Smart Cities of the Future: Infosphere, Inforgs, and Technoutopianism

Within modern, functionally differentiated society there is no longer any privileged position that could offer a binding representation of society within society.

– Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture

The Smart City of the Future

BEIJING — In its latest bid to get in on China’s infrastructure boom, International Business Machines Corp.  (IBM)  is launching a “smart city” project with the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. The accumulated investment in China’s “smart city” effort is on track to exceed 2 trillion yuan ($322 billion) by 2025, fueled by a massive State-sponsored urbanization project, an industry report found on Wednesday. (see Business Machines) At the IBM Smarter Cities site one gets an idea of just where their going. It’s all about data. As demands grow and budgets tighten, solutions also have to be smarter, and address the city as a whole. By collecting and analyzing the extensive data generated every second of every day, tools such as the IBM Intelligent Operations Center coordinate and share data in a single view creating the big picture for the decision makers and responders who support the smarter city. Intelligent Operations Center provides an executive dashboard to help city leaders gain insight into various aspects of city management. The executive dashboard spans agencies and enables drill-down capability into underlying agencies, such as emergency management, public safety, social services, transportation, or water. IBM Intelligent Operations Center enables cities to manage large complex environments, communicate more effectively with citizens, understand the state of the city and collaborate between departments.

The Smart Cities Council   seems to be a resource for city managers in understanding what paths are available for incorporating the latest smart city technologies as a part of their ongoing transformation in the 21st Century. As their mission statement tells us they envision a world where digital technology and intelligent design have been harnessed to create smart, sustainable cities with high-quality living and high-quality jobs. Their three core values are:

  • Livability: Cities that provide clean, healthy living conditions without pollution and congestion. With a digital infrastructure that makes city services instantly and conveniently available anytime, anywhere.
  • WorkabilityCities that provide the enabling infrastructure — energy, connectivity, computing, essential services — to compete globally for high-quality jobs.
  • Sustainability: Cities that provide services without stealing from future generations.

As they tell us a smart city gathers data from smart devices and sensors embedded in its roadways, power grids, buildings and other assets. It shares that data via a smart communications system that is typically a combination of wired and wireless. It then uses smart software to create valuable information and digitally enhanced services. As Adam Greenfield remarks the final intent of all this computational scrutiny, we are told, is to make every unfolding process of the city visible to those charged with its management; to render the previously opaque or indeterminate not merely knowable but actionable; and ultimately, to permit the “optimization” of all the flows of matter, energy and information that constitute a great urban place. (KL, 131)

Creativity and innovation have become commodities in the new technocapitalist era. Where once agrarian communities were transformed by the technological revolution, great socio-economic gains can be achieved by mobilizing a workforce trained and able to employ the benefits of the broadband economy. Investments in school technologies, such as digital libraries and distance learning, can be important implementation strategies. Most successful Smart City projects have leveraged broadband connectivity to bring interactive learning into the classroom and the workplace. Yet, learning is no longer bound to the human itself, it is also incorporated into the ongoing process of intelligent systems environments that encase humans in an invisible world of AIs that will oversee, direct, target, control, and interact as agents of the City in ways that we have yet to fully understand.5

As Adam Greenfield remarks learning is increasingly likely to be something that people pursue wherever they happen to be.6 In the older Industrial Era most of our human services were conducted in separate facilities: Schools, Factories, Entertainment Zones, Shopping Malls, etc. In the new smart city services should no longer be bound to rigid or fixed zones of commerce, but mobile, changing, fluid, flowing. For the most part these services should be part of our 24/7 lifestyles in which even the old notions of day and night no longer bind us to any sense of the natural (in the old sense). I remember growing up in Austin, Texas we had what were termed moonlights scattered around the city that lit up the night as if the day had never departed. One can imagine future cities that will have a sort of perpetual soft-glow much like the soft-glow bulbs we use for reading at night permeating our smart cities 24/7. People will forget the older connections to the natural biorhythms of the human animal as they merge more and more with their technological ontologies.

