Tag: infrastructure

Form is the possibility of structure

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein with today’s quotation-as-title. I’m using it as a way in to discuss some things around city planning, and in particular an article I’ve been meaning to discuss for what seems like ages.

In an article for The LA Times, Jessica Roy highlights a phenomenon I wish I could take back and show my 12 year-old self:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Jessica Roy

Some games are just awesome. SimCity is still popular now on touchscreen devices, and my kids play it occasionally. It’s interesting to read in the article how different people, now responsible for real cities, played the game, for example Roy quotes the Vice President of Transportation and Housing at the non-profit Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well.”

Jason Baker

I, on the other hand, particularly enjoyed booting up ‘scenario mode’ where you had to rescue a city that had been ravaged by Godzilla, aliens, or a natural disaster.

This isn’t an article about nostalgia, though, and if you read the article in more depth you realise that it’s an interesting insight into our psychology around governance of cities and nations. For example, going back to an article from 2018 that also references SimCity, Devon Zuegel writes:

The way we live is shaped by our infrastructure — the public spaces, building codes, and utilities that serve a city or region. It can act as the foundation for thriving communities, but it can also establish unhealthy patterns when designed poorly.

[…]

People choose to drive despite its costs because they lack reasonable alternatives. Unfortunately, this isn’t an accident of history. Our transportation system has been overly focused on automobile traffic flow as its metric of success. This single-minded focus has come at the cost of infrastructure that supports alternative ways to travel. Traffic flow should, instead, be one goal out of many. Communities would be far healthier if our infrastructure actively encouraged walking, cycling, and other forms of transportation rather than subsidizing driving and ignoring alternatives.

Devon Zuegel

In other words, the decisions we ask our representatives to make have a material impact in shaping our environment. That, in turn, affects our decisions about how to live and work.

When we don’t have data about what people actually do, it’s easy for ideology and opinions to get in the way. That’s why I’m interested in what Los Angeles is doing with its public transport system. As reported by Adam Rogers in WIRED, the city is using mobile phone data to see how it can ‘reboot’ its bus system. It turns out that the people running the system had completely the wrong assumptions:

In fact, Metro’s whole approach turned out to be skewed to the wrong kinds of trips. “Traditionally we’re trying to provide fast service for long-distance trips,” [Anurag Komanduri, a data anlyst] says. That’s something the Orange Line and trains are good at. But the cell phone data showed that only 16 percent of trips in LA County were longer than 10 miles. Two-thirds of all travel was less than five miles. Short hops, not long hauls, rule the roads.

Adam Rogers

There’s some discussion later in the article about the “baller move” of ripping down some of the freeways to force people to use public transportation. Perhaps that’s actually what’s required.

In Barcelona, for example, “fiery leftist housing activist” Ada Colau became the city’s mayor in 2015. Since then, they’ve been doing some radical experimentation. David Roberts reports for Vox on what they’ve done with one area of the city that I’ve actually seen with my own eyes:

Inside the superblock in the Poblenou neighborhood, in the middle of what used to be an intersection, there’s a small playground, with a set of about a dozen picnic tables next to it, just outside a local cafe. On an early October evening, neighbors sit and sip drinks to the sound of children’s shouts and laughter. The sun is still out, and the warm air smells of wild grasses growing in the fresh plantings nearby.

David Roberts

I can highly recommended watching this five-minute video overview of the benefits of this approach:

So if it work, why aren’t we seeing more of this? Perhaps it’s because, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out on his blog, most of us are governed by incompetents:

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Simon Wren-Lewis

We seem to have started with SimCity and ended with Trump and Brexit. Sorry about that, but without decent government, we can’t hope to improve our communities and environment.


Also check out:

  • ‘Nation as a service’ is the ultimate goal for digitized governments (TNW) — “Right now in Estonia, when you have a baby, you automatically get child benefits. The user doesn’t have to do anything because the government already has all the data to make sure the citizen receives the benefits they’re entitled to.”
  • The ethics of smart cities (RTE) — “With ethics-washing, a performative ethics is being practised designed to give the impression that an issue is being taken seriously and meaningful action is occurring, when the real ambition is to avoid formal regulation and legal mechanisms.”
  • Cities as learning platforms (Harold Jarche) — “For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship.

The New Octopus: going beyond managerial interventions for internet giants

This article in Logic magazine was brought to my attention by a recent issue of Ian O’Byrne’s excellent TL;DR newsletter. It’s a long read, focusing on the structural power of internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

The author, K. Sabeel Rahman, is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He uses historical analogues to make his points, while noting how different the current state of affairs is from a century ago.

