February 7: Visit to Alphabet’s Intersection / Sidewalk Labs

Field Trip (4:15 – 6:15): We’ll visit Intersection / Sidewalk Labs to meet with Max Oglesbee, Intersection’s Head of Client Strategy, and Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk Labs’ Director of Design, at 10 Hudson Yards, 26th Floor.

Enter at 30th Street and 10th Ave., and take the “L’Oreal Escalator,” on your right, to the security desk on the upper level. We’ll gather near the security desk. Please arrive as early as possible (ideally by 4), so we can all have security badges printed in the lobby! Which reminds me: it’s probably a good idea to bring photo ID. 

17 Replies

  • At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, my critique is not so much with the technology itself as a human measuring tool but rather with the definition of quality of life – the equation of which appears to be connectivity, optimization, and as Shannon points to, “a greater sense of personalization.” Reducing the nuances enfolded into what defines quality of life to quantification is convenient for “test-bed” urbanism. For folks like Doctoroff, the benefits of living in the lab extend the virtues of early access and, broadly speaking, intelligence itself. The prioritization and selling of “smartness” over kindness, honesty, or even solitude, speaks to the commercialization of intelligence. What was once a virtue (perhaps best referred to as knowledge or wisdom) is now a valuable stock.

    I’m certain that my classmates, some of whom are expert in fields like sociology and economics, will have much more to say in terms of what actually improves quality of life. Like Adam Greenfield, who “would prefer to see investment in fundamental infrastructure of everyday life,” it’s my impression that, for example, universal health coverage is more beneficial to constituents than a driverless car ride to the clinic. But what do I know, I’ll never be in the tax bracket (i.e. the intellectual bracket?) to live at a place like Hudson Yards.

    • Thanks, Allie! There are certainly are lots of metaphysical and teleological assumptions built into these presumptions of what makes a “good life” in a quantified community.

  • Deleuze, in his 1992 “Postscript on Societies of Control”, identifies the advent of the then-nascent mutation in governance, which we are only just now seeing bloom. Particularly looking at “Instrumental City”, it becomes immediately clear that despite the focus of ‘smart cities’ on the instantiation of networks, it depends on the aggregation of discrete data flows. Discussions of behaviorism seem to me to miss the forest for the trees—behavior is no longer whats required. “Individuals have become ‘dividuals’,” Deleuze writes, “…masses, samples, data, markets, or banks”, comparing the flow of persons (the proper ones, with ‘passwords’) as having followed the same trajectory of the continuous ephemeralization of money (moving from commodity-form (gold) to exchange form (credit)). Thus, the substrate on which the entire fabric of the immanent smart city is constructed is the citizen-as-automaton. No need to participate in government (in fact, it would be better if you didn’t)! Vote with your feet, your dollars, your resource allocation, your commitment to participation in our sustainability program here at Hudson Yards!

    Harvey points out that the city as we currently know it is constructed entirely for the purpose of consolidating industrial labor, thus forming an armature of capitalist representation under what Foucault, would label the disciplinary society, where forms of non-participation were possible (though exceedingly difficult and met by brutal force). The society of control recomposes the city into a soft carceral landscape. Sure, you don’t have to participate, but you won’t get far. It remains to be seen what, morphologically, this will do to the city-forms we know. Hudson Yards, and the work of Sidewalk, will definitely accelerate this trend.

    But it’s not all bleak. As Deleuze says, “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”.

    • Thanks, Kevin! Yes, we certainly are witnessing the arrival of a new politico-spatial regime. And while we see masses, samples, and data at the macro scale, I do think micro-scale behaviors do still matter in this context. Just consider the ubiquity of behavioral economics!

  • What I noted most in the various readings/audio for this week was what a difference a few years makes in technology, and in public acceptance of technology. I think about the (deserved) outrage that followed revelations of NSA spying brought about by Edward Snowden and the resulting discussion on issues of personal freedom and sovereignty. Not to be glib, but how quickly we now hand over our personal data, unrestricted, for the sake of convenience – which we never view as potentially nefarious. I’m not sure whether this was a mass change in consensus opinion, or the story was just a news blip from (what now feels in comparison) a relatively anodyne Obama presidency.

    We are constantly embroiled in a tradeoff between access and privacy, and the implications in a more data-driven world. This line about LinkNYC stood out: ‘Sign up for the service once and your phone will automatically connect to the network whenever you’re in range and your Wi-Fi is enabled, with one kiosk seamlessly handing you off to the next as you walk down the block.’ Remembering the half-sarcastic fear of ‘what is in these agreements we don’t read but click accept to’ from 10 years ago, now any sort of resistance to digital tracking for convenience seems to be either rationalized instantly with the click of a button or dismissed as tin-foil hat neo-Luddism.

    Hudson Yards positioning itself as a ‘quantified community’ to me marks a change in public perception: the term which could easily be construed as a sci-fi dystopian description of human existence now seems to descrive the ‘forefront’ of comfort and luxury living. It’s not surprising that one of the most recent Sidewalk Talk’s is about social isolation in an increasingly digital world.

