May 22, 2016 | permalink
I was in Leipzig last week as part of the moderator corps for the International Transport Forum Summit 2016 — the so-called “Davos of Transportation” where dozens of ministers, vice ministers, deputy ministers, undersecretaries and their entourages gathered to earnestly-yet-diplomatically discuss issues around transport, especially in light of the COP21 agreement on reducing carbon emissions. My personal highlight was moderating a closed-door session on Big Data and autonomous cars attended by ministers from Russia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Sweden, New Zealand, and a dozen other nations and organizations. I would tell you what they said, but I was too nervous to remember.
I also moderated sessions on innovations in greening aviation — a particularly pressing subject ahead of next year’s ICAO Assembly in Montreal, where a cap-and-trade mechanism for aviation emissions will be hammered out — the impact of TNCs and other disruptive technologies on the transport labor market (spoiler: Uber is winning), and how to grapple with noise, air pollution, and the other externalities of urban transport. A few photos are below.
May 12, 2016 | permalink
(Popular Mechanics commissioned me to write 4,000 words on the jeepney — the most popular form of transportation in the Philippines, albeit reluctantly. The introduction to the story is below; you can read the entire thing here.)
You might think twice about boarding a bus named “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” with the phrase spray-painted in green above the windshield. I don’t, not when the alternative is loitering along the smog-shrouded shoulder of Commonwealth Avenue—the 18-lane highway looping through Metro Manila colloquially known as the “Avenue of Death.” And not when the ride in question is actually a jeepney, the garishly decorated offspring of U.S. Army jeeps abandoned in the Philippines following World War II. You might call it a death trap, but for millions of Filipinos it’s just part of the daily commute.
An app called Sakay.ph told me to switch jeepneys here, on the megacity’s deadliest stretch. Clambering into the back of what amounts to a stretched jeep with a tin roof, I slide down one of the vinyl seats to sit behind the driver, who flips his right palm backward to collect the fare of seven pesos, equivalent to 15 cents. The other passengers range in age from elderly couples to young mothers clutching their infants. Eighteen of us sit knee-to-knee. Everyone covers their faces with a handkerchief in one hand while bracing themselves with the other, and for good reason. Jeepneys have neither emissions standards nor seatbelts nor retirement ages—the eldest have been running since the 1970s. They are the most dangerous and decrepit two percent of traffic, and they generate 80 percent of vehicular pollution.
A speaker mounted on the floor blasts the 1986 hit “(I Just) Died In Your Arms.” Not necessarily what you want to hear while swerving across multiple lanes of traffic at top speeds. Worse is the tangle of wires spilling from the steering column and the plastic jerry can half-filled with gasoline sloshing at the driver’s feet. As we race along the Avenue of Death, weaving between cars, trucks, buses, and “trikes”—motorcycle taxis with improvised sidecars welded on—passengers tap the roof to signal their stop. Every few hundred yards a row of cinder blocks appears, sheltering a few lanes for pick-ups and drop-offs. We pull into one as if entering the pits at Daytona, idling only long enough for the next shift of passengers to hop in. Then we peel out again. Our driver is paid for how many fares he collects, creating the perverse incentive to race between stops when his cab is full or to interminably wait until it is. The only speed limits are those imposed by congestion.
This is what rush hour in Manila looks like: a Mad Max-style ride down Fury Road aboard vehicles with names like “Cold Fusion” and “Soldier of Fortune.” First hacked together more than 70 years ago and manufactured nowhere else outside the Philippines, the ageless, endlessly patched jeepney is both an icon of national ingenuity and testament to its utterly dysfunctional public transportation. Filipinos affectionately refer to them as the “Kings of the Road,” with a mixture of pride and eye-rolling resignation. Nearly half of the capital’s residents take one of its 45,000 jeepneys to work each day, more than double the number riding the city’s buses and trains. Yet it’s virtually impossible to cross the megacity riding just one; a typical commute involves some combination of the three.
