City Sideways. Solving human-made problems, but not challenges to humanity

Josh O’Kane. Sideways, The City Google Couldn’t Buy. Random House Canada 2022.

Sideways” plays on the name of Sidewalk Labs Toronto, the proponents of the redevelopment of industrial docklands east of Toronto’s downtown. The peculiarity of this development was that it was to be an urban extension of Alphabet’s interactive services based on the monitoring of inhabitants and the analysis of the data collected to anticipate their needs. Josh O’Kane’s book recounts the background and the out-sized personalities of the proponents of this redevelopment which partnered Google’s founder, Canadian politicians, and the City of Toronto’s development agency Waterfront against citizen defenders of community and privacy. Local community groups demanded a voice in redevelopment while legal and civil liberty groups concerned about the normalization of surveillance capitalism at the neighbourhood scale.

Sidewalk Labs, was formed as a spin-off of Alphabet (Google) to build a smart city under the leadership of Dan Doctoroff, a municipal development leader from New York. Sidewalk was selected in 2017 by Waterfront Toronto to development 12 vacant acres of the city’s port lands. However, Sidewalk aspired to more than the area actually available from Waterfront Toronto. The resulting oversized proposals raised the concern and eroded the trust of the public leading the cancellation of the project in 2020. CoVid-19 provided a cover for termination, but CoVid challenges to downtowns could just as well have been an excuse to forge forward.

Other reviewers have highlighted the pattern of lack of citizen consultation in redevelopment projects by the City of Toronto and Waterfront in particular. Kane employs the technique preferred by the Canadian media which converts struggles around principles to a narrative of conflict between strong personalities. This reader found less sympathy for the abusive egos and overweaning pride of the protagonists, large and small. Some of the objectives seem, in retrospect, delusional. O’Kane points out the echos of adolescent imaginings of urban futures in Sidewalk Labs proposals. But these seem like the sandbox landscapes of my childhood. Its a biography of Sidewalk Labs and of Dan Doctoroff, its CEO. The book eventually founders in its closing pages on the personal vulnerabilities of one of the leading proponents whose family history and illness begins to take over the direction of the book. This pushes out a focus on the voices of community groups and civil rights concerns which register as personal indecision and discomforts. Even if the book’s importance was artificially boosted by an allied press campaign in The Toronto Globe and Mail, the book offers a great deal of primary interview material and media research.

It would be a worthwhile project to analyse Sidewalk Labs proposals which took the form of a 2016 internal Yellow Book. Sidewalk proposed to privatize the delivery and coordination of services through data personalization, based on the control and ownership of data produced in everyday life. For example, people would be offered advice on air quality based on sharing in-home fire safety sensor data. The document proposed that as the operator of the area, the company would have property tax powers similar to Disney World in Florida. People’s movements would be tracked in real time and predicted. Policing would be carried out by the corporation. The boundaries and responsibilities of public and private were tested by the proposals which assumed that data is owned by those who collect it, rather than those whom it is about. This raised ethical questions which the secretive process did not resolve through, for example, public consultation.

“The city the Yellow Book envisioned would also be a for-profit enterprise. Users would be encouraged to share as much data about themselves as possible, collected by everything from those smart mirrors to their smartphones. Project Sidewalk would create “a new market for data” to learn more about city living, and Sidewalk and other companies would reap economic rewards from learning about people’s day-to-day lives. Insurance company executives, for example, would trip over themselves for the type of smart-mirror data Sidewalk wanted to collect.

The Yellow Book took Silicon Valley’s typical disdain for government bureaucracy a step further, weaving data collection into many of its plans. It wanted power on par with government—and in some cases, even more power than that. It wanted to levy its own taxes, track and predict people’s movements, and control public services, including law enforcement. The ideas were dressed as progressive but gave unprecedented control to Alphabet and its partners. For instance, a police accountability system that tracked cops’ movements and included a rating program, like a “Yelp for police officers,” might help officers build trust in their community.”

Josh O’Kane (Oct 31 2022)

Its all upside down and sideways. Sidewalk Labs proposal solved problems of human making. It did not respond to challenges to humanity, such as CoVid. Here lies the fundamental problem with current conceptions of innovation. They assume a neutral or benign environment, not an Anthropocene where humanity has to fight for its survival against ecosystem collapse.

Serious assessments of the urban interconnection between monitoring of everyday life and the provision of algorithm-driven responses such as information, services, and coordination of, for example, signals to direct circulation in cities remains to be provided. However, it exist in the piecemeal literature of academic articles. These point to the inflexibility and brittleness of such systems that require human assistance to evolve and respond to novel demands. Above all, algorithms assume a fixed context in which they operate. This entails control over the relevance and power of all independent variables such that the results will be effective and any feedback mechanisms will not be disrupted by the level of intervening environmental “noise”. In an urban context, this means that interference must be constrained and change is an inherent threat to the functioning of the system – raising concerns for human freedom. Less abstract and already common, these systems assume a predictable environment, where weather remains in tolerable parameters. Yet, climate change has disturbed both the range of environmental norms, climate cycles and the has made weather events much less predictable, even unpredictable. As a last gasp of aspirations to control (and profit from) the environment, Sidewalk Labs emerges from this book as a figure of hubris, a martyr to the limits of modern organizations.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)