Sunday, 18 March 2018

"You have to be able to imagine yourself unwatched" - how smart cities threaten freedom

There has been a great deal of "isn't it scary" discussion about the pretty clunky on-line targeting systems developed for political campaigning. We're told that there are sinister forces at work out there conspiring to undermine democracy by scraping Facebook for psychographic profiles allowing intimate knowledge of everyone:
A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
I'm not going to say much about this, it adds nothing much to what I said previously about what this company did - they used the Facebook API to create a profiling tool based on responses to a psychometric test. This is not really any different, other than its source, from the psychographics that profiling systems (e.g. SuperProfiles) have been employing since the 1990s - the lifestyle data back then was gather from questionnaires sent as parcel stuffers and inserts but it served exactly the same purpose as the data collected using Facebook's API by Cambridge Analytica.

Anyway, while everyone is having kittens about the use of data analytics in political campaigning (and rightly asking questions about data security and data protection - there's genuinely a question as to whether the data collected using Facebook quizzes is allowable as a data source for marketing), there's something else happening that should be just as concerning - so-called "smart cities":
Across the UK we are seeing more and more examples of smart city transformation. Key 'smart' sectors utilised by such Cities include transport, energy, health care, water and waste. Against the current background of economic, social, security and technological changes caused by the globalization and the integration process, cities in the UK face the challenge of combining competitiveness and sustainable urban development simultaneously. A smart city is a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses.
Wonderful. The application of all that clever and disrupting digital technology to making cities work better can only be a good thing, can't it? And I guess that, in a utilitarian, people-as-units, prudence-only way, it is a good thing:
Utrecht has become a tangle of individual pilots and projects, with no central overview of how many cameras and sensors exist, nor what they do. In 2014, the city invested €80m in data-driven management that launched in 80 projects. Utrecht now has a burglary predictor, a social media monitoring room, and smart bins and smart streetlights with sensors (although the city couldn’t say where these are located). It has scanner cars that dispense parking tickets, with an added bonus of detecting residents with a municipal tax debt according to the privacy regulation of the scanner cars.
These systems can be directed to nudging people along the city authorities preferred choices: "...a smart traffic app that rewards people for good behaviour like cycling, walking and using public transport." Brilliant stuff taking the city closer to that mythical "walkable, livable, sustainable" utopia beloved of today's City Managers, the "Mayors who Rule the World". But at what cost?
In the eastern city of Enschede, city traffic sensors pick up your phone’s wifi signal even if you are not connected to the wifi network. The trackers register your MAC address, the unique network card number in a smartphone. The city council wants to know how often people visit Enschede, and what their routes and preferred spots are. Dave Borghuis, an Enschede resident, was not impressed and filed an official complaint. “I don’t think it’s okay for the municipality to track its citizens in this way,” he said. “If you walk around the city, you have to be able to imagine yourself unwatched.”
Some are concerned that much of this data is being collected, analysed and employed by private businesses - the smart city is a privatised city, they say - but we should also be concerned about the state having such detailed information about the citizen - "Big Brother is helping you" says Peter van de Crommert from the Dutch Institute for Technology, Safety and Security. But let's imagine - as we always should with state power - what happens when the wrong sort of person gets hold of this information and these systems (if you're me, then the government is, by definition, the wrong sort of person)? And who exactly is the city being run for - citizens, business or the convenience of public officials?
The city also keeps track of the number of young people hanging out in the streets, their age group, whether they know each other, the atmosphere and whether or not they cause a nuisance. Special enforcement officers keep track of this information through mobile devices. It calls this process “targeted and innovative supervision”.
The aim seems to be management, preventing such sins as "hanging about", reducing activities deemed anti-social such as having a drink or making a noise (other than in constrained places where some of this is allowed).
This “smart” urbanity revolves around surveillance and relentless data-gathering. Swarms of monitoring sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets will be constantly on duty. Google would collect data about everything from water use to air quality to the movements of Quayside’s residents, using that data to run energy, transport, and all other systems. In this controlled environment, consent over pillaging personal data “goes out the window straight away”...
At the heart of all this is the essentially autocratic and anti-democratic idea that the behaviour of the citizenry should be controlled, managed and directed towards a culture determined by those in charge of the city (and those with access to those in charge). This draws on the idea of corporate culture, Peter Drucker's thesis that business success is, in large measure, determined by culture has been stretched to form an ideology of the city as an entity requiring management, organisation and direction. As the smart city folk say:
"...combining competitiveness and sustainable urban development..."
This conveniently marries the obsession with dense, piled up cities (and the idea that agglomeration - cramming people together - is the secret of economic success) and the belief that cities, regions and nations are in competition, part of that 'global race' David Cameron liked to talk about. The symbol of this world is Singapore, that little autocracy on the equator where utilitarian control has been elevated into a state system - a pseudo-democratic de facto police state where producing is easy but consuming is frowned upon and the election unit is based in the prime minister's office:
"Meanwhile, although present to some degree, civil society plays a much less active rule in Singapore’s political sphere due to governmental attempts to stifle civil society’s maturation. Specifically, the institutions that constitute Singapore’s government are largely structured to undermine the expression of critical voices. Not only are the vast majority of media outlets controlled by the state, but the country’s Sedition Act also criminalizes any publication or even expression that seeks “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government."
The price of this city state ideology, the premise of the smart city, is the relegation of people's lives to a place akin to employees of a benignly controlling corporation - bounded, directed, managed and only free within the limits determined by the corporation. It is the neoliberal city where maximising utility takes on the form of a religion, a smart city where data directs what people do, where they go and what resources they use - made possible through an unholy alliance between intrusive technology and what we used to call municipal socialism. And most people are either inside these cities consuming the bread and circuses but unable to secure a real stake or outside and unable to access the shiny wonders of the smart city:
...the city is a failing model - at least the idea of the concentrated, centralised, mayor-led city. These things are parasites, sucking away all the good from small towns with the promise of riches, opportunities and better bars while giving little back when it comes to the long-term quality of our lives. Urbanists talk about 'liveability' and 'walkability', about public spaces, even about play - yet the reality of the city is selfish, focused on the here and now rather than on creating places to which people can relate, where they might want to spend their whole lives.
Instead of creating places that are safe, sustainable and social because the people living there feel that way, we try to make places like this through control, clever technology and ever more restrictive regulation. The smart city may be clever but it's a place where corporations - public and private - control technology, where citizens are motivated by petty rewards (a day's free parking or a discounted theatre ticket), and where democracy is a facade covering up a society run by the new data kings, the controllers of the system.

