will the ordinary smart city please stand up?

For all its faults, Twitter occasionally throws up a total, unexpected gem, which is why I stick with it, and this is one: a stonking essay by Jacob Silverman called Future Fail which  I found via a Justin Pickard tweet (thanks, Justin). Silverman takes aim at the utopian techno-futurism of Silicon Valley and venture capitalists and sure hits the target. A sample: “At this apparently late date in our species’ history, as rising seas swallow South Pacific islands and chunks of Louisiana, the reverie of a frictionless, optimally engineered human prospect now demands considerable gall—together with a heaping of political naiveté, mindless consumerism, historical ignorance, and class and racial privilege.” And gendered privilege of course, which he acknowledges elsewhere in his essay.

futuristic2

As Silverman notes, the flip side to this technologically engineered future utopianism are visions of the future as technological dystopias, horrendous scenarios of technology gone horribly wrong, with horrible consequences (Silverman points to climate change, pandemics and nuclear war – but the widespread fascination with zombies must be part of this dystopianism too).

That dystopia is intimately related to utopia is hardly news of course. In another example, the pair structure smart city discourse all the way down. Smart tech can save cities; smart tech will ruin cities. Smart tech will liberate people; smart tech will surveill and curtail them. Smart tech will make buses run on time; but only at the expense of giving up data privacy. And so on.

Silverman’s conclusion is to reject fantasies of the future entirely. “The future,’ he says, “with all of its ideological baggage, and its smoldering graveyard of unfulfilled dreams, has failed us. We’d do well to abandon it, and start figuring out how we might survive the present.” Well yes, absolutely.

Except that, as many a sci-fi fan will tell you, sci-fi as a genre can be a useful way of thinking how things might indeed be different. In the future, right now, doesn’t really matter it seems to me. Which gives me an excuse to enthuse about a couple of books I read over the summer. Nothing to do with smart cities: they’re both what I thought were really interesting efforts at articulating how it might be to think differently, to be different, to deal with difference differently. Ostensibly in the future but why not now too. The first challenges the current dominance of the octopus as the go-to animal for thinking life otherwise: The Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which won last year’s Athur C Clarke award. The second gradually lets you realise that its first-person narrator is not exactly the kind of life-form that the Western novel is based on: Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Oh, and both do interesting things with gender, too, reversing and refusing it. As this year’s winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, Colson Whitehead, said, “Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

Which is why I’m wondering (back to smart cities, folks) – what kinds of cultural work is feeding into current visions of the smart city, sci fi, fantasy or other? Techno-futuristic utopianism and dystopianism, for sure. Black Mirror and Elysium and Interstellar, for sure. A series of Philip K Dick short stories are about to air on UK television. (And then there’s the totally weird Netflix film The Circle, which can’t seem to make up its mind about whether total surveillance is a Good thing or Bad.)

But is there other sci-fi that just show smart cities as ordinary? Not horrendous, not heavenly, but just kind of a bit smooth, a bit glitchy, a bit fun, a bit irritating? And if there were, would that help us deal with their technologies? Answers in the comment box please.

(The title of this post was inspired by Hollands, Robert G. “Will the Real Smart City Please Stand Up?” City 12, no. 3 (2008): 303–20.)

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