Smart city is for police, Amazon organizing, GND for Public Housing, climate crisis hurts women, & more!

Issue 112

Hey urbanists,

Radical Urbanist surpassed 1,000 subscribers this week. Thank you, and welcome to anyone who’s new here!

This week I’m highlighting a great essay by Jathan Sadowski, who has a great critical take on the smart city, and how it’s more about giving the police more control. I also want to draw attention to the stories of organizing at Amazon, the Green New Deal for Public Housing, Sally Applin’s take on AVs, and how the climate crisis will impact women and children most. Plus, you can read my pieces on video game unionization (end of Tech Dystopia) and tech’s flawed ideas of transportation (end of Critical Urbanism).

I’m currently in London, and I’ll be in Paris on Monday. I’ll be at the Salon des Maires on Tuesday and a meet-up hosted by Manwë and 15 marches that evening. Then I’ll be in Copenhagen later in the week.

In the past couple days I’ve met illustrator Alan Lee, known for depictions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and Ian McKellen, the incredible stage and screen actor (who also played Gandalf). It’s been a surreal week for me; I hope you have a great one!


P.S. — I think last week’s issue got caught in some spam filters. Find it here.

👁 Jathan Sadowski outlines how the smart city has and never will exist how the tech giants promote it; it will only serve to increase the power of police over our lives. It’s yet another reason to oppose the proliferation of surveillance technologies.

[M]any of the promises and prototypes that support the smart-city imaginary are in fact imaginary. Often they exist only as marketing pitches. And if they do materialize they fail to live up to their hype. Actually existing smart cities are plagued by delays and dead ends, glitches and ghost towns. […] A closer look at the bundle of technologies and policies associated with “smart cities” suggest a different aim. These technologies treated the city like a battlespace, redeploying information systems originally created for military purposes for urban policing.

Tech dystopia

Amazon’s Minneapolis-Saint Paul fulfillment center “just like the dozens of other Amazon fulfillment centers in the US. But it differs in at least one significant respect: At least 30% of its workers are East African. Many are Somali Muslims who have been in the country for only a few years. Some are refugees who survived years of civil war and displacement, only to face anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia in their new home. This relatively small group—bound together by shared neighborhoods, mosques, cafés, and Somali shopping malls—has managed to pull off feats of organizing unmatched by workers at any other Amazon warehouse in America. The group has staged walkouts, brought management to the negotiating table twice, demanded concessions to accommodate Muslim religious practice, and commanded national attention—all without the clout of a traditional union.”

📉 SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund was about bringing the company to the global stage. It invested in companies and told them to use the money to fund growth, but when profits failed to materialize, the burden was always placed on the shoulders of workers who were misled about the viability of the business models.

📝 Related: Transcription service Rev cut the pay of its contractor workforce by over 30% to less than $5 per hour

🤦 “Tech-oriented solutions to rural poverty and underdevelopment have become hallmarks of Democratic Party policy thinking. […] Yet, as the residents of Whiteville, North Carolina, could attest, the promise that [Bill] Clinton and other tech-for-all promoters held out for the internet’s ability to solve problems of poverty and unemployment failed to match the reality. […] First on the agenda must be breaking up the big tech companies […] It should also entail a baseline commitment to making broadband internet access a universal right and public utility.”

🇬🇧 Related: Labour has announced a plan to renationalize parts of BT to provide free fiber-to-the-home internet service to every house and business by 2030. Brits go to the polls on December 12th.

🧙 “The internet doesn’t seem to be turning us into sophisticated cyborgs so much as crude medieval peasants entranced by an ever-present realm of spirits and captive to distant autocratic landlords. What if we aren’t being accelerated into a cyberpunk future so much as thrown into some fantastical premodern past?” — Max Read

👨‍⚕️ Through ‘Project Nightingale’, Google has access to the personal health information of patients across 21 U.S. states who use Ascension, the second-largest health system in the country. Doctors and patients were not informed their info would be given to Google. “The data is being transferred with full personal details including name and medical history and can be accessed by Google staff. Unlike other similar efforts it has not been made anonymous though a process of removing personal information known as de-identification.”

