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A Lexicon of Technological Ethics

At 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, United States government officials, military brass, and scientific researchers detonated the first nuclear weapon. After six years of secret experimentation known as “the Manhattan Project,” a team led by J. Robert Oppenheimer tested a plutonium weapon code-named “the Gadget,” releasing a cataclysmic amount of energy on an uninhabited part of New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto Desert. Weeks after witnessing that successful detonation, the United States military unleashed similar weapons—one of them an exact replica of the Gadget—on Japan, devastating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people, bringing an end to World War II, and shattering all illusions of developing nuclear technology for strictly peaceful uses. Once a symbol of utopian hopes, nuclear technologies had, in a matter of weeks, become an omen of dystopian realities.

Oppenheimer, who had code-named the trial “Trinity Test” in an abstruse reference to a poem by John Donne, had grasped this new reality on the morning of the July trial detonation. Asked what he thought when he witnessed the first nuclear explosion, Oppenheimer recalled two passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scriptures that Mahatma Gandhi had described as his “spiritual dictionary.” Oppenheimer had read the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. The first passage that came to Oppenheimer’s mind on that fateful July morning: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” The second was more portentous. As Oppenheimer later recounted,

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

In the middle of a New Mexico desert, Oppenheimer drew on the work of a seventeenth- century English poet and priest and a millennia-old Hindu religious book as he evaluated the changes that nuclear technology would bring. Those sources informed his judgments about whether nuclear technology would be an instrument of deliverance or an instrument of desolation. The humanities— especially literary and religious sources—were, for one of the world’s most influential physicists, an ethical lexicon for technological development.

Brimming With Technology, Empty of People?

More than seventy years after the Trinity Test, a team of researchers has begun testing other new technologies in a New Mexico desert city about 250 miles southeast of the Jornada del Muerto. This city—code-named “CITE,” the Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation—lies just outside the town of Hobbs in the state’s southeastern corner. It’s a prototype and test site for smart technologies meant to change how we inhabit our increasingly urban world. The city is brimming with technology, but it is empty of people. CITE tests smart-city technologies on an uninhabited part of the desert landscape before they can be unleashed on cities. CITE is the Trinity Test of smart cities.

Smart-city technologies, while neither as spectacular nor as brutal as an atom bomb, are, like nuclear technologies once were, invested with a certain utopian promise. In his book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, Anthony Townsend outlines a “historic shift in how we build and manage our cities.” Smart cities employ new technologies to collect data on every aspect of urban life—pedestrian and motorist traffic, public transit, the response times of public services, energy use, environmental conditions, employment rates. Advanced methods and algorithms then turn that data into useful information. Technicians and policy makers hope to use this information to make cities more prosperous and more sustainable, chiefly by making them more efficient.

In an increasingly urban world—one in which more than half the population lives in cities, global challenges have a new urban face, and city leaders are increasingly influential in shaping global affairs—the promises of smart-city technologies are revolutionary. According to Townsend, nothing short of human survival may depend on the development and deployment of smart-city technologies.

The real killer app for smart cities’ new technologies is the survival of our species. The coming century of urbanization is humanity’s last attempt to have our cake and eat it too, to double down on industrialization by redesigning the operating system of the last century to cope with the challenges of the coming one. That’s why mayors across the globe are teaming up with the giants of the technology industry. These companies— IBM, Cisco, Siemens, among others—have crafted a seductive pitch. The same technology that fueled the expansion of global business over the last quarter-century can compute away local problems, they say. If we only let them reprogram our cities, they can make traffic a thing of the past. Let them replumb our infrastructure and they will efficiently convey water and power to our fingertips. Resource shortages and climate change don’t have to mean cutting back. Smart cities can simply use technology to do more with less, and tame and green the chaos of booming cities.

Smart-city technologies are new symbols of utopian hopes, promising to save the world from itself. But how will we know if they deliver? How will we know the likely effects of CITE? What is our lexicon for describing and evaluating these technologies?

Analysis of Townsend’s book suggests that our lexicon may be nothing more than a crudely written thesaurus entry for the word “democracy.”

While Townsend doesn’t question the assumption that technologies promote more prosperous and sustainable urban (and global) life, he does avoid the superficial and dangerous supposition that efficiency can be the single measure of technology and its effects. Townsend’s slightly more expansive evaluation of technology is a welcome improvement over our most facile assumptions.

Townsend is concerned with who controls technology, who governs smart cities. For Townsend, global corporations should not be trusted to wield such powerful technologies in the interests of a broader public. Left to corporations that must put shareholders ahead of stakeholders, the smartcities movement will be about selling equipment and services to urban elites and pocketing the profit. (The movement is worth an estimated $12.1 billion in 2016 and is poised to grow to $25.7 billion by 2023.) That profit motive could stunt the possibility of deliverance through smartcity technologies. In other words, the corporations driving smart cities should not be left to their own devices.

