I attended the 2016 edition of the New Cities Summit last week. New Cities has a lot of tech firms involved, so no surprise this year’s focus was “the age of urban tech.”
Interestingly, a lot of the people there were skeptical of technology. Not necessarily that it wouldn’t work or couldn’t deliver the things that people say will. But rather that the human and other aspects of the city can easily get flattened or objectified by tech.
For example, I participated in a roundtable discussion about the human centered smart city. Many people seemed to think that was an oxymoron.
For example, we could think of using tech to fight obesity in urban populations. We’d measure the success of this in obesity rates.
But this all but excludes the people themselves as humans from the equation. Rather than focusing on building people’s capacities as human beings, instead this could use technology, regulation, “nudges,” to de facto manipulate people’s behaviors without having to change or develop them as people. This is technology as a form of social control.
Aristotle taught that the goal of life was human flourishing, which involved a person cultivating his virtues or excellencies.
If I manage to lose weight because of tech, does that contribute to my flourishing as a human being and developing my potential? In some sense yes. I’m perhaps better of healthy than unhealthy.
To the extent that I’m using a tool that enhances the development of my capabilities, perhaps I’m even developing virtue. A barbell is a tool that leverages but doesn’t replace my workout. Some forms of digital technology would certainly be in this mold.
But a lot of what we think of as urban tech doesn’t fall into this. An example might be a smart fridge that monitors my food and makes decisions to substitute lower calorie or healthier items for me.
This is good in a sense, but in this case it is more substituting for the effort of personal change or struggle. And it doesn’t care about me as a human being apart from my “data”.
I see no reason why we can’t use technology as a tool. But to the extent that we believe we can solve human problems through technical solutions instead of human ones, we are treading into potentially dangerous territory.
We can’t lose sight of developing the human potentialities of ourselves and our neighbors.