Debunking “Tech Will Save Cities”

 Peter Thiel's Dream City - no government, no poor people (smartcityhub)

Peter Thiel's Dream City - no government, no poor people (smartcityhub)

This weekend Emily Badger posted a great story in the New York Times on the supremely stupid concept that pops up across the media and tech landscape about how Tech Saviors (be it individuals or companies) are going to save cities. No, they will not.

Beyond that first point, I’ve gathered a list of things for everybody to keep in mind when reading these stories. Hopefully this will also reach people writing them. I have no illusions that it will reach any of these tech people or companies or that it will change their minds. But if it helps others ignore or stop these clowns, that’s fine.

1. Cities Don’t Need Saving

Cities in America have a variety of problems for sure (and they vary a lot based on size and region.) But it’s important to reject the basic premise that they need to be saved.

This kind of thinking justified disastrous top-down urban renewal projects that devastated cities in the 20th century and betrayed their residents (especially the poor and people of color). Many of our cities’ current problems come from past efforts to ‘save’ them.

“Saving” in this context always seems to exclude or dismiss the agency of the people living in these cities and the institutions that serve them. It’s akin to imperialist European language of “discovering” or “civilizing” North America. No, they didn’t.

Starting with this premise erases the people, institutions, and ideas that are already working to improve cities and will almost by definition lead to solutions that ignore them and their needs.

2. Tech People Aren’t Saviors

The savior complex is rampant in tech culture. Sure, some of this is earnest entrepreneurism and marketing moxie that attracts investors, press, and consumers. Some of it is based on sincerely transformative technology that creates transformative products and services. Some is based on techtopia futurism that believes in positive humanist progress.

But a lot of it is simply bullshit. Bullshit based on a toxic combination of ahistorical libertarianism and insular class privilege. My descriptors here are largely redundant. It’s painfully obvious that anyone holding libertarian beliefs (basically the keystone of Silicon Valley) is ignorant of history and misreading present reality. It’s equally obvious that the upper class (mostly white, mostly male) that dominates tech is insular and profoundly unaware of the consequences of its privilege (although that is slowly starting to dawn on them.)

These same people with these same ideas and pronouncements are the ones that have created the products, services, and behaviors that are currently helping to rip apart the civic fabric of our country and drive up extreme inequality. What’s worse, the initial intellectual small/closed mindedness that created these products has given way to a vast commercial oligopoly that has little incentive or ability to fundamentally fix these problems.

After all this, surely we know better than to trust tech to save us. It will be us that needs to save tech from itself.

3. Technology Won’t Save Cities

It’s bad enough that urban planners speak in technocratic language devoid of values, but it flat out scares me when tech people speak about cities like they are engineering problems.

The core problem of this language is the implicit assumption that there is a right way to engineer cities or that there is an optimal state for how cities should function. It also implies that the existing systems and people running them are doing things wrong.

But these existing systems and people are products of a democratic process (however flawed) that is the only basis for governing legitimacy in our society.

To tech saviors, at best that doesn’t seem to compute or at worst it is part of the problem. This is techno-fascism. Democratic legitimacy is an afterthought in this mindset because it is assumed that of course there is a right way to run things and of course they know better than everyone else what that is.

That’s not how cities work. They are supposed to be contested spaces. The “right way” to run a city is to build a solution that has as much input and consensus as possible, with everybody knowing that it will never be perfect and then getting on with it. It’s messy, but that’s the only legitimate way to maintain a society. If you think technology can replace that, then you don’t respect people and democracy, let alone cities.

There are certainly better ways to organize existing systems and processes within cities — to help them reach more people, perform their tasks cheaper or faster, or to create more of them. Technology can obviously help. No one riding the MTA right now would disagree that it needs upgraded technology and a new leadership structure.

But technology is a means to an end. When we overemphasize the technology part, we fail to define what the end result will be. Who controls this technology? Who runs this technology? Who is served by this technology? Who profits from it? Too often, new technology leads to a smaller, exclusive power center calling the shots for all of us, which leads us to the next point.

4. Tech Doesn’t Want “Better” Cities

For all it’s rhetoric of individual freedom, greater connection, and meritocracy, tech culture actually translates into a rejection of the public sphere and a worship of the Ayn Randian hero-dictator instead.

Big tech in practice fetishizes the private consumer and fears the public citizen.

We may all be on Facebook, have Amazon Prime, and use gmail, but we have individual relationships with those companies. We have very little control as individuals or as a group over what Facebook, Amazon, or Google does or doesn’t do (as is the case with most technology platforms). We are consumers first and only. Their business models rely on that to a disturbing degree.

These companies don’t really want us to act as citizens because a citizen would be skeptical of or outright hostile to the power of these platforms over our public and private life. It would be healthier for society, not so much for the bottomline.

This is especially true in cities, where, if we bother to look, we can easily see how dominant these companies are and how problematic it is. Whether it’s horrible labor practices, creepy privacy issues, or monopolistic bullying, their business models have negative consequences for our society.

Addressing those consequences takes public action. And it could mean a potentially painful loss of economic clout for these companies. There is no way they would willingly help cities at the expense of their shareholders and we shouldn’t expect them to.

All of this is to say that if tech saviors really cared about cities, they would speak in terms of supporting the public life that sustains urban life — both through improving the public institutions that provide services and by helping citizens engage with government and each other. Tech culture isn’t doing that because its business ethos can’t allow it to.

5. Building “New Cities” Isn’t a Thing

Most tech saviors recognize this problem on some level. They don’t want to engage with these existing messy systems in cities and don’t actually have answers for how to ‘save’ them.

For Amazon and Google, this means asking cities instead to hand over large chunks of land, public money, and governing power. Google is doing this in Toronto. Amazon will be doing this somewhere near DC (sorry other finalists, not gonna happen.)

For others, it means trying to build entirely new cities or by influencing developing cities outside of America. The former is an act of folly that ignores geographical legacies that foster development (cities pretty much already exist where they should) and even an elementary school-level awareness of environmental concerns. The later is an act of racist imperialism that shouldn’t be entertained and instead should be punished for believing.

In either case, the fact that most tech saviors don’t imagine engaging with existing cities and residents reveals the fundamental arrogance of this exercise: they aren’t designing these cities for real people living in real cities (definitely not the poor most of all). They might as well keep focusing on Mars.

We have hopefully learned from the mistakes of past policy makers and planners to dismiss the idea of saving cities. We have learned from the mistakes of current tech companies to believe that they are any better.

But at the heart of it, we shouldn’t entertain the grand savior mythology because it allows us to ignore the many small public and private actors that are on the ground helping their cities right now. We need to help these people and these institutions because they actually want to help us.