    • Thanks, Tim! Yes, this is indeed a world of cost-benefit analyses; how much of our privacy and autonomy will we surrender for the sake of convenience and comfort?

  • There is a fabulous moment in The Takeaway show when NYU CUSP’s Constantine Kontokosta was describing to the radio host John Hockenberry a scenario where the mobile phone carried by a smart citizen coming into office can trigger a whole set of operations (e.g. elevator coming down to lobby, desktop computer booting up, air-conditioning turning on) that optimizes efficiency and costs. Kontokosta was describing all this with so much enthusiasm for this cleaner, smoother future. And then Hockenberry pops the awkward question: that is, if the smart city of Hudson Yards presumes a citizen who owns a mobile phone in the first place. Kontokosta is embarrassed, he recovers by mentioning how ubiquitous mobile phones are these days (and he is right); but nonetheless it was a moment when urban planners and major stakeholders like Kontokosta are forced to confront the assumptions and prejudices that is embedded within their visions of the future.

    The smart city of Hudson Yards is a future that will be occupied by tech-savvy white-collar workers who don’t just own a mobile phone but one that comes with an internet plan. It is a future crafted out of a privileged blindness, enjoyed by those are its financiers, its architects, its salesperson, and also its customers. If Hudson Yards is the new city within the city, it is a future island with its own prescribed ecology and peculiar species, a suburban bubble (as Adam Greenfield implied) that no longer offers any spontaneous encounter of difference.

    Borrowing from the title from Shannon’s essay, we might even say that the future is itself being instrumentalized through the vision of the smart city. Or as William Gibson reminds us elsewhere, “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

  • During the readings and listening for this week some images kept coming to my mind: those of the documentary film ” Koyaanisqatsi “, directed by Godfrey Reggio (1982). The film definitely has its 80’s aesthetics and concerns (the discussion is focused on a “nature x city” dichotomy), but the idea of smart cities as they seem to be revealed by projects like the Hudson Yards show some similar elements: connectivity, rapidity and intensification. These concepts can definitely be used for an optimistic discourse, such as the one from Sidewalks Lab website and projects (acceleration of urban innovation, mobility and digital infrastructure to inspire innovation) and the Intersection ” motto ” (connectivity, information and content to elevate the urban experience). The same happens with Hudson Yards (a friendly place, connected, safe and dynamic) and they all lead me to beautiful time-lapses from Reggio’s film (7:45) in which we feel the vibration and how the city is a living system with its flows of information and people; Philip Glass’ soundtrack definitely helps setting the tone as well.
    However, inspired by the memory I have from the documentary, by Adam Greenfield’s thoughts on the podcast and by the text “Instrumental City: The view from Hudson Yards, circa 2019” my question is: aren’t people (we!) becoming instruments to create data in order to quantify everything, for a better and safer urban environment, enabling corporations to define the way to live “smarter”, instead of facing the challenges directly on the street (“lower” level, not from a “panoramic” point of view), not using technology to gather information but to challenge our behaviors? Also, as Shannon Mattern points out in the text, do we need all this efficiency and is rapidity going to really improve our lives? Going back to ” Koyaanisqatsi “, even the director is “seduced” by upper angles looking down to cities as great systems, but to conclude his critique the director goes down and shows (beginning of clip) specific people in the streets, in slow motion, looking, just being there. Like the camera angle, what I am very curious about the visit today and about the overall idea of smart cities is, though panoramic and satellite views are very tempting, how to approach all this technology in a more “grounded” point of view.

    • I love this contrast between the bird’s-eye and street-level views, Cristina; these scalar contrasts remind me of the beautiful film you produced for our Data/Archive class. We’ll see this dichotomy played out again as we gaze down upon Hudson Yards from the 26th floor 🙂

  • Last night I was talking with my friend (born and raise in Flushing) about Hudson Yards, LinkNYC, and Sidewalk labs. She said that she knows many friends who got rid of their internet service because they live so close to a Link NYC kiosk, allowing them to have faster (and free) wifi than what they were paying for. I asked her if she thought they knew that all of their internet searches were being used for targeted advertising, and she said likely not. Indeed, i wouldn’t have known myself had it not been for this week’s readings. Would her friends have discontinued their internet service if they had been aware of the lack of privacy that comes with their new fast free wifi? Should the kiosks be required to inform users that what they search will be monitored and used for monetization and, perhaps, other uses?

    As you wrote in your piece on Hudson Yards, one facet of residential life in Hudson Yards comes with the agreement (or not?) that they can use data from your daily life in exchange for undefined services. But, in the instance that residents do not want their lives to be harvested for data, how do you insure that this is not happening? How do you ever know which behaviors, choices, movements are or are not tracked if you live on top of a bed of sensors and data collection systems that you don’t have access to? And in the case of LinkNYC, what does it mean that they are able to track your searches when using their wifi when, even if you aren’t on their wifi, you would most likely be searching Google for what you need anyway? Is that not all the same thing?

