Archives May 31, 2018

Google plan for data-driven ‘smart city’ sparks privacy, democracy concerns

In the Canadian city of Toronto, city officials are negotiating a project that will give a section of the city’s waterfront to the US tech giant Google. Under the arrangement, Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs will build and run a high-tech “radical mixed-use” site called Quayside. This “smart city” plan involves creating a neighbourhood “from the internet up”, powered and served by data; with sensors monitoring everything from air quality to pedestrian traffic, even the flushing of toilets. Amenities like garbage disposal and goods delivery are to be coordinated and driven by AI and robotics.

The proposed parcel of land isn’t huge, but it’s not insubstantial either – it covers about half-a-square-kilometre, and there are already suggestions it could be extended.

For Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet — the parent company of both Google and Sidewalk Labs — it’s the culmination of a long-held ambition.

“Give us a city and put us in charge,” he once famously declared.

Following the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, some, like Dr Jathan Sadowski at the University of Sydney, worry about the implications of putting a private tech company in charge of both urban development and urban life.

“What’s in it for them? It’s data,” he says. “It allows them to get really massive amounts of granular data about urban life and urban environments.”

“You’ll have a city that’s based on, or built around, proprietary platforms, data harvesting, corporate control.”

Screen watching at all-time high

With Netflix and Amazon Prime, Facebook Video and YouTube, it’s tempting to imagine that the tech industry destroyed TV. The world is more than 25 years into the web era, after all, more than half of American households have had home Internet for 15 years, and the current smartphone paradigm began more than a decade ago. But no. Americans still watch an absolutely astounding amount of traditional television.

In fact, television viewing didn’t peak until 2009-2010, when the average American household watched 8 hours and 55 minutes of TV per day. And the ’00s saw the greatest growth in TV viewing time of any decade since Nielsen began keeping track in 1949-1950: Americans watched 1 hour and 23 minutes more television at the end of the decade than at the beginning. Run the numbers and you’ll find that 32 percent of the increase in viewing time from the birth of television to its peak occurred in the first years of the 21st century.

Over the last 8 years, all the new, non-TV things — Facebook, phones, YouTube, Netflix — have only cut about an hour per day from the dizzying amount of TV that the average household watches. Americans are still watching more than 7 hours and 50 minutes per household per day.

Can An Individual Still Resist The Spread of Technology?

When cellphones first appeared, they gave people one more means of communication, which they could accept or reject. But before long, most of us began to feel naked and panicky anytime we left home without one. To do without a cellphone — and soon, if not already, a smartphone — means estranging oneself from normal society. We went from “you can have a portable communication device” to “you must have a portable communication device” practically overnight… Today most people are expected to be instantly reachable at all times. These devices have gone from servants to masters…

Few of us would be willing to give up modern shelter, food, clothing, medicine, entertainment or transportation. Most of us would say the trade-offs are more than worth it. But they happen whether they are worth it or not, and the individual has little power to resist. Technological innovation is a one-way street. Once you enter it, you are obligated to proceed, even if it leads someplace you would not have chosen to go.

The column argues “the iPhone X proves the Unabomber was right,” citing this passage from the 1996 manifesto of the anti-technology terrorist. “Once a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it, so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation. Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but, even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it.”

Targeted advertising hits emergency rooms

Patients sitting in emergency rooms, at chiropractors’ offices and at pain clinics in the Philadelphia area may start noticing on their phones the kind of messages typically seen along highway billboards and public transit: personal injury law firms looking for business by casting mobile online ads at patients.

The potentially creepy part? They’re only getting fed the ad because somebody knows they are in an emergency room.

The technology behind the ads, known as geofencing, or placing a digital perimeter around a specific location, has been deployed by retailers for years to offer coupons and special offers to customers as they shop. Bringing it into health care spaces, however, is raising alarm among privacy experts.