The tech oligarchs who already dominate our culture and commerce, manipulate our moods, and shape the behaviors of our children while accumulating capital at a rate unprecedented in at least a century want to fashion our urban future in a way that dramatically extends the reach of the surveillance state already evident in airports and on our phones.
Redesigning cities has become all the rage in the tech world, with Google parent company Alphabet leading the race to build a new city of its own and companies like Y Combinator, Lyft, Cisco, and Panasonic all vying to design the so-called smart city.
It goes without saying, this is not a matter of merely wanting to do good. These companies are promoting these new cities as fitter, happier, more productive, and convenient places, even as they are envisioning cities with expanded means to monitor our lives, and better market our previously private information to advertisers.
This drive is the latest expansion of the Valley’s narcissistic notion of “changing the world” through disruption of its existing structures and governments and the limits those still place on the tech giants’ grandest ambitions. This new urban vision negates the notion of organic city-building and replaces it with an algorithmic regime that seeks to rationalize, and control, our way of life.
In reality, Google is entering the “smart city” business in no small part to develop high-tech dormitories for youthful tech workers and the cheaper foreign noncitizen workers in the U.S., including H1B indentured servants; overall noncitizens make up the vast majority of the Valley’s tech workforce. Even as the tech fortunes have grown ever larger, the companies own workers have been left behind, with the average programmer earning about as much today as she did in 1998 even as housing costs in tech hubs have exploded.
The drive to redesign our cities, however, is not really the end of the agenda of those who Aldous Huxley described as the top of the “scientific caste system.” The oligarchy has also worked to make our homes, our personal space, “connected” to their monitoring and money machines. This may be a multibillion-dollar market soon, but many who have employed such devices at home—appliances that track our activities and speak to us like loyal servants—find them “creepy,” as they should, given that their daily activities are fed back to enrich the high-tech hive mind. Both the city and house the future may owe more to Brave New World than Better Homes and Gardens.
This is a vision of the urban future in which the tech companies’ own workers and whatever other people with skills the machines haven’t yet replaced are a new class of urban serfs living in small apartments, along with a much larger class of dependent persons living on “income maintenance” and housing or housing subsidies provided by the state. “Bees exist on Earth to pollinate flowers, and maybe humans are here to build the machines,” observes professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, from University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. “The city will be one big joined-up urban machine, and humans’ role on Earth will be done.”