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.