Conundrums of Community in the Age of Computing

Posted on October 29, 2021

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Right Now with Nick Smith (Linkedin/Twitter)

What I’m watching: Last night I watched Malignant and it was … super creepy. Watch it, but don’t learn anything about it beforehand.

What I’m listening to: I just got to go to my first indoor concert in two years(!!!) and was grateful to see Anamanaguchi … 18 months after buying tickets to a show (lol)

What I’m reading: A City Is Not A Computer by Shannon Mattern

I can’t believe they decided to call themselves “Meta.” They’re not even trying to hide it.

In case you missed it, yesterday, after years of telling your aunt Carol to join QAnon (even though it sometimes violated their own rules) and selling data about her to advertisers (even though it sometimes violated the law), Facebook decided to take the heat off their embattled brand by renaming themselves and pivoting away from the simple PHP message board that’s made their questionably-human founder a billionaire, instead shifting their focus to the augmented- and virtual-reality spaces that comprise the future of social connectivity.


what could go wrong

It’s probably fitting that the Facebook/Metaverse announcement came during Halloween week, because, like facial recognition, its implications should truly frighten you.

In tech, there’s an acronym that you may have heard of — “FAANG” — which stands for “Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google,” and generally represents the broadest interests in the technology sector. Maybe Netflix can take the day off here, but it should come as no surprise to you that, in addition to the aforementioned efforts, the rest of the gang has their hands all over our municipalities, from the policy level in all 50 states, to real-time street level parking data collection.

I’ve already used this space to call for a complete and total boycott of facial recognition by cities in 2019 — specifically the kind implemented by Amazon in its Ring camera “doorbells,” the data from which are used by literal countless police departments* — but the point is that as we move into more interconnected spaces as a society, we’re seeing major initiatives by these companies that threaten us in new and exciting ways.

The reason I think this is so eminently write-about-able is that as we walk headlong into a new tomorrow, a tomorrow in which the “smart city” we’ve conceived in our collective mind inevitably takes shape, we have to make sure that we — as local government leaders — do everything in our power to protect our people from the technocratic hellscape that is threatening to divest a government for the people from a government by the people.


future is scary


I’ve made no secret of how “pro-smart city” I am in the past, and I remain firmly rooted in the belief that technology can, has, and will continue to make our lives better in countless and unknowable ways. But we have to also acknowledge that as the scale of data soars to mind-boggling heights which cannot physically be parsed by humans, that technology created by humans is not (and cannot be!) neutral, that our inherent biases and flaws are also built into anything we make, capable of scaling at the same exponential pace.

My call-to-action is this: a city may not be a computer, but if we’re going to be subjected to a “Metaverse” of any sort wherein a computer is a city, local government needs to be in at the ground level. What that looks like depends on the size, shape, and culture of your community, but I guarantee you that the federal government not only won’t help but genuinely can’t, and you do not want to be playing catch up from any further behind than you already are.

an older woman takes a picture poorly
Pictured: Congress

*although as of late 2020 Amazon no longer shares facial recognition data with police, there is no federal law that precludes police departments from using other facial recognition methods on video proffered by Ring users

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