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Shannon Mattern details how the City is not a Computer

From “the street as platform” (Dan Hill) right up to ‘smart cities’ (Anthony Townsend and many others), the allure of urban space that effortlessly integrates sensors and software plays out at myriad scales. Over the last decade this thinking has bubbled up through various disciplines and now permeates both municipal policy and the private sector. These desires for high-tech cities that economize and regulate are hardly new though, they are (at least) as old as Modernism’s Utopian vision of cities as ‘models of efficiency’ that utilize new materials and technologies to improve life for all. Now those twentieth century dreams are subject to Silicon Valley hubris – is that is a recipe for disaster?

Maybe, concludes Shannon Mattern in her survey of currents of tech-urbanism for Places Journal. From Y Combinator’s New Cities project, to Alphabet’s NYC WiFi kiosks and deal with Columbus Ohio, to Cisco, Siemens, and IBM’s ventures in the Middle East and Asia – Mattern covers both the actors and tendencies that warrant scrutiny. She concludes with skepticism about data ownership and the informal strands of urban knowledge that don’t lend themselves to quantification:

So the next time you’re staring up at a Domain Awareness camera, ask how it got there, how it generates data — not only how the equipment operates technically, but also what information it claims to be harvesting, and through what methodology — and whose interests it serves. And don’t let the totalizing idea of the city as computer blind you to the countless other forms of data and sites of intelligence-generation in the city: municipal agencies and departments, universities, hospitals, laboratories, corporations. Each of these sites has a distinctive orientation toward urban intelligence

While Mattern is equally thorough in assessing the contemporary thinkers and companies active around urban informatics, her analysis is perhaps most incisive when working through some of her ‘dustiest’ references; the discussion of Lewis Mumford and T.S. Eliot (by way of management theorist Russell Ackoff) are great and totally on-point – and exactly the rigour, introspection, and sense of history that is needed when software and the city intersect.

A City Is Not a Computer | Shannon Mattern