According to Townsend, if we want to harness smart-city technologies to make cities more livable and sustainable for everyone, then we must democratize access to technology. For Townsend, technology itself actually addresses this challenge of democratic governance. The widespread availability of consumer technologies, especially smartphones, gives reason to believe that the smart city can be democratized and its promises achieved. “Look in your pocket,” he writes. “You already have a smart city construction kit.” In the right hands—namely the hands of civic hackers, slum dwellers, and other potentially marginalized groups— smart-city technologies can provide a flourishing urban future. Not only must we have efficiency; we must have it for everyone.

Townsend places too much hope in the potential of consumer technologies. While smartphones and other mobile devices are certainly ubiquitous, it would be naïve to think that possession of such devices empowers consumers to reshape cities in the same way as institutions such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens, GE, and Philips. Such illusions of agency should last no longer than a phone battery. Consumer devices may equip us to respond and react to the smart city, but they do not empower us to rethink and rebuild it. On the contrary, it is more likely that our phones will remake us.

Better to Live with Democracy Than Without. But…

The vision that Townsend casts also puts too much faith in individual actions and fleeting collaborations. If cities were merely the aggregated individual preferences and behaviors of their residents, an emphasis on individual action might make sense. But they’re not.

A city is a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts ecosystem consisting largely of architecture, infrastructure, natural environment, and durable social institutions. Sustaining a movement toward prosperous, sustainable, and inclusive cities will require strong institutions.

Like his misplaced hopes in consumer technologies and individual action, Townsend’s assumptions about democracy are far too sanguine. It is not only questionable that consumer technologies will democratize the smart city in any meaningful way, it is questionable whether more democracy will leverage technology in order to deliver on the promises of the smart city. The idea that the masses, if they just had access to the technology, would deliver on utopian promises is specious. Townsend’s vision of civic hackers and other nonelites joining together in a coalition of independent smart-city directors bears some resemblance to the future of warfare envisioned in Adam Roberts’s 2010 novel, New Model Army. Among other themes, the book explores the intersection of radical democracy and new technologies. The book’s protagonist is not an individual per se but an aggregate of individuals—an army named “Pantegral,” one of several fighting collectives committed to democratic rule. These New Model Armies (NMAs) require only two things of their members. They must fight, and they must be prepared to submit to the will of the majority.

This democratic strain of NMAs does not preclude their brutality. Recounting the maiming and slaughter of many prisoners following a majority vote against giving quarter, one member of Pantegral says,

Democracy is not infallible. . . . We can make mistakes collectively just as easily as we can come to the right decision. That . . . was a mistake. It makes us seem like savages.

Likewise, it should come as no surprise if, after democratizing our smart cities, we continue to make mistakes, even monstrous ones, in urban development. Unfortunately, “Make different mistakes more democratically!” isn’t as catchy a tagline as “Save the world from itself!” This is not to say that democracy is a bad thing, but it is to adopt a more ambivalent posture, more humble expectations, and a more cautious tone. As another of Roberts’s characters puts it, “Better to live free than as a slave. Better to live with fire than without. But fire is destructive too. People forget how very much so.”

Democracy, as important as it is, is too thin a criterion by which to judge smart cities. Indeed, CITE, the Trinity Test of smart-city technologies, exposes the absurdity of organizing our entire evaluation according to the standard of democracy, a standard that must be an inadequate measure of technologies tested on an uninhabited city. Who, exactly, would be the demos? Drawing on democracy alone would leave us speechless in the New Mexico desert.

Bringing the Bhagavad Gita to Council

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.

When we reduce our judgments about technology to the matter of efficiency, we entirely elide questions of ends, such as justice. Tellingly, the word “justice” is never used in Townsend’s book, and the vacuum created by its absence is filled with efficiency and ubiquity. This should come as no surprise. In our technological society, as Jacques Ellul writes, “efficiency is a fact [and] justice a slogan.” Townsend proves that even adding democracylite can’t prevent this ignominy, leaving readers to wish that justice were at least a slogan.

This exposes the limitations and dangers of an abridged lexicon of technological ethics, one as devoid of the humanities as CITE is of humans. If we ignore ends like justice— along with goodness, truth, and beauty—our smart cities could easily become settlements for sophisticated savages. If, as Hans Jonas writes, “Nobility and doom join hands in the human intellect,” why not also in an urban operating system?

To avoid this outcome, we will need an approach to technological ethics and urban life that draws on a wide array of sources to contextualize and shape our expectations of smart cities. We must add humanistic attempts to grasp and manage technology to our technological attempts to grasp and manage the world. Then we might not only ask how we can control our cities through technology, we might also wonder at the ways our technologies control us and may sometimes even betray us. We might ask who our smart-city technologies shape us to be, how they shape us to think, and what they shape us to do. We might interrogate the infomaniac assumptions of the smart-cities movement. Is more information a necessary and sufficient condition for a more just urban life? To what ends should we organize urban life?

To judge smart cities aright—to know if they will be instruments of deliverance or of desolation— we will need someone not only who understands what they do and how they work but who can also judge them by external and enduring standards. Someone who can describe the technology and its effects using language that has described the human condition for millennia. We should hope that someone in southeastern New Mexico is reading Donne and the Bhagavad Gita along with a host of similar sources, because to evaluate smart-city technology, we will need the Oppenheimer of algorithms.

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