But today, Metro Manila has a booming economy and a surging population—the supercity has added 6 million residents since 2000, for a total of more than 24 million. At the same time, middle-class Filipinos are fleeing jeepneys for a quiet, air-conditioned drive in their own vehicles. Cars presently account for less than a third of all passengers on Manila’s roads, but comprise nearly three-quarters of traffic. New car sales have nearly doubled in just the last three years.
The result is the world’s worst congestion, according to 50 million users of the driving app Waze. The average resident’s commute is 45 minutes each way—compared to 35 minutes for traffic-weary Los Angeles—stretching to several hours for those unlucky enough to be traveling from suburbs in the north to the city’s main business districts in the south. (Metro Manila is actually comprised of 17 separate cities; the modern city is squeezed between a lake and the sea, funneling nearly all traffic between the suburbs in the north and offices in the south.)
Solving Manila’s gridlock was a recurring theme in the debates leading up to the May 9 presidential election. Candidates’ plans ranged from building more roads to adding more trains to raising taxes on second or third cars, and a few proposed more extreme measures: One suggested building a new capital just to ease traffic for government employees. Lawmakers regularly call for “decongesting the city,” which in practical terms would mean expelling thousands or even millions of residents to the countryside. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to devolve power to the provinces from “imperial Manila,” likely fueling such talk.
The megacity is already threatening to come apart at the seams. What’s the alternative? Metro Manila has just broken ground on its fourth train, running along the Avenue of Death, but that won’t be up and running until 2020 at the earliest. Manila’s first high-speed bus route was approved in December. Both are too little, too late. Could a cleaner, safer, connected—and maybe even electric—jeepney be the answer instead?
May 02, 2016 | permalink
While at Fordham University last month as the Distinguished Visitor to the Urban Studies program, WFUV’s George Bodarky interviewed me for his weekly Cityscape program on Jane Jacobs’ legacy a century after her birth on May 4. I couldn’t embed the audio, but please click through for a listen. Here’s the program description:
Imagine running a highway through Washington Square Park. That could have happened. Urban planner Robert Moses put the idea on the table in the 1950s. But, then Jane Jacobs intervened. The urbanist and activist led the successful fight against the four-lane highway, as well as other Robert Moses’ projects. Jacobs was opposed to the kind of city planning that involves big development and urban renewal projects that tear down old communities. She’s best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ ideas have often been met with criticism from developers and city planners. But, a lot of planning experts agree that her work helped to shape modern thinking about Jane Jacobs would have turned 100 on May 4th. Several activities are planned in New York City and beyond this month to celebrate her life and legacy, including an event called Jane’s Walk. On this edition of Cityscape, we’re exploring the life and legacy of Jane Jacobs.
April 22, 2016 | permalink
Last week, I had the honor and privilege of spending the week in residence at Fordham University’s urban studies program as the 2016 Distinguished Visitor. In addition to lecturing about mega-urbanization, connected mobility, and “latino urbanism,” I also co-starred in a public conversation with New York University’s Bill Easterly and longtime Municipal Art Society officer Mary Rowe on Jane Jacobs’ legacy a century after her birth.
Jacobs would have turned 100 on May 4, and in addition to the worldwide Jane’s Walks happening the weekend of May 6-8, the anniversary has inspired symposia and events around the world. We spoke for an hour about her influence on economics, human development, complexity science, and other fields that have learned painful lessons from privileging top-down planning over local information.
The complete audio from our discussion is embedded above. The Fordham News also briefly covered our event in a larger discussion of Jacobs’ legacy vis-a-vis her nearly mythical rival, Robert Moses:
In the 1960s, Moses eventually met his match in Jacobs, a community organizer and intellectual who halted his effort to create the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Greenwich Village and SoHo. In Life and Death, Jacobs famously wrote of the “ballet of the street” and “eyes on the sidewalk” which espoused street-level knowledge over Moses’ mile-high view of the city.
Jacobs won and SoHo developed—as she had predicted—in organic and sometimes surprising ways, said New York University Professor of Economics William Easterly, PhD.easterly quote
“Jacobs was saying ‘The locals know best, we don’t know how, but somehow they’ll figure out how to make this neighborhood prosper,’” Easterly said.