💳 Apple’s new credit card is already under investigation by regulators for discriminating against women after David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder Steve Wozniak, and many others complained that when couples applied for Apple Card, the wives always got a much lower credit limit. After a lot of speculation, Hansson’s wife Jamie wrote a post to clarify why they went public with the discriminatory practice: “when the AppleCard manager told me she was aware of David’s tweets and that my credit limit would be raised to meet his, without any real explanation, I felt the weight and guilt of my ridiculous privilege. … This is not merely a story about sexism and credit algorithm blackboxes, but about how rich people nearly always get their way. Justice for another rich white woman is not justice at all.”

🏦 Related: Google is also planning to get into banking with checking accounts, because in a financialized economy, every company eventually becomes a bank

🇸🇦🩸💵 Many of tech’s transportation companies, including Uber, have worrying ties to Saudi Arabia because of the large sums of money the country has invested in Silicon Valley. This came to the fore during a recent Axios interview with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi where he tried to dismiss the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi as a “serious mistake,” and said “people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.” His PR team quickly got to work on an apology.

🇺🇸 Related: New Jersey says Uber misclassified drivers as contractors when they should’ve been employees, so it owes the state $650 million in unemployment and disability insurance taxes

📨 12 Facebook employees released an open letter detailing the discrimination they face at the company. “On the inside, we are sad. Angry. Oppressed. Depressed. And treated every day through the micro and macro aggressions as if we do not belong here.”

📊 A visual guide to Google’s ad business — and how it makes it almost impossible for any other company to compete with it. 50 U.S. state attorneys general have already launched an antitrust investigation into Google’s ad business, and announced it will expand to its search and Android businesses.

🇪🇺 Related: Europe led the way on antitrust action against Big Tech, but large fines aren’t enough to curb their behavior. It’s now considering cease-and-desist orders until the cases are resolved, shifting the burden of proof from the regulator to the company (to prove their actions are helping consumers), and breaking them up is on the table.

🛑 “Every billionaire is thus more than a simple failure of policy. Every billionaire is evidence of a basic glitch in the fabric of the moral universe: their lives, and acts, ring out with the gospel that only what we call evil will be rewarded — that the selfish get to live as angels, and all good people will be damned. Challenging capitalism also means challenging its religion.”

😬 Elon Musk’s lies about the SolarCity acquisition are putting Tesla’s future at risk. “The documents in the lawsuit offer an unprecedented look at what happens when Musk’s reality-distortion field comes up against the reality of testifying under oath.”

🤖 Security robots “robots, which range from stationary kiosks to roving bulbous obelisks on wheels, collect immense amounts of data using tools such as facial recognition, automatic license plate readers, and wireless device detection.”

🎮✊ By Paris: Toxic Workplaces Are Driving Video Game Developers to Unionize (OneZero): “At its core, the push for unionization of the games industry is about giving more power to workers, not just to improve their working conditions, but so they can have a greater voice in the decisions made in their workplaces.”

Critical urbanism

🇫🇷 The Paris Metro has experienced five years of unprecedented ridership growth as the mayor reorients the city away from cars. Its Line 13 is now the fifth most congested in the world, so the city is considering a number of measures — from new Metro lines, more train cars, automated trains, and redesigned platforms — to accommodate the influx of riders.

🇩🇰 Nearly half of all trips in Copenhagen take place on a bike. “People here say there’s no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing.”

🇺🇸 Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced a Green New Deal for Public Housing to invest $172 billion for “retrofitting the federally owned homes, improving energy efficiency, converting oil-burning furnaces and gas-fired stoves to renewable-energy electric alternatives, and replacing the lead-leaching pipes causing public health crises in cities across the country.” It would create an estimated 250,000 jobs per year, and would give priority to public housing residents.

