Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated, instruction diffused[…]
-Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings
There’s been a lot of buzz about smart cities recently.
From Chicago to Sydney, cities are planning to deploy sensors and algorithms to improve methods of governance. My own city-state, Singapore, plans to start deploying an unprecedented number of cameras and sensors around the island, allowing the government to monitor everything from the cleanliness of public spaces to movement within one’s home.
If we view this development from an utopian standpoint, smart cities will allow us to capitalise on data collection and analytics to streamline the improve the conditions of our everyday lives, ranging from transport to pollution levels to energy conservation.
Interestingly enough, The word ‘utopian’ comes from Ancient Greek. It means both ‘perfect place’ and ‘no place’.
It’s easy to think of data as disembodied 1 and 0s. But in contexts like these, data really refers to individuals like us: The food we eat, the places we drive, the websites we browse. Flesh and blood, not just 1s and 0s. Smart cities bring enormous potential for improving the every day lives of citizens, but – as with every technological development – it comes with great risks, and high potential costs.
The most pressing of these concerns have been well documented by publications ranging from Forbes to The Chicago Tribune: Cyberterrorism and hacking, monetisation of sensitive data, and inequality of access.
What troubles me more is the issue of transparency, knowledge and power.
The phrase ‘knowledge is power’ has become a cliche these days. One is most likely to see it as a caption accompanying endless Instagram photos of sun-drenched poolsides, sausage legs, and copies of The Alchemist.
That doesn’t detract from the truth of the statement. Knowledge is power, now more so than ever.
When we talk about power, we tend to think about it in terms of domination: Can Country A force Country B to disarm their cache of nuclear weapons? Can the president veto legislation passed in parliament? Can your boss coerce you into buying him a cup of coffee? Can we execute those treasonous poltroons who deserted during pitched battle?
Back in the good old days, when the divine right of kings was a thing, such displays of power were commonplace, and central to the institutions that employed them.
Public displays of power, executions in the city square, were meant to symbolise the absolute authority of the monarch over his subjects. Nowadays, no one gets locked up in the stocks for littering or guillotined for jaywalking. We no longer hold executions in public because there is no need to cow a population into submission.
How, then, do modern governments exert power over their populations?
Imagine a tower in a prison: An edifice surrounded by cells, with each cell populated by inmates. High up in the tower, a single warden has perfect knowledge of what the inmates are up to at all times, but the inmates have no idea who is watching, or when they’re being watched.
The real genius about this arrangement is that you could leave the tower empty, and the inmates would regulate themselves, while being none the wiser that there was no one watching.
This structure is called a Panopticon; the concept was coined by Jeremy Bentham, and later popularised by social philosopher Michel Foucault, in Discpline and Punish. It’s an apt analogy for how certain forms of power work, particularly in governance.
Power is no longer central and coercive; it is now diffused, and focused on creating the ideal citizen. Power is not about policing the population. It is about creating a population that polices itself. It is about an asymmetric distribution of power, between the knows and the know-nots.
The panopticons of the near-future will not be made of brick and mortar. They will be made of data and algorithms.
The problem with theories of power/knowledge is that they are potential slippery slopes into paranoia and conspiracy theories. I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat while writing this; there is no shadowy world government looking to brainwash your babies and weaponise your porn site search history. Just because you’re being watched, doesn’t mean that the watchers are Bond villains.
Depending on your perspective, you may even see this as a responsibility that governments should – or must – undertake. Thomas Hobbes, in The Leviathan, proposes that humans are innately flawed and self-centred, and must submit to the regulation of a greater authority for a proper society to function. On the other hand, you have Jean Jacques Rosseau, who famously stated in The Social Contract that ‘Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains’.
The real question we need to ask is a more nuanced one: On one side, there is the individual citizen, with his right to privacy and liberty; on the other is the government, which strives towards efficiency and security. Should a government autonomously decide how individual citizens live and comport themselves? And conversely, how much of one’s privacy and individual freedom is one willing to forego in the name of security and efficiency?
Corporations already use our data to deliver us Internet ads, send us emails and track our expenditure. Our heart rates are monitored by fitness apps, our purchases recorded during online transactions. In cases like these, there are always opt-out systems: spam filters, ad blockers, VPN services.
But how does one ad block a government policy? How does one filter a road tax system into a spam folder? Corporations merely want to spiel us on their latest product, but governments – whether benign or not – play a more fundamental role in our lives.
I’m not arguing against the civic or utilitarian benefits of smart cities. But it is the right of an individual citizen to demand a greater level of transparency in their implementation: To be aware of who is doing the watching, and how we’re being watched.
When smart cities are implemented, opting out may no longer be an option.