Bull Session

Techno-Utopia and Alphabet’s Smart City

October 27, 2017          

Episode Summary

For our podcast topic this week, we discuss the design proposal by Sidewalk Labs—a smart city technologies firm, owned by Alphabet, Google parent’s company—for the City of Toronto. Sidewalk Labs will be partnering with the city to create a mixed-use community on Toronto’s waterfront. The aim of the pilot project is to build a smart city from the ground up, drawing on recent technological innovations in software analytics, the IoT, and self-driving cars, as well as improvements in methods of construction, waste disposal, and energy systems. Concerns about privacy abound, however. A recent Toronto Star editorial voiced some skepticism that promises of security and privacy protection would actually be built into the new infrastructure of the smart city. Join us as we discuss.

Alphabet is Trying to Reinvent the City, Starting with Toronto
Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to turn Toronto area into a model smart city
Don’t lose sight of personal privacy in futuristic city: Editorial

Welcome to episode 230 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and cohost Dirk Nemeyer.

Greetings listeners.

So this week, Dirk, we’re going to take another dive into the world of techno-utopia. Last week we talked about that a little bit in the context of the big four, the GAFA, the Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple or maybe I got those out of order-

Sounds good to me.

But, this week we’re going to talk about part of the Googles, actually part of the alphabet if you remember, alphabet is the parent company of Google now. They have a lot of interesting other companies under that alphabet umbrella, which includes a firm called Sidewalk Labs, which is a smart cities technologies firm. That firm has some pretty big ambitions. Sort of what came to floor over the past month or so is they’re working with the city of Toronto to build a mixed used community in some land in Toronto by the water front that is sort of badly in need of redevelopment.

It’s really an interesting … Maybe not starting, but very intriguing vision of what the future city might look like. Sort of key to this whole design endeavor from Sidewalk Labs is the idea that they’re building from the ground up, from the internet infrastructure, all the way up. So they’re going to leverage all types of different technologies that they have their fingers in as part of the alphabet pie, if you pardon the mixed metaphors. So you’ve got, for instance, self-driving cars, that’s a very big element of Google’s future R&D. They’re going to incorporate the self-driving car as part of this urban development. They’re going to experiment with new building techniques. There’re going to, of course, build this huge data infrastructure. They’re going to create various ways of mitigating climate change, for instance, sort of enabling the residents to have comfortable living as the climate changes.

So it’s a very broad and ambitious pilot that they have. They’re starting off with 12 acres, there’s 880 acres total in this very large area of Toronto by the water front that is potentially could be built up based on the results of this pilot. But they’re starting with 12 acres and all the drawings, all of the plans they have posted on the Sidewalk Lab site are very techno-utopian and very exciting if you believe what the results of that will be. On the other side of the coin, you have the Toronto star, which posted an editorial, which said, “Hey this looks fantastic, but hey guys, we might want to really make sure that we’re not entering into minority report territory here.” Which is, of course, the Philip K. Dick story that was turned into the movie with Tom Cruise where everybody is plugged into this advertising field future where you’re recognized everywhere you go and your data is just part of this larger conglomerate that is assessed all the time and privacy is willow the wisp, right? Privacy is slowing leaking away.

Also, I saw a good point made by a commenter who said, “Yeah, by the way there’s a real diverse population here. The elderly, the poor, people who are maybe underserved by your typical tech firm. So does techno-utopia include everybody? Or does it just include the people who are most benefiting from it now?” So with that rather rambling preamble, Dirk, your thoughts on Google’s Sidewalk Labs and the Toronto project?

Yeah it’s an interesting story. It certainly isn’t a surprising one. I mean these are deep roots for Google and from the standpoint that they even A. It reflects things from early as days of Google, but B. It’s an approach to community building that goes back well over a century. So, there’s the idea of what are known as company towns. Company towns started in the 19th century. They started around as a direct consequence of the industrial revolution. They too started out as utopias. The idea was we have this steel mill, or a very famous one is Pullman Illinois, which Pullman is a town south of Chicago that was started by the Pullman railroad car company. This whole city was started and created, so the employees had somewhere to work and live and all of this stuff.