UPDATE: If you think I'm being a scaremonger, try this:
Police in Raleigh, North Carolina, have presented Google with warrants to obtain data from mobile phones from not just specific suspects who were in a crime scene area, but from the mobile phones of all people in the area, reports Raleigh television affiliate WRAL. The request will trouble Fourth Amendment advocates as it could be seen that police are carrying out unreasonable searches on people who just happened to be in the area at the time the crimes were committed. And the area sizes the police requesting the data on are not small. In one instance, police requested user data from Google for anyone within a 17-acre area. For its part, Google has not revealed whether it has complied with the police request.


Saturday, 17 March 2018

Drinking is central to civilisation...

Alcohol - wine, beer, cider - has been part of human life since before written records began. More than anything else it is the lubricant of society, the cause of conviviality and the begetter of truth. It's also the likely reason we're civilised:
For a long time, humans traveled often and foraged for food, rather than growing it. And that worked pretty well, so anthropologists have long puzzled over why people started settling in a single spot. One benefit to nesting: growing grapes and grains, and staying in a place long enough to brew beverages for weeks or months, as beer and wine require. "Some posit this as the reason that civilization began in villages surrounded by golden fields of barley and rows of grapevines on the hills," Money writes.
And that natural fermentation process, the divine blessing of yeast, made possible those other things central to the pleasures of our lives: bread, chocolate, coffee. Drinking really is central to human civilisation - taking it away, prohibiting its blessings is a terrible, terrible sin.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fast food shop bans - public policy as virtue signalling