Yet, who is behind this? Who are the players who will benefit from these Smart Cities? Why are they being promoted, and by whom? As Greenfield tells us every technology and every ensemble of technologies encodes a hypothesis about human behavior, and the smart city is no different. As it happens, the particular hypothesis entertained by the smart city is twofold. Its first postulate is that the contemporary urban environment is so complex and so vexatious in its demands that no group of ordinary, unaided human beings can hope to understand it, let alone manage it wisely.(Greenfield, KL 1451)

The Technocorporate Agenda

The notion of modern society as a communication process without centre and without binding self-representation is the brain child of Niklas Luhmann whose Theory of Society extends this thesis that (post)modern society as a society is one in which  functional differentiation has replaced stratification (feudal order) and segmentary differentiation (tribal societies) as primary mode of societal differentiation.

The overarching goal remains the same: the centralized capture of the soundings produced by all of a city’s connected devices and the application of advanced analytic techniques to the enormous volume of data that results.

– Adam Greenfield,  Against the smart city

Welcome to the 21st Century utopias, where technology becomes innovative, and cities begin to learn as much as their citizens. In a society without control centre, architecture has to regulate itself and maintain its own mechanisms of evolution, contemporary society is far too complex and too dynamic to establish clear and fixed hierarchies of values/priorities that would in turn allow the societal division of labour to be conceived as chains of instruction whereby centrally/democratically set purposes are to be fulfilled by the various appointed function systems. Instead each function system appoints itself, defines its own purposes and rules supreme with respect to the appropriate selection of means. The various subsystems of society are doing this under the condition of mutual dependency. Each function system claims exclusive competency for a particular set of services. These services are required by most social systems such as families, organizations etc, as well as by all the great function systems themselves. For instance, most social systems rely on the provision of a reliable legal framework. Most social systems also rely on the provision of appropriately designed spaces. However, the mere claim of exclusive competency does not in itself guarantee the continued pertinence and relevance of the respective function systems and their provisions. The mainstream, state of the art solutions provided by a function system like architecture might become increasingly maladaptive and irrelevant with the progressive evolution of society.1

Capitalist optimism regarding its own utopian cities of the future has centered itself of late on what it calls the Smart City. City Managers around the globe are beginning to see the cost benefit of incorporating the latest technological marvels of the processing world into the very fabric and infrastructure of their cities. As they rise to the occasion and reconstruct their city’s with the latest state of the art sensors, surveillance technologies, data centric tabulation mark and command modules in which both human and inhuman operations, transactions, movements, and breakdowns can all be targeted, analyzed, recorded, reprogramed, treated, and effectively quantified in a centrally located Intelligent Command and Control Center. These cities are becoming self-sufficient, intelligent,  operationally efficient regulating machines – Panopticons run by machines for machines.

A new utopia of technology, biology, and architecture awaits the city of the future for any urban planner willing to sell their souls to the new technocapitalist agenda of innovation, learning, and corporate tyranny. It all sounds so nice, so warm and congenial. It must be good. The Good Society has now become the fully controlled society. At the heart of this new society is experimentalism as the driving force of technocapitalism. It underpins the ethos of this new era with its compulsions, exploitive schemes, and diverse pathologies. It contributes features that set the emerging paradigm apart from prior stages of capitalism. Experimentalism therefore transcends the context of the laboratory set by the experimental sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to encompass all of society.2

The power of business corporations over society is now being integrated invisibly and both immaterially and corporeally into the very infrastructures that sustain our lives. The colonization of our social relations, of our identity as humans, and of life itself by this invisible grid of intelligent systems is an ongoing enterprise. Just like the cables you see laid in your neighborhoods, or the new biometric security systems at your corporate headquarters, there is a silent ongoing process of technologization happening globally without any governmental oversight; or, for that matter, any protest from activists, who for the most part have no critical framework for the new world in which we live.

As it colonizes human society, nature, and the planet, technocorporatism degrades us, turning our most precious human qualities into commodities. Our creativity, our knowledge, and our learning thus become not qualities that emancipate but commodities that bind us to our alienation from the human condition, from society, and from nature. This degradation of human values is not grounded in technology, in and of itself. It is grounded in the character of a new kind of technocorporatism and its authoritarian control over technology. It is a new kind of technocorporatism that is more clever, rapacious, and invasive than any previous form and that is imperial in its quest for power and profit as it tries to control any and all aspects of the public domain.(Suarez-Villa, KL 31-35)