So there’s all these different examples of it. They were almost all utopian in conception. They were seen as this wonderful opportunity to provide for the workers, to benefit the business, for it all to go well. Almost without exception they ended up being very dystopic in their conception. I mean, Pullman, as one example, when there was a stock market crash or something in the early 1890s, they had horrible issues. The employees were let go, and it created all these problems in their lives. There’s the many, really, brilliantly diabolical stories of company towns where they created their own currency and were paying employees in their own currency that can only be spent in their town. Then imposing on top of that, bank related fees and having inflation. Doing these crazy things so that the people at the end of the day were going to pay very little because they were caught in this bubble and using this fixed economy and this fixed currency.

Just as a couple of examples. So this idea of a corporation with utopian dreams creating living communities has a long history, and it’s a long history that is a dark history for the most part. In terms of Google specifically, we look from the earliest days of Google, they were one of the leaders in the Sicilian Valley, give your employees this lifestyle that would let them live in your building 24/7 basically. Which again, on the surface … This was happening when I was in Sicilian Valley, so I had a lot of exposure to it, both directly inside Google, but also through people I know. In the early days of the availability of those services, it was something really special and new. I mean, all the different types of food, of course, is what’s talked about the most. But any number of services from remote car washing coming, and having your car washed during the day. Dry cleaning being taken out. Having living quarters that are nearby and available. I mean, these are things that Google has done from the very earliest stages.

There are things that Sicilian Valley has really embraced, and it becomes sort of, I would say punch liney at this point, about Sicilian Valley companies. But in the beginning it was good, it was something that the companies did for the right reasons in general. While also, of course, looking to benefit and profit by it. But for employees, it was good as well. The early narrative on this stuff wasn’t people saying, “Oh these greedy F’ers are trying to trap me here all the time.” It was like, oh my gosh, it’s inconvenient to get my car washed now, it’s magically washed. It’s inconvenient to deal with the stupid dry cleaning, they’re closed on these days, and they have weird times. Now my stuff is just magically done. This is really, really incredible. But, by the end of it, it had transformed people’s lives and lifestyles into ones that were codependent on the company.

So, both in the long history of company towns in Google, sort of being one of the leaders, certainly not the only ones but with the whole Sicilian Valley movement of trying to create infrastructures, sort of lifestyle infrastructure, to integrate people’s personal lives with their professional life. For Google, these things generally aren’t super at the end of the day. They look great at the beginning, everybody’s excited. They’re definitely benefits to it. But as it evolves, not so well. Here in Toronto, I think the concerns particularly around gender fication and creating a space that will be for young, well educated, wealthy people, that’s pretty likely. I’ll be impressed and surprised if Google pulls something different off. But that’s what I would expect, and I’m sure it will be racially diverse. I’m sure it will be gender diverse. But, and this goes back to a show when we were talking about Sicilian Valley culture, I don’t know if it was earlier this year or last year, but there’s going to be … I suspect that lack of economic diversity. Certainly getting into some of the ageist stuff as well.

Pretty young population most likely. Again, maybe they’ll surprise us. But, you would expect that’s the path we’re going to head down.

Yeah. That’s an interesting take. I think, as I look at this, there is something that popped out to me, which was that part of their plans is to have this underground system where they’ll handle the refuse, the garbage collection, things like that. Which reminds me a little bit of the way Disney has planned out their theme parks and Epcot, etc. to disguise all the services underneath. Which is an excellent metaphor, right? So these are the undesirable things, right? So your garbage is smelly and it piles up. You’d much rather pretend that you don’t have any garbage, right?

But the fact is, when we put more and more layers between ourselves and our behavior, we sort of lose touch with the consequences. So when you see a whole bunch of recycling sitting in your kitchen after a week and you go, “Holy smokes, I actually do use a lot of plastic. How about that. Look at all this cardboard.” I don’t know, it’s just interesting, reminds you that it’s there. Same thing, the stinky food, you think, “Oh I’m wasting food.” Or, “Wow, why’s this food smell so bad? Oh I threw out that piece of meat that I really should have cooked. But I got lazy and I just ordered take out. Blah, blah, blah.” So reminding ourselves of the way that we interact with the world around us with nature, with the things that smell, the things that stink, our waste products-

Are we talking about nature, or garbage, or poop here, Jon?

Yeah, no I’m talking about the whole thing. So, sometimes it’s good to have a reminder that your shit does stink, right? That you are a messy human being and sometimes it’s okay to be messy. I think the more we remove ourselves from that and elevate, I don’t know what you want to call it, angelic status where our spaces are all geared to us and we have this techno bubble around us, which we do already, but taking that to the next degree. I do think there’s an interesting tension there, I think. I’m not sure that, at least from my perspective, I’m not sure that I like that. I like the understanding of how I’m part of the greater system. I really don’t need my every need catered to. I’m quite all right cleaning up after myself, thank you.

