On Smart Cities

Since October 2017 Torontonians have been reading about the likely advent of a "smart city," to be designed and built on our benighted eastern waterfront by Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs.

The last time a capitalist visionary built a smart city in Toronto was in 1953. His then-famous name was E.P. Taylor and his pet project was Don Mills, a 2000-acre model community designed for state-of-the-art urban/ industrial living. Financed entirely by private capital, the master plan—vetted at every stage by Taylor himself—envisaged a self-contained community of mixed-use residential zones linked by green spaces and walkways that would make cars unnecessary. To shrink urban life to a pedestrian scale, the plan called for four quadrants, each one centred around a shopping/ entertainment hub and furnished with its own schools, churches, and sports facilities. To the north and south of the residential area were designated industrial zones, where the thirty-thousand or so residents of Don Mills were expected to work. Construction began in 1953 and by 1960, the model city was 95 percent occupied.

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As local historian Scott Kennedy has written, "time has not been kind to Don Mills." The paint on E.P. Taylor's handiwork had barely dried before "irreplaceable modernist landmarks and affordable housing" were sacrificed to "the seemingly unchecked redevelopment that defines twenty-first-century Toronto." Don Mills evolved quickly into a garden-variety bedroom community, where the cul-de-sacs of Taylor's pedestrian utopia produce rush-hour gridlock, and where the surrounding industrial blight has no organic connection to the neighbourhood's mostly white-collar commuters. It has been a long, long time, in short, since Don Mills felt like the future. As a recent Toronto Star retrospective observed, the neighbourhood has gone "from model to scapegoat, the symbol of everything wrong with suburbs: urban sprawl, congestion and reliance on four wheels."

Which brings us back to the Sidewalk Labs project. According to Alphabet's ambitious visioneers, Toronto's newest smart city portends nothing less than humanity's urban future. "Quayside will be a new type of place, with connectivity designed into its very foundation. It will blend human centred urban design with cutting edge digital technology, clean tech, and advanced building materials.... Modular housing piloted in Quayside can produce whole neighbourhoods of lower-cost, quicker-to-build housing, enabling the market to meet burgeoning demand. A self-driving shuttle can bloom into a next-generation transit system that provides point-to-point convenience without the safety risks and high costs of private cars." Modular housing, point-to-point transit, a car-less utopia—it all sounds wonderfully futuristic, and yet eerily familiar.

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To date, Torontonians appear to have mostly embraced the Sidewalk Labs proposal, albeit with considerable anxiety about Alphabet's mania for data collection. "Individually and collectively, Canadians are rapidly losing effective control of their digital lives," writes retired U of T prof Andrew Clement. "Avoiding further rights degradation demands developing new forms of data governance at least as innovative as the other aspects of Sidewalk Toronto’s ambitious initiative." Such worries are noble but misplaced. Alphabet is not going to cede its prerogative to monopolize and monetize the golden algorithms of its smart cities (Toronto being only one of many), and politicians from Mayor John Tory to PM Trudeau know it. As for citizens' digital rights, surely any Canadian who savours the idea of living full-time within a Google Matrix, with the near-total loss of privacy that choice implies, should be entirely free to do so.

But what the rest of us should be pondering is what happens when the Alphabet vision of the human future fails to arrive and Toronto is left holding the bag—much as Montreal got stuck with the failed dream of Habitat 67. "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," Yogi Berra once said, and this is just as true for the Alphabet whiz kids as it was for E.P. Taylor. We cannot know whether Quayside will fulfill Alphabet's much-hyped promise and become a world-leading hub for metro sapiens, or whether it will end up as just another Don Mills. But the smart money is on the latter.

