This post is building on a set of ideas and discussions at WSC UK that I was lucky enough to be invited to. Sitting in my drafts folder for almost two months now, the events in Boston have made clear to me that this is a complex that we need to think about with renewed urgency.

Weaponized Cities

Strolling around in London, you cannot help but notice oddly shaped benches in places you would simply not expect them. They look pretty uncomfortable, too. Weird designs, not really inviting, cold concrete with all the signature fixtures of unpleasant design, in places that do not have that many passers-by in the first place. Odd occurrences that just seem misplaced, a mis-appropriation of funds, a fuck up. That’s what you would think, until you start looking around, and know what to look for. That building, over there, is a network exchange. This is a datacenter belonging to the London Stock Exchange. And then it hits you: those benches are not for you to sit on. They never were. They are structural barriers, defence perimeters of critical infrastructure camouflaged as civilian nicety, a National Security intervention designed to look as put in place by the city council.

Strolling around in London, you will find plenty of such occurrences. As a continental European, the pervasiveness of CCTV still feels odd, as do the occasional reminders to recent and not-so-recent violence in the city.

'Police Notice: No vehicle to be left unattended. Unattended vehicles my be removed and destroyed.' by @debcha on Instagram

Dubbed the “Ring of Steel,” there’s a whole arsenal of structural defences.

It’s easy, then, to imagine the Ring of Steel projected onto current grand visions of smart cities. What do structural defences look like in this newfound age of hyper-efficient infrastructure and command & control centres tapped into ubiquitous distributed surveillance mechanisms.

Suddenly, a lonely car

The promises of self-driving cars, especially within densely populated cities, are staggering. The safety implications alone make it a viable position to enforce self-driving cars within the more populous cities. Much like air pollution is being reigned in by forcing old diesel cars outside city limits, or make congestion charges dependent on the pollution individual cars produce, cities will find methods of enforcing autopilot within city limits, one way or another.

An interesting secondary effect could be the ability of Security Command & Control centres to override the civilian infrastructure of the self-driving cars. This could be introduced in the guise of motives which are understandable, and for all intents and purposes, good. After all, why restrict all that precious connectivity and compute power on just stopping at the red light? Shouldn’t cars automatically make way for emergency vehicles? And why should making way for emergency vehicles be restricted to cars in movement, with their owners or operators present? Imagine parked cars, moving out of the way for the fire brigade, finding a new parking space, and pinging their owners about their new location.

But as always, the infrastructure introduced und the guise of these motives can serve other purposes as well. Designated no-go zones for vehicles, depending on the background of the driver; Automatic rerouting, done by the cars, or forces by the city, to avoid those areas where any individual with a higher risk score is unwanted; cars, suddenly becoming isolated in the middle of traffic by all other cars being ordered to disappear to facilitate easier access by tactical forces; ad-hoc perimeters around crime scenes that you will probably never know about because your car just happens to use a different route.

The City is the frontline

Taking a cue from Saskia Sassen’s “When the City Itself Becomes a Technology of War” we can posit that the majority of national security infrastructure investments will indeed be made within cities.

The shape those will take are unclear yet, although we can safely assume that most of the technology that is being sold in the context of “Smart Cities” is dual-use. A deeply integrated smart grid will after all not only allow to monitor electricity consumption on a per-household basis, but enable to cut electricity to individual units. Sewage monitoring systems, while helping to mitigate the adverse effects to ground water, can be utilized to monitor sewage runoff for suspicious contents in advance of drug raids.

Cities are flows of material and people. The main argument for Smart City technologies and implementations is to make the management of these flows more efficient, to be able to monitor them in real-time, and make them actionable in near-real time. How this affects cities under assumptions of weaponized cities is something we need to answer.

CE Pro (apparently an industry source for custom electronics) has a good overview of current “Smart Lighting” systems that are on the market. From the Philips Hue (exclusively available through Apple) to RF socket adapters which promise to make your old-school bulbs remotely controllable, there’s hardly anything missing.

But they also nail it when it comes to the objections. Writes Julie Jacobs:

Setting aside the price of these smart bulbs, here’s big problem No. 1: You have to keep your light switch on all the time to use them.

Who cares? For starters, if you have one switch controlling multiple lights, all of the lights must be made smart.

But here’s the bigger problem: Do you really want to pull out your iPhone to turn lights on and off or to dim them? And what about kids and guests? How can they flip the lights?