And as Jacobs was rallying against Moses’ project, artists inspired by influential painter Jackson Pollock were filtering into the area, renovating large loft spaces in which to exhibit their giant canvases. “She didn’t even realize herself at the time that art galleries were moving into SoHo, and that was the beginning of what led to the revival of the area.”
One key benefit of the Moses-Jacobs conflict, said Wakeman, was the creation in the 1960s of community planning boards that give voice to neighborhoods’ concerns over issues such as new construction.
“Jacobs and others like her have created an entirely new fabric for community-based planning,” she said. “Communities came to understand themselves in reaction to Robert Moses, and today we have a far more extensive vocabulary for imagining urban renewal.”
Colin Cathcart, associate professor of architecture, said it would be reductive to portray all of Moses’ contributions as negative.
“There were plenty of bad things that Moses lent his name to but there was also a massive increase in the housing units, access to parks, transportation connectivity, and investment in public works on his watch—and jobs,” he said. “It’s that investment that New York is coasting on even today.”
As for Jacobs? “Her legacy is also being seized upon by proper scientists who have lots of mathematical formulas she never had,” said Greg Lindsay, senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation and Fordham’s 2016 Urban Studies Distinguished Visitor.
Lindsay expressed a concern, however, for “smart city rhetoric” that obscures the reality of services like Uber—which he said is be convenient but which also avoids taxes that would fund public transportation. Services like it are only available to those with a smart phone and a bankcard, he said, thus doing a disservice to Jacobs’ community-based, inclusive legacy.
“If you don’t have those [devices], you don’t have access to the city around you,” he said. “So the worry today is not Robert Moses; it’s the information systems that privilege such access.”
April 18, 2016 | permalink
I’m not ashamed to say that winning Bruce Sterling’s approval for my interview with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative counts as a career highlight. “We all have to a better job about thinking weirder,” I said. To which he replied on his Wired blog: “Let me opine that this guy is doing a pretty good job along that line.”
(For the non-geeks out there: Sterling is one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk, the co-creator of steampunk, the instigator of the Dead Media Project and Viridian Design Movement, and one of the smartest, funniest people you’ll ever meet.)
April 15, 2016 | permalink
The Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Strategic Foresight Initiative — where I’m fortunate to be a non-resident senior fellow — interviewed me for my take on the future. Their questions and my answers are below.
What got you interested in looking at technology trends?
We live in a time when technology corporations have more agency than any other nonstate actor — and they’ll even rise to challenge states, as we’ve recently seen in the legal struggle between the FBI and Apple. Starting with the rise of the “California Ideology” in the 1970s, we’ve seen Silicon Valley’s determination to shape policy while hiding behind the supposed inevitability of technological progress. For example, Google reassures users with its credo “Don’t be evil,” while it spends more money on Congressional lobbying than ExxonMobil. Google also created Jigsaw, a self-described “technology incubator that aims to tackle the toughest geopolitical issues,” run by former US State Department official Jared Cohen. Technology on its own doesn’t create the future, but technology companies with tens of billions of dollars in cash have a bigger voice than almost anyone else.
What are the technologies you are following in this field? Why?
I’m most interested in “real-world” social network analysis, i.e. mapping, understanding, and intervening in relationships located in a specific place and time. We’ve done a fantastic job of building global social media networks that are frequently more compelling than the person we’re standing next to. I think that’s a wasted opportunity. Work by the MIT Media Lab’s Sandy Pentland and others have demonstrated how much information hides in communication and idea flows between people, and how that information contains scarily accurate predictive power. I’ve talked informally with folks at West Point, the New America, and very large companies about how to apply these techniques in the office, in cities, and in vulnerable communities — to identify potential collaborators and alliances, not just threats.
What do you think a day in the office in 2030 looks like?
