How Will We
Survive Techutopia?

How Will
We Survive

Greta Byrum
View all stories

Last fall, something strange happened in tech news: many of the Internet’s popular websites all went down at once. No big tragedy really, just lots of people unable to read the New York Times, tweet, binge-watch Netflix, or order things on Amazon. More important was the news that emerged about how it happened: hackers turned millions of networked devices (mostly security and webcams from one Chinese manufacturer) into a massive robot attack army. The attack demonstrated just how unprepared we are for the enormous changes technology is bringing.

Last October’s Loeb tour of San Francisco and Silicon Valley felt like a visit to the testing-grounds for tomorrow’s tech-based economy–and its super-connected, super-surveilled, super-responsive environment. We heard about and saw sensing objects (interactive, networked objects that collect and produce data) along with artificial intelligence and predictive Internet of Things–IoT–systems that are beginning to shape how we interact with and manage the built environment.

We also saw the concrete manifestations of the tech economy, in the form of the hyper-stratification of the urban and suburban landscapes. Highly skilled tech workers with venture capital-fed salaries live in the city on the hill, driving housing prices nearly double the national average and complaining when they are forced to observe homeless people. Private buses shuttle tech workers to suburban campuses or office towers with in-house restaurants, retail, and even laundry facilities, obviating the need for tech workers to interact with anyone other than fellow tech workers. Virtually everywhere we went, we heard about the near-catastrophic shortage of affordable housing and the rise of evictions and homelessness.

A bus tour in Silicon Valley presented a particularly stark study in contrasts: the manicured rooftop garden on top of a newly-minted Frank Gehry “warehouse of engineers” surrounded by the sandy salt marshes of the South Bay and adjacent to communities like East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. These two communities have experienced the downside of the tech economy with widespread evictions and a sharp decrease in jobs for nontech workers (further exacerbated by “disruptive innovations” that are on the verge of automating millions of jobs).

Facebook executives, recognizing the pressure on local communities, asked Loebs for input on how to build fast partnerships and projects for concrete returns on local investments–and seemed nonplussed at the answers some provided: it’s hard to build trust quickly, and harder still to find quick solutions to deeply entrenched, systemic problems. Regardless, a roomful of Loebs offered ideas, and maybe some hopeful notion will emerge to disrupt the disruption of everyday life in Silicon Valley. However, given that Mark Zuckerberg’s new charity LLC is not prevented from collecting returns on its charitable investments–despite the effective 2% tax rate enjoyed by Facebook–any projects it undertakes may well turn out to be another case of “making the world a better place” by automating, branding, and creating efficiencies and revenue streams everywhere (even in places where some of us may not want them).

On top of Facebook’s new Menlo Park headquarters.

Another stop on the Silicon Valley tour provided a chance to explore a beautifully designed, lushly landscaped affordable housing directly adjacent to a BART station, providing reasonably priced, transit friendly homes to low income residents. Yet the development–and especially its public spaces and areas still under construction–also bristled with security cameras: a necessity, we were informed, in a place where new development often goes up in flames.

Overall, many of us were left wondering about the logical conclusion of all of this automation, surveillance, privatization, innovation, and disruption: will it lead to utopia or dystopia, and who will get to live there, under what circumstances?

One of five poles with security cameras in a public plaza of a new affordable housing development in Union City, Silicon Valley

Back in 2013, so-called “smart cities” were a hot topic. IBM, Cisco, Siemens, and other big firms were beginning to market their smart city lines, and the super connected urban environment was posited by various experts as either an uber-efficient, dynamic utopia or a creepy, big brother dystopia. Anthony Townsend looked at both sides of this debate, while Adam Greenfield laid bare (almost) everything that might go wrong.

Yet, as ever, the reality of the smart city is much more mundane than any of its prophets had broadcast. The Internet of Things is already making its way into housing, transportation, energy, and other infrastructure systems via smart devices. Your next refrigerator, baby monitor, or thermostat might be “smart”–and your train and bus time systems, environmental sensors, surveillance cameras in public spaces, etc. definitely are. And all of them might participate in the next big cyber attack, or might collect data on you and your habits that can be sold to other third party vendors and used to sell you stuff, set a rate on your mortgage, or predict which candidate you are likely to vote for.

A flyer for technology classes at St. Anthony’s in the Tenderloin.

We are left with the question: in the face of all this, what can designers, architects, and planners do to build equitable, just, and resilient places?

I offer three suggestions:

  1. Don’t ignore technology–it’s not going away. Try to understand its implications and plan for them–even if that means learning about creepy things like Barbies that listen to your children’s secrets and talk to them, or the fact that half of Americans are in facial recognition databases, and one in four police departments uses those databases without disclosing it publicly. While there are developments like these that we should resist and advocate against publicly, technology can also do good things, and can be pretty fun–which leads to the following point.
  2. Design technologies for the social outcomes you want–if you want technology to support deeper relationships and healthier communities, collaborate with technologists, organizers, visionaries to build technologies that are designed for that purpose. A great way to do that is to facilitate the education of technologists from different backgrounds of all kinds. Entertain the notion of experimentation and play with new tools like virtual reality for positive social outcomes.
  3. Tune out, turn off, and drop in–turn off your devices. Take a day away from your computer. Tell everyone you’re taking a break to play with your children or visit your parents, and you won’t be reachable. Host parties where people leave their phones at the door. Take a walk without your phone. It will be ok, I promise.

Meanwhile, as we were also reminded many times in the Bay Area, technology and the tech economy are no match yet for the power of the natural world. No matter what else happens, sea level rise, a tsunami, or the next earthquake have the power to create a very different reality, suddenly pulling aside the veil of this long dream.