Making surveillance cool, free transit, internet's carbon footprint, Australia burning, & more!

Issue 117

Hey urbanists!

The past year has been fantastic. I traveled to four continents, got to meet a bunch of really nice and inspiring people, I’m on track to finish my MA in April, and the number of subscribers to Radical Urbanist doubled. Thanks for joining me on this journey, and I have some great plans for the new year!

This week, a big focus on surveillance by Ring doorbells and your smartphone, and why we should be looking at free fares on transit. I also really liked the pieces on the environmental footprint of the internet, Amazon’s growing shipping business, the state of streaming, the divergence between the London Underground and NYC subway, and the fires in Australia.

I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, but if you’re looking for something to keep you occupied, I listed some of my favorite books from 2019 below.

Happy holidays, and I’ll be in touch in 2020!

— Paris


Favorites of 2019

I usually try to read read 52 books a year. I’m still a few short this year, but hoping to make it up in the next week. If you’re looking for something to read, I highly recommend any of these. The first three were published by Verso Books and are currently 50% off.

Tech dystopia

👁 Evan Greer makes a compelling argument to “avoid diving headlong into a nightmarish future” of constant surveillance that’s being marketed to us by companies like Amazon with their smart speakers, doorbell cameras, and other devices that ensure we’re constantly under surveillance so they can generate more data.

[O]ur self-surveillance devices have already begun to betray us. Take Ashley LeMay, who bought an Amazon Ring surveillance camera because she thought it would keep her family safe. Instead, a grown man hacked into the camera she had placed in the bedroom of her three young daughters. He used it to stalk the children and even spoke to 8-year-old Alyssa through the camera, saying “I’m Santa Claus. Don’t you want to be my best friend?” […] Amazon claims that these chilling incidents were not caused by a security lapse on the company's end. But that’s just not true. The company sells cheap, insecure, internet-connected cameras knowing full well the dangers associated with these devices.

👁 Meanwhile, journalists at Vice took a look at Ring’s security features and found they’re terrible:

[R]ather than implementing its own safeguards, Ring is putting this onus on users to deploy security best practices; time and time again we've seen that people using mass-market consumer devices aren't going to know or implement robust security measures at all times.

Ring is not offering basic security precautions, such as double-checking whether someone logging in from an unknown IP address is the legitimate user, or providing a way to see how many users are currently logged in—entirely common security measures across a wealth of online services.

👁📱 “The greatest trick technology companies ever played was persuading society to surveil itself.” The New York Times got its hands on a ton of location-tracking data from the phones of more than 12 million Americans that’s usually sold by data brokers. They had no problem identifying military officials, cops, journalists, musicians, and more. “If you could see the full trove, you might never use your phone the same way again.”

🛑 Google fired another of its workers, Kathryn Spiers, for creating a pop-up letting coworkers know about their rights and linked to an official Google post if they visited anti-union websites. Four of the five workers fired in the past few weeks have been LGTBQ — maybe that should go on the diversity report.

🇨🇩 “Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by human rights firm International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The lawsuit accuses the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who they claim were working in cobalt mines in their supply chain.”

▶️ Variety has a great recap on the state of the ‘streaming wars’ heading into 2020

In the core film and TV arena, ownership of major studio and network assets is more consolidated than ever among six major conglomerates: Disney, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS, Sony Corp. and, to a lesser extent, Lionsgate. […]

“There’s massive change happening right now at every level,” says Tony Vinciquerra, chairman-CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who likens the atmosphere today to the early 1980s, when cable began to boom. But this time around, the combatants have deeper pockets and the playing field is far more cutthroat than it was in the era when cable operators enjoyed local monopolies on multichannel service offerings. […]

This evolution has bifurcated the largest studio conglomerates into two types of companies: those marshaling content armies (Disney, AT&T and Comcast) and those who aim to be content arms dealers (ViacomCBS, Sony Pictures, Lionsgate).

📦 Amazon is on track to deliver 3.5 billion packages globally in 2019, leading to concern it’s dominating yet another sector of the economy. For comparison, UPS delivered 5.2 billion packages and documents in 2018. To me, this signals that some of Amazon’s businesses need to be broken off, the main platforms need to be nationalized, and its logistics operations could be integrated into the United States Postal Service.

🏭🖥 Kevin Lozano looks at the environmental footprint of the internet, where “streaming one hour of Netflix a week requires more electricity, annually, than the yearly output of two new refrigerators.”. What might the tenets of a ‘green internet’ be? “Advertising is bad, the growth of video streaming must slow, web pages are too bloated, and corporate surveillance has to end.”

✊ “Leftist TikTok creators are booming on the platform, putting out content in just the last month that has collectively amassed hundreds of thousands of views and sparked conversations with other users about leftist movements. For some, creators told BuzzFeed News, TikTok is just an entry point to combat what they see as a battle between the populist left and right for the next generation of voters.”

🏫 “Silicon Valley’s vigorous promotion of ‘ethical AI’ has constituted a strategic lobbying effort, one that has enrolled academia to legitimize itself. […] the majority of well-funded work on ‘ethical AI’ is aligned with the tech lobby’s agenda: to voluntarily or moderately adjust, rather than legally restrict, the deployment of controversial technologies.”