    • This is fascinating, Kathryn. I always make fun of the Links because I hardly ever see anyone plugged in, standing nearby, or interacting with their screens. I can’t believe it never occurred to me that nearby residents are using the WiFi! And yes, given the entanglement of Google’s operations — and its investment in multiple layers of infrastructure — it’s certainly difficult to discern where or how resistance or intervention might be possible.

  • This week’s readings and podcast remind me, as I’m sure was the intention, of our role-play with Schmoogle. Like our exercise, the readings and podcasts present the different stakeholders present in the development of smart cities, including those who are openly for smart cities, like private companies and governments, and those who are against it, like scholars and civic leaders. However, I find my own perspective on the matter largely unrepresented in this conversation. On one hand, we have key players like Alphabet and the NYC government, who are actively pushing “smart” as the city’s only possible evolution. On the other hand, all of the articles discuss the smart city with enormous skepticism, with the lack of privacy being its greatest offense, as discussed in the Pinto piece. Even Shannon’s essay, which describes the environmentally-conscious features of Hudson Yards in depth, present the smart city only as something we should be very critical of.

    Knowing all of the pros and cons of the smart city after absording all of these polarized perspectives, I find myself standing in the middle. The intentions of companies like Alphabet have been made pretty transparent: make lots and lots of money. But the intentions of those against the smart city are not as clear and leave me wondering why they need to call on past urbanists like Jane Jacobs to support their protests. If smart cities help us save money, live comfortably, and protect the environment, shouldn’t we be devoting more time to finding a long-term compromise that protects our privacy AND gives us a city where we struggle less?

    • Samiha, yes! There certainly is a lot of cynicism in much of the humanities, social science and design literature about smart cities (and even in some journalism, too). I’m guilty 🙂 And you’re certainly right: urban technology and data-driven operations do promise great potential gains, too. We just have to balance process with efforts to preserve privacy and prevents profiling.

  • Despite an inherent emphasis on building linkages to social, economic, and environmental complexities of urban life in ‘smart city’ rhetoric, throughout these articles, podcasts, and essays there is a sense of a missing link or bridge between the smart city rhetoric that asserts universal benefits, and more nuanced aspect of civilian life, eloquently expressed as the “sidewalk ballet” that Jane Jacobs mentions, in which the lifeblood of a city exists because of its differences. Adam Greenfield’s critique regarding this smart city branding hits very close to home for me due to my previous research understanding the sharing economy broadly by its impacts locally through my analysis of Citi Bike as a case study. I find parallels between these Citi Bike kiosks and Alphabet’s Link stations for multiple reasons: 1) both are reflective of economic institutions/branding 2) perceived notions of interconnectivity come from the institution itself, rather than community based participation 3) both have visions of the future in which sustainable development is reflected through technological advances 4) residents are unsure how to feel about towering edifices and jarring colors 5) data’s importance is relative to its accumulated methods and its intended audience. Interviewing residents regarding their Citi Bike concerns demonstrated this very obvious disconnect between community needs and developmental wants. In many historic neighborhoods where English is not even the first language, the obtrusive Citi Bike kiosks felt like monuments of gentrification sweeping their neighborhoods, in which any connection residents had with the development came through screens themselves -difficult for aging residents to understand and even further complicated by language, cultural barriers, and socio-economic barriers.

    These cultural differences and lengthy communication processes are what smart cities seek to remove, making everything more about “security, safety, consumption, and efficiency” as the podcast noted. Even advocating for ‘values-driven design’ promotes an inherent VALUE in DESIGN. As if every part of the environment should not only reflect and instill a value for its residents, but that each component should maintain value. When urban planners or developers draft developmental plans, such as connecting neighborhoods through Link devices, or placing Citi Bikes onto a geographic map, the value of the design is the design itself, rather than the use or consciousness of the residents. Even your question, Shannon, about residents lacking tools for participation because they cannot shape such a painstakingly engineer environment is particularly pertinent to this broader conversation of value. Simply giving citizens access to participatory community building is only the first step for valuing these perspectives, but who are the citizens, and what is the incentive for including them? I’m very interested to see how Intersection and Sidewalk Labs engage communities, from the messages they want to spread to how these messages are received by the communities. I want to know what this “transparency, or psuedo-transparency” as Nick Pinto calls it, actually means for the residents on the ground. In the case of Citi Bike, despite its value within its design, residents felt even more displaced throughout the decision making process. How do we begin to bridge these gaps between institutional expectations and community ones? How do we build better bridges, or create more links throughout the design/developmental process that understands social/cultural resiliency is directly intertwined with environmental resilience?

    • Excellent, Irie! You echo many of your classmates’ concerns regarding ground-level impact and public engagement. Thanks for sharing your CitiBike research, too. It sounds fascinating — and highly pertinent to our discussions. I hope you’ll share this research when we’re back in the classroom next week!

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