Who’s Reprogramming Your City? | Comment Magazine

Truly evaluating smart-city technologies is harder than it first appears. To analyze their ends is to fight an uphill battle against the utopian strain of the smart-cities movement. The very idea that advances in measurement devices and analytical methods, as long as they are accessible to everyone, can deliver on utopian promises implies that our ends are adequate and only our means are in need of improvement. Accepting this implicit embrace of the status quo, whether consciously or subconsciously, will stunt our ability to ask what kinds of cities we want to build, no doubt resulting in more efficient versions of the cities we already have.

So we need sources that articulate enduring standards by which we can judge movement toward smart cities and big data, and by which we can judge cities and urbanism, in general.

In this essay, I draw a parallel between smart cities technologies and nuclear technologies, and I suggest we’ll need a lexicon of technological ethics at least as expansive and humanistic as that of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who led, among other initiatives, the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer tended to describe the technology he was advancing in terms drawn from humanistic sources, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the poetry of John Donne.

It must be said, though, that this more expansive lexicon of technological ethics is a necessary but insufficient condition for good judgment and right action. Despite his expansive lexicon, Oppenheimer was no ethical genius (not many are). Thanks to Alan Jacobs, I’ve picked up Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. I look forward to finishing it sometime down the road, but it is worth noting that Oppenheimer made a number of choices that harmed friends, collaborators, mentors, and others. Moreover, as Alan points out in a May 2015 post at Text Patterns, Oppenheimer’s own approach to technological development – which Alan dubs “the Oppenheimer Principle” – might be captured in a response he gave when his motives and patriotism were questioned during the McCarthy era (Oppenheimer had made known his misgivings about the Cold War, the arms race, and, specifically, the development of the hydrogen bomb):

when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was having his security clearance re-examined during the McCarthy era, he commented, in response to a question about his motives, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.

To give Oppenheimer credit, he does say that we should eventually argue about what to do about our technical successes, which is more than many others would say. But it is worth noting that “When you see something technically sweet, you go ahead and do it” is an impulse that lends itself to investing in technological development and later demanding its use. This is not an ethical infrastructure that promotes reflection and good judgment, whether about nuclear technologies or smart cities.

So while we can be sure that we need a more expansive lexicon of technological ethics – that a thin, technology-derived lexicon of technological ethics will lead to bigger, faster, more efficient versions of the cities we already have – we can be just as sure that it will be no guarantee of good judgment and right action with regard to our smart cities technologies.

Who’s Reprogramming Your City? | Comment Magazine

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