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The Sleeper Awakes: The dystopian risks of Sidewalk Lab’s utopian Quayside development
In the Fall of 2017, Manhattan-based ‘Sidewalk Labs’ was awarded the rights to transform a 12-acre section of industrial Toronto waterfront into a techno-utopian micro-city called Quayside. The decision has been controversial, in part due to the speed and opacity of the Sidewalk Labs proposal, but also because the company is a subsidiary of corporate giant Google and its parent company, Alphabet. Critics of the project worry that a corporate-designed micro-city, built “from the Internet up”, as the company likes to say, is a dangerous and dystopian direction for Toronto to move in: a kind of techno-ubiquitous kleptocracy, in the guise of something more people-centered and evolutionary in design.
University of Lethbridge New Media Professor James Graham will examine the tech-corporate implications of the Quayside project, arguing that, while Canada is no stranger to the practice of utopian settlement-building, dating as far back as the 17th century, the Quayside project represents a new and dangerous type of social re-engineering: one that cities like Toronto have failed to adequately assess. Specifically, and beyond the naiveté and subjectivity that inevitably flavors any utopian vision, it is the inherently algorithmic logic of the Google/Alphabet business model that sees humans as a resource to be mined, instructed and processed. At the core of this business model is the Silicon Valley concept of “scalability”, which seeks to technologically optimize systems, while minimizing human inefficiencies, in order to grow revenues and market share exponentially.
Other than that, life at Quayside will go on as normal.
James Graham is an Associate Professor and founding faculty member in the Department of New Media, University of Lethbridge. Graham holds an MFA from NSCAD. His current art practice combines traditional sculpture-making with Mixed Reality technologies. Concurrent with his academic position, Graham is President and Founder of Neospatial Corp., (Lethbridge) a VR/AR enterprise-focussed company. He also serves as Director of Research and Development at In Situ Media Corp (Vancouver). In Situ Media is a tech innovation company that develops real-time online media augmentation and automation software systems.
Image courtesy of artist.
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