Banning new hot food takeaways is a favourite policy of local councils these days. It's driven by a thing they call "wider determinants of health" (tip to aspiring nannying fussbuckets - this phrase should trip from your tongue nearly as often as "cost to the NHS") and, as I was told by Bradford Council's leader in January, the policy is self-evidently "common sense". I'm guess that this is another example of the words 'common sense' simply meaning 'not based in any way on actual evidence' - all I'd done is ask how the council intended to measure the effect of its policy on levels of child obesity (given this was the validation for its introduction). As there is no evidence and no means of measuring the impact of the policy, shouting 'it's common sense' is the only remaining fall back position.

And the evidence? Seems there ain't none:
The evidence that fast food availability causes obesity among children is even weaker. Of the 39 studies that looked specifically at children, only six (15%) found a positive association while twenty-six (67%) found no effect. Seven (18%) produced mixed results. Of the studies that found no association, five (13%) found an inverse relationship between fast food outlets and childhood obesity. Two-thirds of the studies found no evidence for the hypothesis that living near fast food outlets increases the risk of childhood obesity and there are nearly as many studies suggesting that it reduces childhood obesity as there are suggesting the opposite.
And I'm guessing that, since most of these studies merely assess correlation, anyone looking at these findings would have to conclude that the evidence doesn't support the contention that the availability of fast food doesn't relate in any way to levels of obesity in children (or indeed grown ups). All we get is a protected environment for existing fast food businesses and the active prevention of new businesses in this market. In the end we have a smaller economy and just as many fat kids. Evidence-based public policy? What we have is just public policy as virtue signalling.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Densification policies won't solve London's housing crisis

Here's Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox:
Nowhere, here or abroad, has densification materially improved housing affordability, whether for low income households or the larger number of middle-income households. Density-oriented policies have helped drive prices up so high that Bay Area, $200,000 salary engineers cannot afford a home near their headquarters. In the meantime, many young families are increasingly leaving the state for less heavily regulated and less expensive states like Texas, Nevada and Arizona. Among those under 35, 80 percent of all homes purchased nationwide are single family houses and virtually all surveys of millennials express an overwhelming desire for this kind of residence.
This reality is lost on our planners as they seek to square the circle of providing family housing in an ever denser planning environment. So what do those pesky millenials want in a house?
“This is very likely because a huge majority are now married (66%) or in permanent relationships (13%, and almost half (49%) have children under the age of 18 living with them. In other words, it appears that they are seeking to raise their families in suburban rather than mid-city environments. And the NAR figures confirm this, showing that in the past year 57% of buyers under the age of 36 opted for suburban homes – and that the most popular type of home purchased (83%) was the single-family suburban home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.”
So in response to demand for the sort of suburban environment my generation enjoyed, the planners tell us they want denser development, flats above shops, tower blocks, garden-free apartments or town houses. This makes no sense yet it's precisely what the latest iteration of the UK's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) expects.

At some point we have to start asking people living on the fringes of London's suburbia (and other cities too) just why they have such an issue with some of the land near them being used for new suburban homes. Is it simply a matter of 'build 'em somewhere else'? Or are the common concerns - school places, traffic, medical centres, drains, floods - genuine? Maybe it's more visceral - some people in Cullingworth feel it isn't a village any more because of the new development.

There are lots of options and alternatives - new towns, garden communities, new villages, urban extensions - but none of these involve densification, piling people up on top of each other, cramming them into "walkable", "sustainable" tenement communities, a 21st century version of the crowded housing we cleared in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Build more suburbia, dammit!


Monday, 12 March 2018

Can't afford to buy a house? You really should blame the planners...

