"Governance is not supposed to be for sale": Sidewalk's Mercenary Utopia
February 11, 2019 6:29 AM   Subscribe

As the Canadian Civil Liberties Association declares Sidewalk Labs' activities in Toronto a mercenary end-run around local democracy, Molly Sauter examines the utopian smart-city project through the illustrations that have accompanied its public-facing documents, finding links to historical colonialist projects and the fraught history of interference with local democracy in Toronto.
The richness of detail present in the illustrations and prospectuses of Sidewalk Toronto, and corporate smart cities in general, is fantastic, fantastical, and phantasmatic. Pull on the thread of, say, autonomous subterranean garbage robots, and it unravels a worldview with certain notions about climate, weather, infrastructure construction, trash and waste, the visibility of things rendered undesirable, and the social value of manual and municipal labor. That the details cohere ideologically, that they resonate with each other across the plans and dreams of a given project, that you can crack open any aspect of the dreamland and reveal, fractally, an identifiable worldview in miniature, is what makes Utopia pleasurable. And, conversely, that lack of perfect resonance, of fractal interior replicability is what makes cities in the real world so delightfully, irritatingly messy.
Despite the nods to Torontonian culture present on the endpapers of the Vision Document, the phantasms of the illustrations produced by Edwards are not Torontonian or Canadian. It would be a deft act of artistic and ideological ventriloquism if they were. Like the majority of the Sidewalk Labs and Sidewalk Toronto staff, Edwards is based in New York and is not Canadian. Moreover, it’s not Edwards’s purpose to artistically interpret the modern Torontonian moment. His work is here to establish a visual rapport with the audience for the Sidewalk Toronto project: engaged Torontonians and Canadians, of course, but also, and perhaps more directly, the global technocratic elite that consider “citybuilding” to be the next step in their career trajectory.
See also: Whose Data and Whose City? [video] Nasma Ahmed, Saadia Muzaffar, and Bianca Wylie in conversation at the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression, moderated by Brenda McPhail; Bianca Wylie's Sidewalk Toronto: The Recklessness of Novelty; and how Intelligent "Island": Smart Nation and Its Liquid Futures, by Kenneth Tay, a look at how the deployment of smart city technologies has played out in Singapore.

Previously, previously.
posted by Fish Sauce (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
> Sidewalk Toronto is, still, a digitally-bounded project, built out of renderings with persuasive power but no planning utility. Lush, colorful, calming, and detailed to a fantastic degree, these illustrations are a major component of the Sidewalk sales pitch.

As someone who lives not far from the site of this proposed development, the first things that pop into my head when I see ridiculous photos like this and this are "Every square inch of that water and soil are polluted as fuck" (the ground is full of lead from an old smelting plant) and "lol where is everyone, it'll be crowded as fuck unless they charge admission." It's depressing but not surprising that Toronto fell over itself for basically a higher-tech version of "MONORAILLLLLLLL!!!!!"
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:07 AM on February 11, 2019 [9 favorites]

While Doug Ford is a much bigger problem than Sidewalk, honestly Sidewalk needs to GTFO unless they plan to make every unit affordable. Actually affordable. We're so screwed here already.

Also what The Card Cheat said, totally.
posted by wellred at 7:15 AM on February 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just a reminder that the current head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is Michael Bryant. THAT Michael Bryant.

I'm not having anything to do with the CCLA until that changes, but YMMV.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:29 AM on February 11, 2019 [10 favorites]

Ah, crap. I'd forgotten that. Thanks for the reminder, Capt. Renault.
posted by Fish Sauce at 7:35 AM on February 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's worth noting SIdewalk Labs has come under criticism from a number of groups and key people; for instance, Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada resigned from the Sidewalk Labs advisory panel in October, followed shortly by former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian -- both resigned over the privacy issues, and neither has, as far as I am aware, murdered a cyclist.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:03 AM on February 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Seriously, fuck Michael Bryant and anything he's connected to. Cyclist-murdering, pitbull-banning fuckwad.
posted by dobbs at 10:57 AM on February 11, 2019

I'm not having anything to do with the CCLA

I mean, the CCLA went to bat for Ernst Zundel, so this has been good advice for a long time, up to and including the present.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:03 AM on February 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, fair enough. The CCLA link was included (and included first) because it was a handy overview of the governance issues that are discussed in more depth in the other links; the intent was not to promote the CCLA specifically nor centre them in the discussion of the Quayside project.
posted by Fish Sauce at 11:21 AM on February 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, no worries. Sorry to be so axe-grindy - this is a great post.

CCLA is right on this, despite problems with the organization itself. Their arguments stand on their own.