Which office? I don’t think anyone will work from a single office by then. If you’re a cloudworker below the application program interface (API), you’ll work from anywhere you can afford — at home, at McDonald’s, at a long ago big box store — bidding on digital piecework farmed out and stitched together by AI middle managers when they aren’t busy surveilling you using all sort of quantified self-measures. Even if you’re fortunate enough to be a full-time employee, you’ll voluntarily submit to unprecedented levels of workplace surveillance, because it makes you more productive and creative — your data exhaust will help your employers more effectively milk ideas from you. I think we’ll also see the rise of ad hoc micro-firms that incorporate for a project and dissolve after only a few weeks. I hope many of these are worker cooperatives and other alternatives to the classic corporation, but if current political trends continue, we’re going to see the same trends in the workplace that we already do in tech and finance — a frenzy to frack every last bit of value out of people by accelerating the tempo to superhuman speeds.
How will we be moving and using transport in 2030?
Increasingly on foot, I hope. In all seriousness, I hope the trend to ban motor vehicles in city centers for at least one day a week (as in Paris) continues to pick up speed. Everywhere else, we can expect to continue riding in wheeled vehicles — hopefully electric, powered by renewables — of various sizes, from bicycles to trains. And I think it’s fair to say autonomous vehicles will be on the market, still in the upward slope of their adoption curve. The big question is who will orchestrate our urban transportation systems, and for whom? I’d like to think public transport agencies will transform from train and bus operators into “mobility-as-a-service” managers who set the rules and the strategy for safer, more equitable, more accessible transit. But it’s likelier (given the conditions I’ve described above) that someone like Uber or Didi Kuaidi or Google will first build a parallel autonomous transportation system made of private vehicles and then eventually subsume what remains of the public networks. It’s the General Motors streetcar conspiracy all over again, this time with algorithms.
What do policymakers need to get right today for this technology or suite of technologies to take off? What questions should they ask that they aren’t asking?
The biggest one is how long the current data regime can go on. “If the service is free, the product is you.” That’s the logic Google, Facebook, Uber and others are built on, and it’s increasingly absurd and counter-productive. Uber constantly collects data from its drivers whether they’re currently working for the service or not. Facebook demands a license to literally anything created for the Oculus Rift — imagine Apple demanding a license to these words, typed on my Macbook. And it’s barely a stretch to imagine that very soon, we will not legally own our cars or our homes or anything else with enough software to qualify for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, in which case we are merely granted a license subject to the whims of the company that issued it. We need an alternative, whether that means owning our data and licensing it as we see fit for services, or some sort of data commons, or preferably an ability to opt in or out in varying degrees altogether.
What are trend-watchers for this field overlooking?
I recently had the chance to ask National Intelligence Council Chairman Dr. Gregory F. Treverton why the intelligence community had so much trouble being sufficiently weird in its forecasts — the world is a weird place, of course, and getting weirder. His reply, in so many words, is that it’s not exactly a culture that prizes weird personalities. We all have to do a better job of thinking weirder, myself included.
What keeps you up at night?
Wondering which Antarctic ice shelf just fell into the ocean. Rising sea levels is no longer the twenty-second century’s problem; it’s ours. Will we be forced to abandon coastal megacities? Will we manage to wall them off, or float them? The answer is probably “all of the above,” with the wealthiest districts of the wealthiest cities deploying some mix of technological and infrastructural fixes while the rest are submerged. We can only begin to guess at the knock-on effects. It recently occurred to me that the value of my (fated-to-be-flooded?) New York City apartment may just fall to zero in my child’s lifetime. Given the wealth and generational savings embodied in urban real estate, what happens to people’s prospects if that wealth is fatally submerged? What does that do to financial markets?
Top 3 recommended viewing/reading
Having just finished published a paper on “Smart Homes and the Internet of Things” for the Cyber Statecraft Initiative here at the Council, I found Bruce Sterling’s long essay/short e-book The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things to be the best primer on the subject. Tom Slee’s What’s Yours Is Mine is a much-needed antidote to the uncritical thinking around the so-called “sharing economy,” and the scariest thing I’ve read recently is Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, which does a magnificent job at tracing the techno-political implications of planetary-scale computing.
