Monday, 11 September 2017

Laura Fichtner: A Smart City of Flows

After the summer break, we continue our series of interviews with scholars from the tracks on technology and the city at CEPE/ETHICOMP and SPT 2017. The third interview is with Laura Fitchner. She presented her paper on "A Smart City of Flows" at ETHICOMP/CEPE 2017. The interview has been conducted by Margoth González Woge in Summer 2017.

Could you tell us who you are?

I’m currently a researcher in Ethics of Information Technology at Hamburg University in Germany, where we study the societal and ethical aspects of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet. I’m looking at some of the issues we face with the technological developments that are happening, for example concerns about cybersecurity, privacy and surveillance. I’m interested in how we create the rules and technologies that make the Internet work as it does and in how the Internet shapes the way we experience, communicate and live together.

What did you present at the Conference?

I presented and discussed some ideas about smart cities that have come out of my reading of Manuel Castells’ writing on the “space of flows”. The main idea is that ICTs are reshaping spaces in an important way. Castells makes a distinction between space and place: while place is like a container, a space is defined by and through what he calls “time-sharing practices”, so through social relations and interactions. When ICTs restructure and shape our relations and how we interact with others, they also restructure space and, when it comes to smart cities, in particular urban spaces. Often, the goal of smart city applications is to improve processes in the city in order to make them more efficient and predictable. While this can help solve some of the issues we encounter in urban life, there might also be some downsides to this logic. In the paper I explored the idea that when algorithms solve problems for us and regulate our interactions in too smooth and too efficient of a way, there is also something valuable being lost. Cities have historically always been very creative places; this creativity partly also springs out of the characteristics of city life, its deviances, unexpectedness and frictions.

As a trained engineer, did you receive any training in ethics? How did you become interested in politics/ethics?

During my bachelor in engineering I was looking for a student assistant job. I wanted to do something different, so I started working at the Institute for Technology Assessment and System Analysis (ITAS) in Karlsruhe which analyses social challenges that science, technology and engineering pose. I liked the work they were doing, so I decided to continue in this direction. I took a couple of courses from philosophy, ethics and social sciences and searched for relevant Master programs open to people from different backgrounds. I found that the PSTS program at University of Twente was a great option.

What kind of challenges have you found while doing interdisciplinary research?

One big challenge is getting acquainted with the relevant discussions and methodologies of different disciplines. You really have to learn how to get into a new or foreign topic, but also how to communicate with and across different audiences and create a suitable vocabulary for your work. One of the great things about being an interdisciplinary researcher is that you can be very creative in your research, because you can combine different approaches to create something new and sometimes even transcended the old protocols.

What pressing problems worry you? What excites you about technological developments?

I like the idea of technology as an evolutionary process. We can model it, but we can’t completely steer it. I share the excitement many feel about all the possibilities the Internet offers to us and I’m fascinated by the impact technological developments have on our lives and societies. It’s incredible that we are now able to access so much information in no time, learn about things we couldn’t have dreamed of before and stay in touch with our loved ones far away.

Currently I think a lot about cybersecurity, data protection and surveillance. Questions I wonder about are for example what happens with all the data that is collected about us and our behavior? And how do algorithms use this data to decide what we see online? How vulnerable will our societies become by fully relying on ICTs? I think there is a growing ICT infrastructure everywhere that has important social consequences but is often invisible to us. Based on data that is collected about us online, algorithms are starting to make decisions for us and regulate what we see and how we interact with each other. The ads we see and the jobs that are advertised to us online can for example be targeted towards who the algorithm thinks we are or what we care about, and sometimes they are even just based on where we live. I think as technologists and engineers it is important to understand that we are creating realities and embedding our values in the technologies we design and implement.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Remmon Barbaza: "There is this question whether the city as we know it is a necessary evil."

Remmon Barbaza is an Associate Professor of Philosophy specializing in Heidegger and language at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. I got to know Remmon and his work at the Philosophy of the City conferences in Hong Kong and San Francisco. In July 2017, Remmon become a local 4TU.Ethics visiting scholar at Philosophy department of the University of Twente. During the time of his stay, he gave an interview, which has been published on the 4TU.Ethics website. In the interview, he talks about his work on Heidegger, art, the political situation in the Philippines, and Philosophy of the City. Here is what he has to say on the city. The interview has been conducted by Stephen Leitheiser (SL).
SL: What does the modern city reveal to us about our society, and modern culture and politics?

RB: That is one of the more difficult questions for me conceptually: the relationship between the city and the province; the urban and the rural. Can we think of the city insofar as it is not the province? Can we think of the urban insofar as it is not the rural? Because the trend is, by 2050, about 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities. And if that is the trend, is it possible to have just all cities and no province? We do associate province with nature. We say we flee the city once in a while in order to ‘go back’ to nature, right? There is this question whether the city as we know it is a necessary evil. We can’t help but live in the cities, but flee to the provinces when life in the city becomes too much, and we want to regain our bearings. How can we build a city that is not alienating? How can we build a city in a way that does not have to disengage us from nature? ...