As in the Progressive Era, technological revolutions have radically transformed our social, economic, and political life. Technology platforms, big data, AI—these are the modern infrastructures for today’s economy. And yet the question of what to do about technology is fraught, for these technological systems paradoxically evoke both bigness and diffusion: firms like Amazon and Alphabet and Apple are dominant, yet the internet and big data and AI are technologies that are by their very nature diffuse.

The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.

This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.

I think this is the thing that concerns me most. Just as the banks were ‘too big to fail’ during the economic crisis and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, so huge technology companies are increasingly playing that kind of role elsewhere in our society.

The problem of scale, then, has always been a problem of power and contestability. In both our political and our economic life, arbitrary power is a threat to liberty. The remedy is the institutionalization of checks and balances. But where political checks and balances take a common set of forms—elections, the separation of powers—checks and balances for private corporate power have proven trickier to implement.

These various mechanisms—regulatory oversight, antitrust laws, corporate governance, and the countervailing power of organized labor— together helped create a relatively tame, and economically dynamic, twentieth-century economy. But today, as technology creates new kinds of power and new kinds of scale, new variations on these strategies may be needed.

“Arbitrary power is a threat to liberty.” Absolutely, no matter whether the company holding that power has been problematic in the past, has a slogan promising not to do anything wrong, or is well-liked by the public.

We need more than regulatory oversight of such organisations because of how insidious their power can be — much like the image of Luks’ octopus that accompanies this and the original post.

Rahman explains three types of power held by large internet companies:

First, there is transmission power. This is the ability of a firm to control the flow of data or goods. Take Amazon: as a shipping and logistics infrastructure, it can be seen as directly analogous to the railroads of the nineteenth century, which enjoyed monopolized mastery over the circulation of people, information, and commodities. Amazon provides the literal conduits for commerce.

[…]

A second type of power arises from what we might think of as a gatekeeping power. Here, the issue is not necessarily that the firm controls the entire infrastructure of transmission, but rather that the firm controls the gateway to an otherwise decentralized and diffuse landscape.

This is one way to understand the Facebook News Feed, or Google Search. Google Search does not literally own and control the entire internet. But it is increasingly true that for most users, access to the internet is mediated through the gateway of Google Search or YouTube’s suggested videos. By controlling the point of entry, Google exercises outsized influence on the kinds of information and commerce that users can ultimately access—a form of control without complete ownership.

[…]

A third kind of power is scoring power, exercised by ratings systems, indices, and ranking databases. Increasingly, many business and public policy decisions are based on big data-enabled scoring systems. Thus employers will screen potential applicants for the likelihood that they may quit, be a problematic employee, or participate in criminal activity. Or judges will use predictive risk assessments to inform sentencing and bail decisions.

These scoring systems may seem objective and neutral, but they are built on data and analytics that bake into them existing patterns of racial, gender, and economic bias.

[…]

Each of these forms of power is infrastructural. Their impact grows as more and more goods and services are built atop a particular platform. They are also more subtle than explicit control: each of these types of power enable a firm to exercise tremendous influence over what might otherwise look like a decentralized and diffused system.

As I quote Adam Greenfield as saying in Microcast #021 (supporters only!) this infrastructural power is less obvious because of the immateriality of the world controlled by internet giants. We need more than managerial approaches to solving the problems faced by their power.

A more radical response, then, would be to impose structural restraints: limits on the structure of technology firms, their powers, and their business models, to forestall the dynamics that lead to the most troubling forms of infrastructural power in the first place.

One solution would be to convert some of these infrastructures into “public options”—publicly managed alternatives to private provision. Run by the state, these public versions could operate on equitable, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory principles. Public provision of these infrastructures would subject them to legal requirements for equal service and due process. Furthermore, supplying a public option would put competitive pressures on private providers.

[…]

We can also introduce structural limits on technologies with the goal of precluding dangerous concentrations of power. While much of the debate over big data and privacy has tended to emphasize the concerns of individuals, we might view a robust privacy regime as a kind of structural limit: if firms are precluded from collecting or using certain types of data, that limits the kinds of power they can exercise.

Some of this is already happening, thankfully, through structural limitations such as GDPR. I hope this is the first step in a more coordinated response to internet giants who increasingly have more impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens than their governments.

Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.

It’s a difficult balance. However, just as GDPR has put in place mechanisms to prevent the over-reaching of governments and of companies, I think we could think differently about perhaps organisations with non-profit status and community ownership that could provide some of the infrastructure being built by shareholder-owned organisations.

Having just finished reading Utopia for Realists, I definitely think the left needs to think bigger than it’s currently doing, and really push that Overton window.

Source: Logic magazine (via Ian O’Byrne)