April 07, 2016 | permalink
Last month, during the New York International Auto Show, I hosted a press breakfast to kick off Messe Frankfurt’s forthcoming “Connected Mobility” event series. (Messe Frankfurt produces both the Frankfurt Auto Show and the Automechanika shows for the automotive aftermarket.) In addition to my opening remarks, we were fortunate to have AutonomouStuff’s chief learning officer Guy Fraker deliver a short keynote, followed by presentations and a panel discussion with RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser and Dash CTO Brian Langel. Here’s my recap of the event:
The speakers approached the impending arrival of autonomous vehicles from a number of perspectives. Moderator Greg Lindsay began his presentation by underscoring the fact that autonomous cars are not a new idea; they were introduced by General Motors in its “Futurama” pavilion at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. He also listed the trends in mobility shaping the development of autonomous vehicles – including car-sharing, ride-sharing, and “mobility-as-a-service” – and concluded by asking whether the introduction of autonomous features will lead to radical changes in vehicle design, perhaps to the point where they resemble buildings. Keynote speaker Guy Fraker drew parallels between the present and the automotive industry of a century ago, when a confluence of vehicle design, the invention of the assembly line, and the advent of widespread consumer credit made the creation, production, and purchase of millions of automobiles possible. He asked what it will take to create such a moment again, when autonomous vehicles have the potential to upend traditional insurance, tap millions of elderly or disabled potential buyers who cannot legally drive a car themselves, and transform what it means to go from A to B. “We have to decide we want from mobility,” he said. “Because right now, we have the technology to build it.” RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser followed Fraker, arguing we will one day purchase “mobility plans” just as we sign contracts with mobile telephony carrier today. And Dash co-founder and CTO Brian Langel concluded the presentation portion of the program by exploring the implications of the “automotive graph,” i.e. how our attitudes toward our vehicles will change when their performance is easily understood and accessible from our phones.
April 06, 2016 | permalink
My friend John McDermott quotes me in his story for MEL about the scourge of wearing headphones at work:
Greg Lindsay — author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity about designing spaces and cities that encourage innovation — blames the “headphones at work” scourge on the popularity of the open office plan. But now the trend has gone too far, he says. Corporations are using the cachet of an open office as an excuse to cut costs and cram everyone into a confined space “regardless of role, function or work style. In many cases, there’s not much nuance to it.”
Indeed, “the amount of space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010,” Susan Cain writes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The results, according to Lindsay: “Headphones are the new cubicle walls” — a signal the wearer isn’t to be disturbed. And they might be a necessity for introverts, who might feel particularly challenged by a noisy, open-planned office, as demonstrated by the famous “Geen study” Cain references in her book.
In 1984, researchers at the University of Missouri (led by Russell G. Green), challenged a group of extroverts and introverts to learn the rules of a word game while wearing “headphones that emitted random bursts of noise.” When asked to adjust the noise to a level that was “just right” for them, the extroverts chose a noise level almost 20 decibels higher than the introverts (and ended up playing the game equally well). But when the introverts and extroverts switched noise levels, both groups underperformed, but especially the introverts.
Rather than just give everyone their own pair of noise-canceling headphones to curate the audio environment that works for them, a better, more collaborative solution is to design an office that includes different environments with specific functions — for casual collaboration, an open floor with rows of desks; soundproof conference rooms for small group meetings; and private nooks for intense solo work.
Or your colleagues can find the right balance between productive chitchat and being annoying AF.
“The real answer is an office culture where people don’t feel compelled to annoy you at any moment, so you keep the headphones off,” Lindsay says.
April 01, 2016 | permalink
It’s not an April Fools’ joke. Interbrand’s news arm, Brandchannel, has an interview with me following my talk at the agency back in January. I’ll skip editor Shirley Brady’s introduction and repost the Q&A here:
Greg, what can smaller, newly emerging cities learn from larger, established cities?
It’s worth noting at the start that the world has only really begun to urbanize. Urban populations are expected to double between 2010 and 2050 thanks to population growth and migration, and urban land cover — the ground beneath our feet — is expected to triple during that time. So we can expect wild profusions of cities, most of which will look more like Shenzhen than Charlotte — skyscrapers sprouting next to villages next to empty fields next to slums.