Or so research from the Reserve Bank of Australia says:
...we find that, as of 2016, zoning raised detached house prices 73 per cent above marginal costs in Sydney, 69 per cent in Melbourne, 42 per cent in Brisbane and 54 per cent in Perth. Zoning has also raised the price of apartments well above the marginal cost of supply, especially in Sydney. We emphasise that this is not the amount that housing prices would fall in the absence of zoning. The effect of zoning has increased dramatically over the past two decades, likely due to existing restrictions binding more tightly as demand has risen.
So next time someone tries to tell you it's the banks or the housebuilders or immigrants or mortgage lenders or some other of the myriad excuses for high house prices, smiles sweetly and say:

"Nah, it's the planners."


Sunday, 11 March 2018

"He was a member of the BNP but he never said anything racist"

Today marks something of an epiphany. I had, sort of, assumed that the Labour Party would eventually get round to sorting itself out on the matter of antisemitism. After all, being a Jew is recognised as an ethnic designation - in the words of our equalities laws, a 'protected charcteristic'. This means that language attacking Jewish people on the basis of their Jewish identity is a 'hate crime'.

The revelation that the leader of the Labour Party was a member of a "secret" forum on Facebook that seems to have specialised in antisemitism was pretty shocking. But it is only half as shocking as the reaction of Labour members and supporters to this revelation. With a few notable exceptions, Labour MPs, councillors and activists responded to the existence of this forum and Mr Corbyn's involvement with what amounts to a shrug. If these folk said anything it amounted to "nobody cares" - probably because there are only 300,000 or so Jews in Britain making racism towards them pretty marginal in political terms.

When poked or pushed the typical reaction from Labour members has been to make excuses for Mr Corbyn - like this:
...being a member of a group where obnoxious views are expressed does not mean that you share them. Unless there is clear evidence, such as a racist post or a like of a racist post by an individual it is merely circumstantial, and at worst cause for concern.
So Mr Corbyn is invited to join a group full of racists, chooses to join the group (we'll give him the benefit of the doubt on whether he checked out the group before joining) and remains a member for at least two years. During that period we're expected to believe that Mr Corbyn didn't witness a single antisemitic trope, meme or statement even though he appears to have helped (or so the people involved said) organise a meeting of some sort - here's a letter to Mr Corbyn from Joan Ryan, Labour MP for Enfield North:

It may be - I haven't seen - that Mr Corbyn denies helping organise this meeting or deflects it by passing off the organisational blame onto his office but, for me at least, this shows that he was actively engaged with the people running the group who were (judging from their posts) deeply antisemitic. It's not just a case of being a member and occasionally posting.

Overwhelmingly the membership of the Labour Party is not antisemitic but, when the leader and people around the leader are closely associated with antisemites, you have to ask whether the sort of "Jeremy's not antisemitic he was just on a forum full of antisemites" argument gets thinner and thinner. We've not quite got there yet but it's getting close to the position where the defence is effectively: "he was a member of the BNP but he never said anything racist". And people who remain in the Labour Party without, at the very least, questioning whether the Party has a problem are pretty complicit in perpetuating the too widely held view that being racist to Jews isn't as bad as other forms of racism.


Sunday, 4 March 2018

Fascism can't happen because government is too big and complicated...

So claims Tyler Cowen:
My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.
So, for those with a curious interest in fascism - the actual idea of a corporate state directed my the national will rather than the left's bogeyman - this argument seems to say that we can't have fascism because the corporate state is too developed and complex. It's almost as if, having adopted the idea of government influencing everything (and the USA has a far smaller government than most of the developed world) that government becomes impossible to control and resistant to direction.

The result of this is that, not only is fascism not possible but neither is change deliverable through the established mechanisms of democracy. And, it seems to me, that the bureaucracy Cowen describes, adheres to an ideology somewhat akin to the Douglas Jay idea of the gentleman in Whitehall knowing best. With no effective democratic accountability (if fascists can't influence the multifarious heads of the government hydra there's little chance that others seeking change being able to exercise that influence), the state becomes the definer of 'national will' rather than the leader. The leaders, at least up until Trump, are essentially window dressing for the machine, a smiling illusion of a human face obscuring the beast beneath.

In an odd way, fascism can't succeed because we have the ideological corporate state that fascists wanted.

“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”