Monday, September 23, 2013

Bringing Some Lens Cleaner to the Rose-Colored Glasses

This morning Technology Reporter Jane Wakefield filed a story on the BBC News Web site with the headline "Tomorrow's cities: What's it like to live in a smart city?" Overlooking the fact that this involved little more than fantasizing that probably belonged in the Entertainment department, rather than Technology, this turned out to be the world seen through three sets of rose-colored glasses, one by Julia Michaels, an "Author and blogger" living in Rio de Janeiro. As a result of those credentials, I did some background checking and discovered that Wakefield's piece of fluff was actually a followup to the one she wrote last month entitled "Tomorrow's cities: Do you want to live in a smart city?" That article also read like a Chamber of Commerce pitch for Rio, leading me to write at that time about how those rose-colored glasses had so efficiently managed to obscure any view of the favelas in that city. The other contributors to the new piece were Anthony Townsend, Research Director at the Institute for the Future, and Carlo Ratti, Director of the Sensible City Lab at the MIT Media Lab. Wakefield could not have picked a better collection of three blind persons (noun out of deference to Michaels) groping at an elephant that happens to be virtual, rather than physical.

Ironically, if Wakefield really wanted to speculate about smart cities of the future, she would probably learn far more by reading some good fiction, rather than interviewing self-promoting evangelists. From that point of view, the absence of any mention of E. M. Forster comes across as an act of willful ignorance. "The Machine Stops" raises any number of issues concerned with how things can go wrong with technology that was initially conceived and built to improve the quality of life. This cautionary tale is even more relevant now that This cautionary tale is even more relevant now that some of Forster's predicitions are beginning to come true. If the BBC is going to provide reports about technology, the least they can do is screen their reporters for myopia.

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