Are You’re a User? Or Just Being Used?

The 1982 Disney movie, Tron, contains a valuable lesson on the power of the digital systems user today.

In the movie, released 40 years before ChatGPT, the hero is transferred bodily into a computer system under the control of an evil AI. Because he’s the good guy, he tries to lead a revolt, mostly in vain. But just when things look bleakest, he discovers that he has “user power.” Simply by willing it, he can make magical things happen in this alternate universe. Because, under the digital skin, he’s a human being who uses computer systems, not the other way around.

Since 1982, the line between using and being used has grown fuzzy. Most of the world’s favorite applications – social media, maps, ecommerce – gain their power from the information users provide through our use. Digital maps know when you will reach your destination because they are tracking the location and speed of thousands of vehicles along your route. Social media and e-commerce analyze the content of your posts or purchases to determine what content to put in front of you next. We are using and being used at the same time. You can say that it is our personal choice to do so – and tech companies insist it is. But in practice, the “being used” side of things is invisible to most of us most of the time.

What’s it for?

Today, big sums of public money are flowing into making municipalities smarter and more connected, after a pandemic taught us the immense public value of such systems. But when local government makes technology choices for its constituents, it raises big questions. How can we protect privacy while creating a good user experience? What forms of monitoring and surveillance are acceptable? How do we manage social media for the good of the community?

Behind these concerns is the biggest question of all. What is all this smart city technology ultimately for?

Does it contribute to making the community better? That is, to creating or maintaining a great place to live, to work, to earn a good wage, get an education, start a business, raise a family and prepare the way for the next generation? The last time I checked, that’s what elected and administrative leaders are supposed to be doing – making the place called home better in ways that matter to its people.

Making the place called home better

Viewed through that lens, the most popular smart city investments may have a different look. Take one of the top ten: dynamic traffic management using connected, remotely controlled stoplights. Properly executed, it delivers good value in the form of less traffic congestion. But then, there’s that pesky question: is less traffic congestion what your city or region needs most?

It could be, if gridlock is holding back your city’s development. Or maybe it would be more productive to spend a fraction of that money on a hackathon. Let’s say a university student builds an app in that hackathon that accesses the city’s data on the GPS location of buses run by private companies. In a South American city of 7 million, it became one of the most downloaded apps and helped launch a thriving mobile tech sector. Or it could be more valuable to help a community college create centers of excellence where local companies bring their problems and students learn real-world skills, as a midsize Canadian city did. These projects are about technology – because that is a core part of most innovation today – but they are not Smart City fixes for urban problems.

Viewed through the lens we call the Intelligent Community, your tech options can look different. Are you using technology to make the place called home better, or are you adopting somebody’s ready-made tech solution because there is funding available and – why not?

You can certainly do both if you have the resources. But it’s important to make a conscious decision about where you place your tech bets. If constituents see a lot of money going into smart and connected technology that doesn’t make their lives better, they just may decide there’s an evil AI in charge. And our Digital Decades have given them all the user power they need to make sure everybody knows it.

Rights to DISNEY image purchased from Alamy:

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.

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