The most important thing these emerging cities can learn from London or New York or Tokyo is to resist the urge to wipe the ground clean and build gated cities that look great in renderings but are sterile in real life. New York’s Little Italy and Nolita were slums a century ago; Tokyo was bombed flat after World War II. Both were rebuilt by many hands with the freedom to make what they wanted. If brandchannel’s readers really want to win the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” or the loyalty of the emerging middle class, they should forget about Shanghai and Dubai and focus on the needs of people in Dharavi and Kibera — sponsor the infrastructure they need to become the cities they should be.
Your talk focused on optimizing cities, office design and connected mobility. How do these three areas connect when imagining the future of urbanization?
Cities thrive from intensity — both the creative intensity of residents and the intense use of infrastructure. So when it comes to the future of work and the future of mobility, I’m interested in how we can steer cities and society away from sterile, singular uses — the office, the car, the suburb, the mall — toward fluid, more intense ones. That’s why I’m a big proponent not only of coworking (which has entered the mainstream with WeWork’s eye-opening $10 billion—and more recently, $16 billion—valuation), but any development that leads away from conventional commercial real estate toward more publicly mixed uses.
The same thing goes for mobility. The near-term goal for urban mobility shouldn’t be cycling lanes, autonomous cars, or Uber, but a “mobility-as-a-service” platform combining every mode to make transport easier and more accessible. I guess the question is: how do you bring the most people — and the most diverse set of people — to the same place at the same time? Because as a century’s worth of urban sociology and economics tells us, that’s when the magic happens.
Which brands do you see playing the largest role in New Cities’ Connected Mobility Initiative?
Well, Toyota, obviously — the initiative is underwritten by the Toyota Mobility Foundation. The two brands looming largest in my research — as seemingly unstoppable forces, if not the villains — are Google and Uber.
Google, of course, reintroduced the notion of autonomous cars five years ago as if no one had ever thought of them before outside The Jetsons. But General Motors had first broached the idea at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair within its Futurama exhibit (the most successful design fiction exercise of all time, I should add), and robotics researchers were making headway on the idea before Google seeming hired them all. But thanks to the company’s heft, success, and halo around the future, the company has come to be seen as synonymous with autonomous cars, and that’s not the case as automakers race to write their own software and introduce their own models. But Daimler’s Dieter Zetsche is right to be wary about the combination of Google’s market share and mind share.
As for Uber, I think it’s to urban mobility what Walmart famously was to retailing — a deceptively cheaper, easier, friendlier alternative to small, local players, that has stoked a consumer backlash against taxis and used it (along with a deceptively large lobbying operation) to rewrite legislation, giving it the ability to build a parallel transportation that threatens to create a two-tiered system in which people who ride transit are second-class citizens with second-class options. (Just look at what Walmart has done to small towns across America when it comes to retailing options.) Whether they know it or not, transit agencies are in a fight to the death, and they can’t win by digging in their heels. They’re going to have to innovate and rebrand themselves if they hope to survive.
What’s an emerging technology trend that you believe is actually working against human connection?
I always tell this story: I met my wife in 2003 after crashing a party. I was early to meet friends at the bar next door, and rather than stand at the bar, nursing a beer and looking lonely, I decided to crash. If today’s smartphones and social networks had existed then, it’s likely I never would have met here — I’d still be standing at the bar, toggling between Twitter and Tinder. We’ve been extraordinarily successful at building social networks that link us to others around the globe, but we’ve done a terrible job at creating them for local contexts. I think two of Tinder’s competitors — Hinge and Happn — are interesting starts, but we have far to go.
If you had to choose brands to start a new city on Mars, which would you choose and why?
I’d start by asking Weyland-Yutani Corporation (from the Alien franchise) to recruit colonists; they’re not afraid to innovate in hostile environments. I’d also sign up (Blade Runner‘s) Tyrell Corporation to staff the menial jobs. I just connected on LinkedIn with their new training coordinator, Roy Batty; he’s great. Although given what happened when Elon Musk decided to give drivers sort of-self-driving cars, maybe not Tesla.
