[Note: This was an essay that, funnily enough, I wrote for an english elective instead of any of my dozens of planning courses. I’m posting this now because the actual thing I’m working on is taking a lot longer than I expected, oops.
It’s a bit stuffy because I wrote it initially in 2018 before I got a little better at talking about academic subjects without sounding like I have my head up my ass, but I still mostly stand by the content.
This is an extra-long post at something like 3500 words, so I’m sticking it under a cut. Read on to hear me break down why this now endemic “smart cities” trend isn’t one that I’m particularly fond of. The last section is new content and expands on the ways I’ve changed my thinking since I wrote the essay.]
On my corner of Tumblr, there’s a good meme going around, inspired possibly by something Matt Yglesias did a few years back? And it’s been a good workout for my brain, now that school doesn’t seem real anymore because the entire world sort of went on hiatus.
Anyways, so you know how every time there’s a crisis, there’s a bunch of people on Twitter saying “if we only had implemented [my preferred policy] years ago, this could have been totally averted”? 1 The idea is to flip that for the sake of nuance and intellectual honesty. To think of policies you unreservedly support that would have made things a lot worse now, or conversely, ideas that you absolutely will not support, that would have absolutely helped.
I’ve thought of a few things that fit this profile for me:
I want higher dependence on mass transit and a severe reduction of car culture. But if more households did not have cars and were dependent on public transportation to get around, then our transit systems would have been truly terrible vectors of disease. Instead, buses currently are near-empty here in Waterloo, meaning that if you absolutely had to go someplace, it’s not as dangerous to use. (I think there’s still decent ridership at peak hours, which is bad. But it could be a lot worse.)
Downsizing your fridge and doing near-daily grocery runs for your food is a fantastic way to increase the freshness of what you eat and reduce food waste. But without the ability to shop for a weeks’ worth of food at a time, households would need to be in more frequent contact with the community.
Relatedly, as a #millennial, the whole #supportlocal lifestyle where I go to 4 specialty grocers for specific ingredients instead of one (1) Loblaw is very appealing to me. Now, the thought of visiting even two different stores back to back makes my hair stand on end and I’m very grateful for big-box stores that sell most of what I need.
Mass surveillance. Hoo boy, to say that I am not a fan would be a giant understatement. But I can’t deny that contact/proximity tracing would have helped prevent the spread, even if that feels like pulling teeth to admit. I am very angry that many countries are working on developing such tools, and extremely concerned about the further erosion of privacy that this symbolizes as well as the fact that, let’s be real, it won’t be rolled back.
I’m anticipating some quibble about whether surveillance at our current fidelity level is actually effective, but I’m obviously against higher quality surveillance that is 100% effective even more than I am against our current level of surveillance. 2 Basically, surveillance will help save lives and I’m big mad about that.
What are some things that you support, that would have been pretty bad?
To be clear, I’m not bashing on the “[my preferred policy] would have solved this crisis years ago” folk – such commentary is often valuable and true, and I do not agree with the characterisation that that is opportunistic/in bad taste. [↑]
Okay, so this might not be strictly true. It looks like clumsy surveillance screws over more innocents than having more comprehensive profiles, which might be a worse state of affairs on balance. But in case it wasn’t obvious, I would consider both clumsy and sophisticated state surveillance to be worse than no state surveillance. [↑]