits as soon as this summer. Facebook content moderators won a $52 million settlement, as up to half could have developed mental health issues from their work. Tesla reopened its California plant in violation of local orders after Elon Musk lashed out on Twitter. “Proptech” are developing new tech tools for landlords to disempower tenants. Facebook’s new review board is nothing more than an attempt to avoid regulation. Uber laid off 3,500 people in a three-minute Zoom call.

Climate crisis

The future of air travel might require a four-hour check in. Oil analyst with a strong track record thinks Alberta’s oil sands have no future. The United States is set to generate more energy from renewables than coal. The environmental toll of all that smart tech is pretty high.

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