March 31, 2016 | permalink
Update: Thursday’s event at the Atlantic Council was broadcast live by C-SPAN. I can’t seem to embed the clip, but you can watch our entire discussion here.
I’m headed to Washington D.C. this morning to discuss “Smart Homes and the Internet of Things,” a new paper published by the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security in conjunction with the cybersecurity experts at I Am The Cavalry. You can watch us live at 4 PM EDT, and presumably archived thereafter. (I’m a non-resident senior fellow at the Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative and the lead author of the paper.)
The brief explores the broken promises, unrealized promise, and perverse consequences of “smart homes” ranging from the Internet-of-Fridges first mooted almost twenty years ago to such contemporary devices as Nest’s smart thermostat and Tesla’s Powerwall. Although the paper overall isn’t quite as critical as I’d like, I am rather proud of a section imagining life in a hacked, “haunted” house circa 2025, with obvious inspiration from Bruce Sterling’s The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things, Scott Smith’s Thingclash, Tobias Revell’s and Natalie Kane’s Haunted Machines, Matt Honan’s “Nightmare on Connected Home Street,” and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, just to name a few. Here’s an excerpt:
For more than a month now, my house has been haunted. There’s nothing supernatural about it; there are more than 15 million homes infected with the H@untedM@nsion worm, BuzzCNN reported yesterday. Every morning between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.—never the same time twice—my bedroom lights begin to strobe, and Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” kicks in again. I would replace the smart lightbulbs (which were the hackers’ initial entry point into my smart home) with dumb ones, but then I’d lose the tax credits.
Fortunately, I sleep on the floor of my Amazon Prime kitchen, which hasn’t interacted with my Microsoft bedroom since the acquisition talks broke down in 2019. It’s annoying when I ask for the weather report and both Alexa and Cortana talk over each other trying to answer. Even with my circadian rhythms shattered by the cacophony upstairs, Alexa knows me well enough to have started the coffee ten minutes ago.
I wish she had stocked the fridge with milk, however. I haven’t had dairy in months, after hackers took advantage of my flirtation with the paleo diet to tweak Amazon’s predictive ordering routine to have racks of lamb and other big-ticket meats delivered. They ship them to me through their referral code; this earns them pennies but costs me a lot more. If I give them away or throw them out, more arrive automatically. All I can do is let them rot in the fridge, pitting the algorithm’s learning function against its zombie programming.
While the coffee brews, I take a shower. As part of the haunting, my security camera ritualistically snaps a photo while I’m au naturel. When the haunting started, the first picture was accompanied by an automated email threatening to post my less-than-paleo physique to my Facebook account daily, unless I paid up – 300 μBTC, or about $20 US, to their bitcoin wallet.
There isn’t sufficient power for me to work from home today. A 2022 Supreme Court decision granted power utilities the right to requisition stored electricity in my Tesla Powerwall during “periods of emergency” (i.e., summer), so by around noon I won’t have enough power to both charge the car and run the smart lights. And I’ll have to get back before 7 p.m., when the power normally comes back on. AT&T Cisco’s Smart+ Connected Collection service has started refusing to unlock the door without a pro-rated daily payment to cover the utility bill. It’s a good thing I never upgraded the door to the garage, so I can still hack its Bluetooth lock and sneak into my smart home.
Now you see why I don’t write fiction.
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company, author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. He is also a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute.
Popular Mechanics | May 11, 2016
The New Republic | January/February 2016
Fast Company | September 22, 2015
Fast Company | September 21, 2015
Inc. | March 2015
Inc. | March 2015
Global Solution Networks | December 2014
Medium | November 2014
New York University | October 2014
Harvard Business Review | October 2014
Inc. | April 2014
Atlantic Cities | March 2014
Wired (UK) | October 2013
Next American City | August 2013
The New York Times | April 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
Fast Company | December 2012/January 2013
WSJ | November 2012
Fast Company | June 2012
May 22, 2016
May 12, 2016
May 02, 2016
April 22, 2016