In this new world of technocapitalism creativity and learning are central, and as part of this need for more and more innovation, experimentation, and datacentric analysis, transformation, and commodification the Smart City has become the new technocorporate center. Creativity, an intangible human quality, is the most precious resource of this new incarnation of capitalism. Corporate power and profit inevitably depend on the commodification of creativity through research regimes that must generate new inventions and innovations. These regimes and the corporate apparatus in which they are embedded are to technocapitalism what the factory system and its production regimes were to industrial capitalism. The tangible resources of industrial capitalism, in the form of raw materials, production hardware, capital, and physical labor routines are thus replaced by intangibles, research hardware, experimental designs, and talented individuals with creative aptitudes. The generation of technology in this new era of technocapitalism is therefore a social phenomenon that relies as much on technical functionality as on the co-optation of cultural attributes. At its core is the intelligence systems that will inform its workers, giving them the best chance for a creative and innovative life for the technocorporate process of intelligence commodification.(Suarez-Villa, KL 52)

The Smart City and society as a whole is becoming the laboratory of technocapitalism. Transcending preexisting conditions, the new mode typified by the factory system thus became more social than any of its predecessors as it took over or destroyed institutions, fostered new ones, generated new class arrangements, and otherwise changed the reality of the societies in which it was embedded. Norbert Weiner in the mid 20th Century suggested that ”

Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; … in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an everlasting part.

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1954), p. 16.

The Smart City will be the site of this interaction for the new breed of what Luciano Floridi terms the inforgs. The usage of the word describes organisms that are made up of information rather than “standalone and unique entities”. This description of inforgs allows them to exist in the infosphere as natural agents alongside artificial agents. Inforgs can be part of a hybrid agent that is, for example, a family with digital devices such as digital cameras, cell phones, tablets, and laptops. Floridi uses the term infosphere to denote the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including informational agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes and mutual relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from cyberspace (which is only one of its sub-regions, as it were), since it also includes off-line and analogue spaces of information.

We all know by now the cliché of philosophy about how our self-understanding of ourselves has taken a beating over the past few hundred years. First, there was Copernicus whose cosmological studies shifted us from a geo to a heliocentric vision of our galaxy and thereby displaced earth as the center of the cosmos. Second, came the Darwinian revolution in which humans were no longer the pinnacle of creation, but were just another species of animals on a small planet orbiting a non-descript sun on a minor solar system in the Milky Way. Finally, came Freud who discovered that human reason and our sense of identity which was at the center of the Enlightenment project was no longer viable, that in fact we are oblivious and unconscious of most of the processes that govern our actions as agents in the world. What Floridi introduces is a fourth revolution. As Floridi emphasizes, we have become inforgs:

 The fourth revolution and the evolution of inforgs concern a transformation in our philosophical anthropology. It should not be confused with the sci-fi vision of a ‘cyborged’ humanity, or a revised version of the extended mind thesis. Walking around with something like a Bluetooth wireless headset implanted in your ear does not seem the best way forward, not least because it contradicts the social message it is also meant to be sending: being on call 24/ 7 is a form of slavery, and anyone so busy and important should have a personal assistant instead. The truth is rather that being a sort of cyborg is not what people will embrace, but what they will try to avoid, unless it is inevitable. I am not referring to the widespread phenomenon of ‘mental outsourcing’ and integration with our daily technologies either. This is interesting, but it is a vision still based on a Cartesian mind at the centre of the world, overflowing into the world. Nor am I referring to a genetically modified humanity, in charge of its informational DNA and hence of its future embodiments. This post-humanism, once purged of its most fanciful and fictional claims, is something that we may see in the future, but it is not here yet, both technically (safely doable) and ethically (morally acceptable), so I shall not discuss it. As I anticipated in the previous pages, I have in mind a quieter, less sensational, and yet more crucial and profound change in our conception of what it means to be an agent. We have begun to see ourselves as inforgs not through some transformations in our bodies but, more seriously and realistically, through the reontologization of our environment and of ourselves. It is our world and our metaphysical interpretation of it that is changing. (Floridi, pp. 14-15)

The older identity based notions of the human as a subject with a subjectivity are no longer viable, instead as Floridi attests, we are rather becoming informationally embodied organisms (inforgs), mutually connected and embedded in an informational environment, the infosphere (Smart City), which we share with both natural and artificial agents similar to us in many respects.3 We have seen that we are probably the last generation to experience a clear difference between online and offline environments. Some people already live onlife. Some cultures are already hyperhistorical. A further transformation worth highlighting concerns the emergence of artificial and hybrid (multi) agents, i.e., partly artificial and partly human (consider, for example, a family as a single agent, equipped with digital cameras, laptops, tablets, smart phones, mobiles, wireless network, digital TVs, DVDs, CD players, etc.). These new agents already share the same ontology with their environment and can operate within it with much more freedom and control . We (shall) delegate or outsource, to artificial agents and companions, our memories, decisions, routine tasks, and other activities in ways that will be increasingly integrated with us and with our understanding of what it means to be an agent.