I think the University of Twente is a good example. The campus was designed in such a way that it is high-tech, without losing the human element. For example, this building where we are right now, the Cubicus, was supposed to have been designed to make people feel a bit lost in the beginning. And people think, ‘Really, why?!’ It is the most logical thing for a designer to do it in a straightforward manner. But, I like that concept. The question is not to make it easier or more efficient, but to make it more human. It is part of being human to take time, to orient oneself. They say this building was designed for people to meet; it was designed to make possible human encounters.

If you see the University of Twente as kind of a city: self-sustaining, with dormitories, a grocery store, a barbershop. They designed the campus in such a way that there is not an abrupt or radical disjoint from nature. The paths, the walks are somewhat naturally winding. That is the challenge: how to design a city in this way.

When we look at our approach to city construction, I agree with Heidegger that the correct starting point is ‘being-in-the-world’ [Dasein]. I cannot imagine really any other starting point. You can start with our being a particular animal, a rational animal, but it is not, as Heidegger would say, primordial enough. If your starting point is the political animal, you are forced to ask further: what is the animal in us? You are forced to go further back. But ‘being-in-the-world’ – there is no ‘further back’. The very fact of our conversation now rests on something like understanding. We share a world. Even the very possibility of disagreement or debate rests on the fact that we are in a world that is understandable. Not in a scientific sense, but as Heidegger says, we already live understandingly one way or another. The bus driver understands the world one way or another. So does a professor – whether in natural sciences or philosophy. All of that understanding happens within language. We can see that being in the world is interchangeable with being in language.

As I pointed out earlier, even Wittgenstein saw that: the limits of my language are the limits of my world; or the limits of my world are the limits of my language. They are co-extensive. The design of the city proceeds from language. Again, not language simply in the sense of an actual and particular language or linguistic system like Japanese, Filipino or English. Rather, language first and foremost has to do with being spoken to, and responding. I think that is how Heidegger would speak of language. But, interestingly Wittgenstein also wrote that “Language is like an ancient city”. The ancient city reminds us of narrow alleys, and so on. A people is known for the way it lives: that is a city – but, it is also known for the language that it speaks. The two are co-constitutive. The language shapes the city, and the city also shapes the language.

SL: In your discussion with the Spanish visual artist, Paloma Polo: ‘Dwelling Near in Mountains Farthest Apart: A Conversation’, you mention that artists, thinkers, and philosophers are shapers of culture. Cities have traditionally been the setting for this shaping of culture. As cities across the world become more standardized and more similar, what kind of an effect do you think this has on the production and shaping of culture? Do you see this as having a homogenizing effect across the world?

RB: Well, much has been said already about globalization. Before coming to Enschede, I was in Paris and Madrid. I observed the same pattern of gentrification and the same shops. Globalization in a way has this danger of flattening out distinctions so that the cities end up being similar. There is this danger of cities losing their identity because of the demand for uniformity brought about by globalization. Manila is a huge consumption city. The big names and companies are slowly killing locality – shoemakers and local businesses. Here we can bring Heidegger and Marx together because here we are dealing with capitalism as well.

With regard to nature, one can see that Marx and Heidegger pointed to the same phenomenon, even as they approached it and analyzed it differently. Marx has a long chapter in Das Kapital on machinery and large scale industries. For his part, Heidegger also repeatedly mentioned the “gigantic” and the “monstrous”. We all do have the sense that if something is done in too big a proportion, it can dehumanize us. It is no wonder that the word ‘Monster’ means ‘to warn’. The Latin monere means ‘to warn’. Monstrosities are warnings. I am aware of the direction in which cities are headed. And we see warnings everywhere. This is why I think that philosophy of the city is very important. It gives us the opportunity to question: what are we doing when we build cities? What sort of cities should we build? And, as I said: what is the relationship between ‘city’ and ‘un-city’? Is the province simply the depository of raw materials?

SL: I like the concept of urban metabolism. It involves looking at everything that makes up the city – metabolic flows that go to every corner of the world, which if looked at from this sense, means that there is really no end to the modern city. The relationships extend to the Middle East for oil; they extend to Africa for the minerals making up our smartphones; people and materials are from all over so that one cannot really draw a definite line of where the modern city ends.

RB: That is a very good analogy. We can also speak of healthy metabolism, or a problem with the metabolism. In a talk to be held tomorrow, I will raise the question of what it could mean to do things ‘in good measure’, based on Heidegger’s thinking regarding what is appropriate for us human beings, but specifically in terms of consumption and production, so I will also need to go beyond Heidegger. When do we say something is already excessive, or deficient? By what measure can one say that cities are going overboard? Is urbanization already excessive? By what grounds – or measure – do we say so? I do not think we can escape these questions.

The full interview is avaiable on the website of the 4TU.Center for Ethics and Technology.