In Praise of Smart Phones

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Panic about young people's smart-phone use has entered a critical new phase this week. Two of Apple's largest institutional shareholders have asked the company to develop software to allow greater parental control of their kids' iPhones. In predictable fashion, the news media has been stoked to new heights of alarmism about smart-phone addiction and the abdication of parental responsibility. What is new about these developments is the detour from legitimate anxiety about the social pathologies we've come to associate with various social-media platforms—bullying, sexual predation, mental health concerns, suicidality—in favour of obsessing about the gadgets themselves. As Margaret Wente puts it, "Having technology at your fingertips is endlessly, aimlessly, mindlessly distracting. It's like TV, but squared. It sucks up all the time that we could spend on other things—such as catching frogs—and turns us into passive zombies."

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Let us not be coy. The frog-catching hypothesis is absurd. There is no North American alive today who cannot remember a time when yakking on the (corded) phone, listening to the transistor radio, watching TV, reading Teen Beat or Mad, riding bikes, playing tennis, lifting guitar chops from Led Zeppelin records, or engaging in any number of similar youthful diversions was not vastly more interesting than catching frogs. Such sentimental twaddle is even more risible in those parts of the world where ownership of the coveted iPhone remains out of reach and thus serves as a status marker of almost unmatched salience. Read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death—a jeremiad for the lost values of the Enlightenment in the age of televisual media—and recall that it was written in 1985.

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Indeed, as anyone who was young before the advent of smart phones will remember, we used to have dozens of bulky (and often expensive) gizmos that did for us what our little glass screens now do. We listened to sound recordings on gramophones, stereos, radios and Walkmans. We viewed moving images on televisions and movie screens. We read books, newspapers, magazines, comics, zines, pamphlets, and catalogs. We took pictures using analog cameras, we developed those images in darkrooms or paid someone else do it, and we shared our cherished photos by thumbing through them in bulky binders. We consulted calendars, day-timers, phone books, rolodexes, maps, dictionaries and encyclopedias—most of them in bound paper formats, some of them so unwieldy as to sit mostly unused. We typed and xeroxed paper documents, filed them in massive cabinets, and shipped them by conventional post. We endeavored to create the artifacts of high culture using paint, canvas, clay, and the analog instruments of music and film production, but were often limited by the need for expansive studios and expensive recording and editing technologies. For a host of pursuits that depended on the generation of timely data—stock-market trades, baseball scores, etc.—we were dependent on the distribution of mostly paper media at speeds over which we had no control. We played darts, poker, ping-pong and board games in many a cluttered rec room—and lest we conveniently forget, we also wasted endless hours playing billiards in pool halls, pinball in arcades, and Pong, Pacman and Space Invaders on bulky commercial consoles.

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The point becomes obvious. The smart phone is not by definition a technology of zombification, but a digital Swiss-army knife of almost limitless dexterity and utility. The next time your kids are happily engrossed in their smart phones—presuming here that you are not also happily engrossed in yours—don't think about what mindless ephemera they might be sharing with their friends. Think about what Mozart or Einstein could have accomplished with one.

Shaming Parents

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Our national broadcaster is today running a think piece by Kristen Pyszczyk entitled "It shouldn't be taboo to criticize parents for having too many kids." Citing David Wallace-Wells' widely discredited New York Magazine piece, "The Uninhabitable Earth," Pyszczyk indulges in what can only be called grade-school Malthusianism. "Procreation is becoming a global public health concern, rather than a personal decision," she argues. "So when people do irresponsible things like having five children, we absolutely need to be calling them out."

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Anyone who has not been living under a rock for the past decade will recognize instantly that Pyszczyk is playing with political fire here. Even the Euro radicals who urge parents to have "one less child" as a means of offsetting their carbon footprints agree that the decision must be made entirely voluntarily. There is a good reason for this. They understand what Pyszczyk does not—that imagining family planning as a "global public health concern" amenable to social control is fundamentally a eugenic project. Ask any German Green where that road leads. Ask the Chinese.

"In the global West," Pyszczyk insists, "it's crucial that we begin to present all people with alternatives to the traditional nuclear family. This inevitably involves calling out people who have kids like they're going out of style." This is, arguably, the saddest part of all. Pyszczyk does not seem to know that in the global West kids have already gone out of style. And neither, apparently, do her editors at the CBC.