So his conclusion as an information ethicist is that most of the critics of technocapitalism have it all wrong, that our negative associations with cyborgs, robotics, invasive technologies, etc. is passe; that our notions of the post-human are too sf, too fictional, and that what is happening is not some Matrix takeover of the human but rather a new metaphysics that is reontologizing both our world and ourselves. In some ways I see Floridi’s “reontologization our environment and of ourselves” as in collusion with my friend R. Scott Bakker’s move toward a post-intentional worldview. Rather than being centered on the older Cartesian subject/object splits, Floridi has moved beyond such metaphysics and toward a notion of agency that neither human nor non-human, but a combination of a larger entity that combines both environment and ourselves as part of a process that is functional without being directed or intentional.  Is this what the speculative realists have been hinting at for a while now? Is this ontological turn all part of something that has been going on for years, but we’re only apprehending many of its features as we see the external application of its processes in such things as Smart Cities?

Floridi informs us that information-communications technologies have remade humanity and reshaped our informational nature and human identities. Yet, we should not confuse this transformation of our informational nature  with a ‘data shadow’, a term denoting the habits of users online. As he tells us this change is more radical than that. Against the cyborg notions of plug-and-play augmentation, the data and control panels of augmenting the human with virtual implants etc. Instead, an inforg is informed with interfaces between different possible worlds: on the one hand, there is the human user’s Umwelt (German Umwelt meaning “environment” or “surroundings”)human machines as well. These machines and tailored around their capacities, not vice versa. As he explains “ICTs (information-communications technologies) are neither enhancing nor augmenting in the sense just explained. They are re-ontologizing devices because they engineer environments that the user is then enabled to enter through (possibly friendly) gateways” (15-16).  These are everyday devices such as a mouse, computer screen, refrigerator, automobile, cinema, boats, trains, iPads, mp3, etc. that have been so naturalized that we no longer see have they are part of a history of re-ontologization that has been going on from the emergence of the Industrial Era to our own Information Era. Ultimately he remarks we are witnessing an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children , the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick.(Floridi 16-17)

I’ve been harping across many posts the Deleuzean notion of the ‘dividual’ for a while now, and more and more I’m seeing a sort of cross-pollination between that notion and the inforg as central to my own project. We know that the central idea of the dividual a desire, and requirement, to constitute oneself as a form – the individual – is combined with and functions alongside a desire, and requirement, to constitute oneself as formless, or to dissolve oneself, to become flow/ s. It is this tension, or antagonism, that is at the center of dividuality. 4 As we begin to naturalize this new world of Smart Cities, InfoSpheres, etc. we will forget the older notions of the human as part of the hyperhistory of our species as it migrates beyond the old metaphysics of human identity and subjectivity. Will this be a good thing? Have we any choice in the matter? Is it too late to contest this migration even if we wanted to like Rousseau’s fantasy: return to nature… but then again, as many have suggested Nature never existed as we supposed to begin with, and that more stranger yet – what we term the human was never truly known or understood, either.

Links:

 

1. Schumacher, Patrik (2011-04-20). The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture: 1 (p. 178). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
2. Luis Suarez-Villa. Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism (Kindle Locations 94-96). Kindle Edition.
3. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information. Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
4. Savat, David (2012-11-27). Uncoding the Digital: Technology, Subjectivity and Action in the Control Society (p. 134). Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
5. Robinson, Christine; Pelton, Joseph; Singh, Indu (2009-10-28). Future Cities: esigning Better, Smarter, More Sustainable and Secure Cities (Kindle Locations 757-760). Intelligent Community Forum. Kindle Edition.
6. Greenfield, Adam (2013-12-20). Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use) (Kindle Locations 679-680). Do projects. Kindle Edition.

 

4 thoughts on “Smart Cities of the Future: Infosphere, Inforgs, and Technoutopianism

  1. Pingback: “Captive Cyberspace is Conquering its Victor”: Onlife and the Spectacle Society | noir ecologies

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