So, that part doesn’t appeal to me. The addition, sort of the loss of privacy, I mean there’s going to be accounts, right? “Digital accounts” for everybody who lives in this area so that the system can track you. “Good morning Mr. Follettt. Good morning Mr. Nemeyer. Your coffee is ready.” This idea that your digital footprint is matched to you and is part of this. Now of course, I think that’s really fascinating and I bet you there’s some sort of magical stuff that could happen with your digital footprint mapped to your physical footprint in the areas where you live. At the same time, maybe it’s unreasonable to be somewhat worried about that, but that’s the dark cloud that I see on the horizon. Not to mention, you made a very good point with the Pullman communities, what happens if Google is no longer quite so powerful? What happens when employees get laid off and all this cloud data’s no longer as secure as it once was? Or is accessible to hackers? You see Mr. Robot on USA, right? When the smart home goes wrong, they have a great sequence in there of a smart home just rebelling, right?

So, there’s all levels of creepiness that can ensue. Suffice it to say that it will be an interesting pilot. I’m going to very much keep my eyes on it. I’m not convinced I would want to live in techno-utopia al la Google flavor. But I’d love to hear the stories that come out of it.

You covered a lot of ground there. I mean, in the early parts of the clean dirty stuff you sounded like Dennis Leary in Demolition Man, right? For people who saw that 20 year old sci-fi movie. Yeah, you know, the thing to remember is that it is just a pilot, right? So I’m extsrapulating it and seeing down the road to Google creating these communities of somewhat captive workforce. The reality is, this is a pilot and they’re testing technology. From that standpoint, I mean, it’s a good thing, right? I mean, whether or not I would want to be part of the pilot is another question. But, we do need to prototype and try out, boots on the ground, all of these technologies that we’re now able to do and see how is it a good or a bad solution if the environment is saying “good morning Mr. Follett.” Right?

Where are the risks? Where are the vulnerabilities? Where are the issues? There will be some. So, I mean the fact that there’s prototyping happening at this level, it’s something that prototyping is a good thing. But, the directions that it can go and the historical precedents for how these experiments tend to end up aren’t encouraging.

Yeah it really is a heaven for emerging technologies. You can see probably five or six different emerging technology. Who knows what they’re going to pull out for the construction, right, of these buildings. Whether they’ll be some 3D printing in there. But, there’s so many emerging technologies converging in this project. It just reminds you of the complexity of any one of these systems. Like self-driving cars alone have a degree of complexity. So you’ve intertwined very complicated systems and so it’s really going to show Google’s ability, Sidewalk Lab’s ability, to function on a system design level in ways that maybe we have not really seen before just because of the interlocking nature of the data, the construction, the transportation, the infrastructure.

So, if it works out, I mean, they’re going to have cracked a pretty significant code. To your point, even in previous attempts of somewhat simpler models have failed. In some cases, like the Disney Epcot had dreams of being a utopian community of some kind when it first got started. It’s become something else that’s kind of cool, but it’s no where near the original vision.

Well talk about dystopic, you mentioned Disney a couple of times. There is city in Florida called Celebration Florida that is a Disney designed city. I think for most of the listeners of this podcast, if you said what is the most dystopic place in the world you could live? Celebration Florida would probably be pretty high on that list. There is also another thread back into the past, is there have been a lot of cities of tomorrow over the years. Going back to Lake [inaudible 00:17:40], going back to a lot of our design heroes frankly have participated in those. They’ve generally been wildly incorrect. They have been ideas and visions that the real world has not turned out looking anything at all like them.

Of course, they haven’t, for the most part, been prototyped on the kind of scale that Google will be prototyping, so I guess we can expect with this more … This higher resolution prototype of the ideas, maybe we’ll get some more accurate or interesting results.

Yeah, the prototype at scale is audacious, ambitious. It’s great stuff. We’ll see what the end results turn into. Hopefully better than some of the previous techno-utopias. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in the digitalife and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, sound cloud, stitcher, player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollettt that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T.

Of course, the whole show’s brought to you by Go Invo, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com, Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.

So that’s it for episode 230 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Nemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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