13 Smart LED Bulbs: The Future of Lighting Control? – CE Pro

Anne Galloway:

I was thinking about some of those things last week when a colleague asked me to give a guest lecture in his undergrad ubiquitous computing media design course, and so I found myself putting together a few slides under the title 5 Things About Ubiquitous Computing That Make Me Nervous. This was my list: […]

5. Convenience & efficiency imperatives Or, the cultural belief that people would be better off if there were more technologies to make daily life more convenient, and common tasks more efficient.

5 Things About Ubiquitous Computing That Make Me Nervous | Design Culture Lab

I’m a bit conflicted about some things on that list, but it’s a good reminder that a lot of the assumptions we make should every so often be looked at again. It’s quite surprising, however, how well Evgeny Morozov’s latest book seems to fit into the current zeitgeist.

Timo Arnall on the trend towards “seamless integration”:

We already have plenty of thinking that celebrates the invisibility and seamlessness of technology. We are overloaded with childish mythologies like ‘the cloud’; a soft, fuzzy metaphor for enormous infrastructural projects of undersea cables and power-hungry data farms. This mythology can be harmful and often just plain wrong. Networks go down, hard disks fail, sensors fail to sense, processors overheat and batteries die.

Invisible design propogates the myth that technology will ‘disappear’ or ‘just get out of the way’ rather than addressing the qualities of interface technologies that can make them difficult or delightful.

Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materiality of interfaces, smoothing over the natural edges, seams and transitions that constitute all technical systems, entails a loss of understanding and agency for both designers and users of computing. Lack of understanding leads to uncertainty and folk-theories that hinder our ability to use technical systems, and clouds the critique of technological developments.

No to NoUI – Timo Arnall

Hard to pick a particular quote from this take-down, as there’s a lot more to his argument. Make sure to click through and follow up on some of the references. Particularly Ben Bashford’s account is noteworthy.

It’s hard to strike a balance, as usual, as No to NoUI does not automatically imply a justification for Chrome UI for the UI’s sake. Rather, it’s a call to make the interaction between systems legible. However, that too has its restrictions, as evidenced by countless systems that just demand attention that users/customers are not willing to expend. Interfaces should be there when necessary, reassuring in their presence, yet not overwhelming. And certainly, they should not only live inside that glowing rectangle that you keep in your trouser’s pocket.

Because Interfaces, in this world of increasingly interconnected objects, really shouldn’t just be screens. The seamless integration of the lighting system with a smart-phone app, to the user, is anything but. It’s actively getting in the way.

Last week, the European Commission published the results of last year’s public consultation on the Internet of Things.

The whole consultation boils down to this:

There is no consensus on the need for and the scope of public intervention in the field of IoT.

Surprising, isn’t it? As far as public consultations go, this report nonetheless offers a good perspective on the broad range of opinions that exist with different stakeholders on IoT matters. The two major positions, predictably between industry and consumer protection entities, are well captured:

A large part of industry – backed by several individual respondents and academics – questioned the legitimacy of public intervention in a sector which is still in its infancy. They claim that IoT technologies and applications should develop further before appropriate policy measures can be devised. The existing legal framework including data protection and competition rules, as well as safety and environmental legislation are already protecting the end-user. In their view, ongoing standardisation work on identification, IoT architecture or security will foster a competitive and safe development of IoT applications.

They also stressed that inappropriate governance will raise barriers to investment and innovation, or would be useless in case the market developed in a way different than foreseen. […]

By contrast, many individual respondents backed by civil society and consumer associations claimed that economic considerations are secondary when fundamental rights like privacy, security, and other ethical issues are at stake. End-users’ rights and autonomy should receive full protection in an IoT context. They underlined the risk that the IoT market would not develop in a competitive way and that consumers may get locked in certain technologies and / or by certain players. In their view, IoT specific rules should be developed and enforced to control the development of IoT technologies and markets. They conclude that a multi-stakeholder platform, securing appropriate representation of civil society, is needed to address IoT governance issues.

I’m still in the process of developing an opinion about the consultation, as there are some obvious blind spots in even how the consultation was designed. For instance, there’s still no mention of how to deal with data derived from the public (arguably, that’s an Internet-wide point. What is A Public on the Internet? But it’s even more pressing when talking distributed sensor arrays) or the sheer insanity of thinking current ToS and license regimens in conjunction with traditional object purchases.1 And that is not even beginning to work on the weird scenarios we are bound to witness.

  1. On that note: does a purchase of a Tesla car come with Terms of Service and a Privacy Policy? 

In a sense what Clay Shirky was saying is that communication technologies don’t become socially interesting until they become platforms.  That is until they become pervasive and stable enough for other people to rely upon them and build upon them.