💰 Travis Kalanick has sold $2.1 billion in Uber stock since early November

🇫🇷 Google was fined $166 million by France’s competition authority over inconsistent and arbitrary application of its ad policies

Critical urbanism

🚇 Instead of hiring a bunch of new subway cops that will cost more than the amount of fares they’re expected to recoup from the investment, more people are calling for the New York City subway to be made free for all — and don’t worry, they have plenty of ideas for how to pay for it.

Firefighters don’t demand $2.75 before they extinguish burning homes. Teachers don’t collect $2.75 from their pupils before they’re admitted into their classrooms each morning. One way of looking at the MTA’s fare is as a regressive tax that hits those who can least afford it the hardest. Rider swipes cover about 40 percent of the MTA’s annual operating budget, which comes to nearly $18 billion in 2020. Taxes and subsidies make up the bulk of the rest, and could make up much more. One-sixth of the authority’s operating budget goes to pay off past debts owed to bondholders. Instead of giving money to Wall Street, the MTA could take money from it.

🍺 New study finds that Uber and Lyft’s entry into a city is associated with higher alcohol consumption. “The connection is even more pronounced in larger metros and in metros that were served by Uber early on. And ride-hailing leads to considerably larger increases in drinking in cities and metros with weak public-transit systems. In these places, the researchers find UberX to be associated with a roughly 20% increase in binge drinking.”

🇬🇧🇺🇸 The London Underground and New York City subway serve similar populations, but one is recognized as the best in the world and the other declared a state of emergency. What happened?

🇨🇦 It’s becoming more common for cities to have tunnels connecting different buildings, and the largest seem to be in Canada. However, Toronto’s PATH network of underground tunnels, which has 75 connected buildings and 1,200 stores, is also described as a terrible place to be. As one retail worker described:

I would cry in the washroom a lot. It feels like a classist dystopian hellscape. As a service worker you’re essentially ignored by the business people. But there is a solidarity. We traded food and drinks with other businesses. Janitors are assigned one hallway that they mop all day long, so you get to know them really well and build a bond because they’re also mistreated or invisible. In the winter I would go down when it was dark and leave when it was dark and wouldn’t see the sun.

☠️ 80% of fatal crashes in NYC since 2018 were caused by male drivers, 41% of which were driving SUVs or pickup trucks. According to the city’s DOT Commissioner, “The popularity of SUVs and light trucks are contributing to the increase in roadway fatalities in New York City and nationally.”

🇨🇦 New report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives encourages Vancouver to build 10,000 units of public housing a year at a cost of $2.5 billion to address its housing crisis

🇺🇸 Disney cold the Town Center of its planned community in Celebration, Florida to a private equity firm in 2004. The company took residents’ money, then let the town fall apart. Now they’re suing.

🇳🇬 People keep moving to Lagos, Nigeria for work, leading to uncertainty about the actual population (15 to 26 million, according to different groups), but the luxury homes being built don’t address the crushing housing crisis

🇩🇪 Uber is effectively banned in Germany after a new court ruling

🇬🇧 As part of its series on homelessness, the Guardian posted a series of tributes to homeless people who’ve died across the country

🚲 The electric vehicle that’s going to transform cities in the 2020s isn’t the car, but the humble (yet speedy!) e-bike

Climate crisis

👎 Ben Ehrenreich explains why so little came of the COP25 climate conference in Madrid: “this was a place for the wealthy and powerful […] dissent would only be indulged if it played by the rules.”

Climate advocates had hoped this year’s COP would produce a strong agreement to return in 2020 with new and ambitious commitments to lower emissions. (Only 80 mainly small and poor countries have thus far announced plans to enhance their NDCs.) If they couldn’t do anything this year, in other words, at least they could promise to try harder next time. Yet, even that modest goal was elusive. On the final Friday, with only a few hours left before the summit was scheduled to end, a negotiating bloc that had dubbed itself the High Ambition Coalition called a press conference. Grenada’s environment minister warned that, although everyone understood “what needs to be done … there are a few voices dictating the agenda to the many.” His counterpart from Costa Rica took the rare step of naming them directly: “Australia, Brazil, and the US.”

💥 An Exxon Mobil well exploded in Ohio last year. New research shows it discharged methane, a greenhouse gas “84 times more conducive to global warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period,” “at a rate of about 80 tons an hour and lasted for nearly 20 days. The end result was more methane in the air than the oil and gas industries of France, Norway and the Netherlands emit over a 12-month period.” There’s no mention of any punishment for the company.

🇦🇺 On Tuesday, Australia broke its temperature record, with an average maximum of 40.9ºC. Then it broke it again on Wednesday, hitting 41.9ºC (107.4ºF). On Thursday, a town in South Australia recorded a temperature of 49.9ºC (121.8ºF). A state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales, the largest state where nearly 100 bushfires are still raging which have caused 28 days of ‘hazardous’ air quality in Sydney in the past two months. Meanwhile, right-wing prime minister Scott Morrison is on holiday.

🇦🇺 Good history of the massive fire burning near Sydney: “The Gospers Mountain fire has now destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore - more than 444,000 hectares from the western border of the Blue Mountains to the Central Coast hinterland, north to the Hunter Valley and south to the Hawkesbury and past the Bells Line of Road. Three weeks ago it combined with several fires to form a vast complex that has been dubbed ‘the mega fire’. To those living in its shadow, it is known as ‘the monster’.”

🇩🇪 The number of people taking domestic flights in Germany is down 12% as rail journeys are soaring, a trend compared to Sweden’s ‘flight shame’ movement


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