📱 “Waze is a business, not a government agency. The goal is to be an indispensable service for its customers, and to profit from that. And it isn’t clear that those objectives align with a solution for urban congestion as a whole.”

👨‍💻 Anthropologist Sally A. Applin on revelations in the NTSB report about Uber’s fatal crash in Tempe: Autonomous vehicle engineers appear to be “programming for what should be, not what actually is. There just seems to be a really naive assumption about various rules — and that the world is going to be the way the rules are, not necessarily the way the world is.”

🚫🚗 In cities around the world, governments are reassessing the dominance of cars and bringing in measures to reduce their use

🇬🇧🇺🇸 Lyft wanted to extend its bikeshare business to London. Officials shut them down as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Lyft-owned Nice Ride dockless bike system in Minneapolis is switching to a docked system in 2020 and the company pulled scooters from six cities because they weren’t dense enough.

🧠 Air pollution from vehicles slightly increases the chances of brain cancer

🛴 Bolt founder Markus Villig admits there’s no money to be made in e-scooters

🇨🇦 SUVs could soon be paying a premium to park in a Montreal neighborhood

🌪 Ranking modes of transport in The Wizard of Oz

💥🤦 By Paris: From micro-mobility to macro-exigency (Flaunt Magazine): “The past decade of tech experimentation in transportation has proven that the visionaries of Silicon Valley don’t really know what they’re doing when it comes to equitably and efficiently moving large numbers of people through urban space.”

Climate crisis

👩 “The effects of climate change disproportionately impact women and girls, especially those who are Indigenous, racialized and living in poverty. We should be shouting it from the rooftops: the climate crisis will kill women first.”

🧒 “As children, this next generation faces growing risks from climate-related hazards like less nutritious crops and spreading diarrheal disease. As these children grow up, they will encounter air pollution exacerbated by burning fossil fuels. When they enter the workforce, they may struggle to earn money as rising average temperatures make it more difficult to work outdoors. And their lives and livelihoods could be disrupted by extreme weather becoming more severe.”

🇮🇹 Venice experienced the second-highest tide in its history and it’s expected to have a devastating impact on the city. The regional governor said, “Venice is on its knees.. the art, the basilica, the shops and the homes, a disaster,” while the mayor planned to declare a disaster zone as asked the government for assistance: “The cost will be high. This is the result of climate change.”

🇨🇦 British Columbia handed out $1.2 billion in subsidies to fracking companies

🛢 Microsoft’s latest deal to speed up climate disaster is with Suncor to “harness the power of cloud computing, big data and machine learning” in Alberta’s oil sands

🇦🇺 On Monday, it didn’t rain in Australia. Meteorologists can’t remember it ever happening before in recorded history. Meanwhile, fire ratings in parts of the country were raised to “catastrophic.”

🇺🇸 New York City may finance a power line to gain access to Quebec’s excess hydro power to ensure the city doesn’t have to rely on dirty energy when the Indian Point nuclear facility is decommissioned in 2021


✊ “The WGADGA and SAG-AFTRA are gearing up for master film and TV contract negotiations with the major studios” as creators are “concerned about the impact of the latest wave of media mergers and acquisitions, and about how paychecks will be affected by the shift to direct-to-consumer content platforms. There is growing interest over what role Netflix will play in the next round of negotiations.”

📺 David Dayen outlines how Disney is abusing its market power to launch its streaming service: “There’s a concept in antitrust law known as ‘tying’. It is illegal to sell a product that cannot be operated, or in this case understood, without purchasing another product. Movie sequels have obviously not applied to the tying law, because fans can seek them out. But the idea of needing to purchase a monthly streaming service as a mandatory add-on to enjoying a film does take things a step further. It’s kind of like tying people’s emotional connection to entertainment material.”

📺 Disney+ hit 10 million subscribers on its first day, but employees of Disney’s other companies — ESPN, in particular — were criticized for blatantly shilling for the new service

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