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The smart city is a perpetually unrealized utopia

The smart city is a perpetually unrealized utopia

What is interesting about both early and current visions of urban sensing networks and the use that could be made of the data they produced is how close to and yet how far away they are from Constant’s concept of what such technologies would bring about. New Babylon’s technological imagery was a vision of a smart city not marked, like IBM’s, by large-scale data extraction to increase revenue streams through everything from parking and shopping to health care and utility monitoring. New Babylon was unequivocally anticapitalist; it was formed by the belief that pervasive and aware technologies would somehow, someday, release us from the drudgery of labor.

War and sensors

The apocalyptic news broadcast from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izium, Kherson, and Kyiv since February 2022 seems remote from the smart urbanism of IBM. After all, smart sensors and sophisticated machine-learning algorithms are no match for the brute force of the unguided “dumb bombs” raining down on Ukrainian urban centers. But the horrific images from these smoldering cities should also remind us that historically, these very sensor networks and systems themselves derive from the context of war.

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Unbeknownst to Constant, the very “ambient” technologies he imagined to enable the new playful citywere actually emerging in the same period his vision was taking shape—from Cold War–fueled research at the US Department of Defense. This work reached its height during the Vietnam War, when in an effort to stop supply chains flowing from north to south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the US Army dropped some 20,000 battery-powered wireless acoustic sensors, advancing General William Westmoreland’s vision of “near 24-hour real- or near-real-time surveillance of all types.” In fact, what the US…

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