Steven Koonin is a theoretical physicist who has been a top science official at both BP and the Department of Energy. Now, he wants to turn cities into data-collection devices. At a New America Foundation event last week, Koonin - in his new job as director of the new Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU - riled the audience a bit when he suggested that Manhattan shoppers should use only debit and credit cards, or that drivers entering the city be required to have a GPS device. He was thinking of the wealth of data he'd could mine about consumption and traffic patterns, but:
“You can feel the 1984 vibe,” [moderator David] Biello said as people in the standing-room-only audience murmured. But Koonin stressed that individual privacy will be respected from the outset of any such initiatives. Furthermore, he emphasized, companies already have much of that information. At least government would put it to good use.
That does depend on what one considers "good use." Traffic data has long been used in road design, and some police departments are already trying to use data to help them deploy officers most efficiently. But some people are already starting to worry about a city shaped by numbers. As Kevin Slavin, an entrepreneur whose addictive game company Area/Code is now Zynga New York, put it last year at the Lift conference, which focuses on social implications of innovation: "Buildings and cities are structurally changing around the needs of a bunch of algorithms that have no agenda that would be of much correlation to anything you may happen to be doing in that space."
What does an algorithm’s city look like? Inspired by Slavin's ideas, designer Charlie Behrens tried to capture a computer's perspective on urban spaces:
You get the sense that he falls on the "this is creepy" side of the argument.
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