So what would it mean for people to rely upon renewable energy?

Keeping An Eye On Boring Technology | OnTheSpiral

Make sure to click through, the argument is worth following through. But the key question, where it get’s really interesting, is indeed when something is not technical novelty, but pervasive, normal, mundane in the truest sense of the word.

Lately, there is a lot of attention being spent on the Internet of Things. It was the headline of last year’s Le Web, and the perceived main theme of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

And there are many names springing up. Cisco brands it the “Internet of Everything”, for Samsung, it all rides under the “Connected Living” banner, and on the larger scale, it’s GE’s “Industrial Internet” and IBM’s “Smarter Planet”.

Looking at some actual products, what strikes me are some quite obvious patterns.

What we’re increasingly confronted with is a world of images under glass mimicking functionality and acting upon the real-world.

You can’t set up a Belkin WeMo (which is one of the more integration-forward players, in that it partnered up with IFTTT) without a smart-phone, you can’t control the Philips Hue without another gateway box and their companion smartphone app. Samsung’s “Connected Living” line is hugely predicated on their smartphone line, and now there’s even a thing where you can open your front door with a smartphone app.

This might be just the experimentation phase; trying to figure out how to make use of cheap sensors and communications to drive some new, interesting applications. What I increasingly suspect, though, is that we as an industry are more focussed on making objects, the Things in the Internet of Things, behave in ways that we know from the Internet. If the only tool you know is Xcode, every problem looks like an iPhone app.

What we haven’t figured out, really, is how to make the internet native to Things. How do services, web-services, really, work in a screen-less environment? There’s approaches that I find hugely endearing. The Good Night Lamp1 explores how ambient intimacy could work over longer distances. Little Printer, for all the hype around it, is really an interesting case-study on alternative forms of web-delivered content.

There ought to be more of these projects: not trying to force an internet-based stereotype of interaction onto objects, but trying to figure out how we can make the web native to things.

It’s in the mundane that the Internet of Things will be the most interesting.

  1. Full Disclosure: Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, the founder of Good Night Lamp, is a good friend of mine, and one of my co-founders at Internet of People

Bruce Schneier, on the recent Tesla / New York Times kerfuffle:

[…] it gives you an idea of the sort of things that will be collected once automobile black boxes become the norm. We’re used to airplane black boxes, which only collected a small amount of data from the minutes just before an incident. But that was back when data was expensive. Now that it’s cheap, expect black boxes to collect everything all the time. And once it’s collected, it’ll be used. By auto manufacturers, by insurance companies, by car rental companies, by marketers.

Schneier on Security: Automobile Data Surveillance and the Future of Black Boxes

That future is not that far off. There are already plenty of car insurers out there (with a predominant focus on the USA, given the privacy and legal implications in Europe) that utilise either smart phone data or flat out install black boxes and adjust the premiums you pay to how well — and crucially: where — you drive.

But this is clearly going to be a major trend, especially in insurance.

However, also Schneier:

But as we’re learning from this particular back-and-forth between Broder and Tesla Motors, even intense electronic surveillance of the actions of a person in an enclosed space did not succeed in providing an unambiguous record of what happened. […]

This will increasingly be a problem as we are judged by our data. And in most cases, neither side will spend this sort of effort trying to figure out what really happened.

[…] Startups and even larger companies are now looking to crowdfunding sites to serve other business functions, from market research and product design to customer relations and manufacturing negotiations.

“Crowdfunding is the ultimate form of consumer research,” says Scott Popma, an intellectual-property lawyer who advises companies about crowdfunding. “You are not just asking people’s opinions—you are getting opinions with their money.”

MIT Technology Review

This squares quite nicely with a lot of conversations I have had with friends recently.

It’s my opinion that Kickstarter will increasingly work less for acquiring funds for complete funding of endeavours, but instead will be used to indicate pent-up market demand to justify larger down-stream investments from more conventional capital sources. The importance of Kickstarter lies in giving numbers to the classic VC questions of: “Who would use this?” and “How many of them are there?”.

Instead of the smart city, perhaps we should be more preoccupied with smart citizens. The smart city vision tends to focus on infrastructure, buildings, vehicles, looking for a client amidst the city governments that procure or plan such things.

But the city is something else.

The city is its people.

Dan Hill – Essay: On the smart city; Or, a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead

Classic Dan Hill, a solid critique of the “Smart City” as it’s currently practised. I love his writing ever since “The Street As A Platform” moved my thinking beyond screens and the “web”, and this piece continues the line of critical thought that so often is lacking in the general discourse around future and present technologies.