We live a fairly short walk from Quayside, and the cheerleading around it has been worrisome. The idea that it’s anything but a for-profit data-mining operation is absurd on its face.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:19 PM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Molly Sauter is fully awesome, though. I don't think there's a CCLA link there.
posted by scruss at 1:15 PM on February 11, 2019

You should read the "why' concerning charges being dropped on Bryant's lethal altercation with a bicyclist before your start slandering. Even the dead man's father agreed the charges should be dropped.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:25 PM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Remember: the stated goal of the Sidewalk Toronto project is to develop, through the extractive data-labor of residents, smart cities technologies for export by Sidewalk and Alphabet. Edwards’s images are intended to sell the project to people outside of Toronto as much as they are intended to soothe Torontonians, to convince them of the value, utility, and excitement of this particular geo-technological frontier. In this way, Edwards’s work echoes the work of earlier colonial artists working in the nineteenth century who sought to sell a politically coherent, attractive, and inviting image of life at the frontier primarily to people who weren’t there but who might want to be. Cornelius Krieghoff’s paintings of the Quebec colonial frontier, for example, with repeating visual motifs and themes of happy imperial expansion and conquest, bear a striking resemblance to the rendering produced by Edwards, particularly in the harmonized politics at work in the images and the repeatition of features and figures to induce a steady sense of place.

Oooh. Sauter went full Krieghoff on them. Goddamn.

Spending time at Sidewalk Labs accessibility thingy back in September was telling, and reinforces Sauter's point about "extractive data-labor." Basically, the whole thing was a showcase of a few accessible technology startups. Which is fine, but nowhere was to be found any examples of how the technology behemoth-with-more-money-than-god in question was going to ensure accessible physical infrastructure or informational design. Zip. Nada.

It was an exercise in"Hey...what can you do for us to help us with some accessibility related PR with no substance or investment behind it?"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:53 PM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Cornelius Krieghoff’s paintings of the Quebec colonial frontier, for example, with repeating visual motifs and themes of happy imperial expansion and conquest,

Is this why Quebecois perception of their own history seems so bizarre? Years ago I was at what is otherwise a wonderful little museum in Montreal and watched this multimedia presentation about local history. I (from the US) had to pick my eyeballs up off the floor after all the side-eye I gave the assertions of peaceful idyllic harmony between settler and indigenous cultures.
posted by XMLicious at 10:09 PM on February 11, 2019

Sidewalk Labs is just gonna spy on you, and that's it. That's all they do.
posted by ovvl at 12:11 AM on February 12, 2019

Mod note: A couple deleted. Let's re-rail to the topic of Sidewalk Labs rather than debating Michael Bryant, or CCLA generally.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:33 AM on February 12, 2019

So, this story came out yesterday evening...

Google’s Sidewalk Labs plans massive expansion to waterfront vision

Internal documents obtained by the Star show Sidewalk Labs plans to make the case that it is “entitled to … a share in the uptick in land value on the entire geography ... a share of developer charges and incremental tax revenue on all land.”

These future revenues, based on the anticipated increase in land value once homes and offices are built on the derelict Port Lands, are estimated to be $6 billion over the next 30 years. Even a small portion of this could amount to a large, recurring revenue stream diverted from the city into private hands.

Slides from a presentation given to parent company Alphabet in November, marked “proprietary and confidential,” show Sidewalk Labs does not intend to construct buildings on the majority of the Port Lands, but wants to benefit from its increased value once other developers build there.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:01 AM on February 15, 2019

So, basically, they want the city to hand over tax revenue to them as a new income stream.

Fuck. That.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:03 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I dunno; with John "Sure, Doug: here's the TTC for ya!" Tory in charge, anything could happen.
posted by scruss at 5:12 PM on February 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Isn't this kinda what the British East India Company did?
posted by XMLicious at 6:30 PM on February 15, 2019

Kinda, yes. Let's hope that Sidewalk doesn't starve ten million residents like the BEI Co did.
posted by scruss at 11:51 AM on February 16, 2019

John Lorinc, via The Baffler...A Mess on the Sidewalk: Inside the great digital mis-engineering of the Toronto waterfront

Sidewalk’s suite of smart-city innovations has yet to come into clear focus, but it’s apparent there are a few core ideas. First, there’s the proposed transformation of civic infrastructure such that it can constantly respond to the data it gathers from the public realm. Second—and critically, from a commercial perspective—there are the third-party firms that will be invited to design apps and other marketable solutions that make use of all that gathered data, much in the same way that both Facebook and Google sell user information to advertisers (and other less reputable actors, such as Cambridge Analytica and Balkan-based fake-news combines).

To head off privacy concerns, Sidewalk initially assured Waterfront Toronto that it had the security of user data under control because it had retained a former Ontario privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, to provide advice. But tech-savvy critics like Bianca Wylie, who was recently described in CityLab as the Jane Jacobs of the smart city, have raised crucial questions about vulnerabilities within Sidewalk’s system: Where do residents go to complain if they run into problems relating to Sidewalk’s technology? Who owns the data Sidewalk collects in its networks of sensors? And, crucially, what constitutes democratic participation in smart-city design?

Ryerson’s Pamela Robinson adds that de-identifying data—i.e., blurring faces captured on a CCTV trained on public parks—isn’t sufficient. If you are entering a heavily monitored district like Quayside, she says, you should be notified somehow that information about your presence may be captured, and that you should also have the opportunity to opt out.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:56 PM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

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