How much does free Wi-Fi really cost?

LinkNYC is a project to bring free Wi-Fi across New York by replacing many of the payphones with Wi-Fi kiosks. I was in New York last week, but many of the Links I saw seemed to be switched off (well, the ones I noticed had blank screens).

I don’t know if it was a result of the recent shut down of the internet browsers, because people have been streaming adult content, or if it’s because the area was deemed not profitable enough to show advertising.

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Link advertising screen turned off. Remember Revolv connected home products that were bricked? Well, this is a hint of what our streets will look like when city infrastructure gets turned off. (Photo: Sarah Gold/IF)



The Links are made by a consortium called CityBridge, led by Sidewalk Labs a subsidiary of Alphabet inc. (aka Google). There are many concerns about Links as surveillance tools for CityBridge and the New York Police Department.

“It is an effort [for Google] to establish a permanent presence across our city, block by block, and to extend its online model to the physical landscape.”

Nick Pinto, Village Voice

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I’ve seen the LinkNYC before, and what caught my attention first was how many people I saw sat on the ground, because the Link kiosks provide no public seating. It reminded me of defensive-architecture, like the spikes that were removed in London last year. (Photo: Sarah Gold/IF)



Regardless of why the Links seemed to be switched off, there are significant power dynamics at play that are not obviously clear and we’re just not talking about.

Who is talking about the impacts of technology on the city?

“Some of the most consequential political outcomes of infrastructure space remain undeclared in the dominant stories that portray them”

Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft

There are lots of intellectual positions about the built environment, technologies and the impact they could have on society. Some that I’ve really appreciated, include; Dan Hill’s The Street as a Platform, Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft, Anna Minton’s writing on the privatisation of public space, Benjamin Bratton’s Stacks. Each describes and critiques the impact of technology in cities, which is often not immediately visible. It’s as though for every building we see, there’s also a layer of software space too - we just can’t see it.

This isn’t about smart cities

None of these texts are referencing ‘the smart city’ - as if some cities are analogue and some connected (indeed, ‘smart’ isn’t exclusive to cities, what about the smart village?). Our spaces are already highly connected, from free Wi-Fi to traffic cameras. They’re focussing on the spaces we live in right now. And there are more technologies emerging across the spaces we live, mainly driven by third sector organisations providing digital transformation to the city.

“The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.”

Dan Hill

Take a look at Facebook Live that’s being broadcast on billboards.

Or Uber’s mapping cars that began mapping in London in September.

We’re not talking about the impact on people

What’s clear to me is that the people who are thinking about the impact of technology in cities, are not the same people making or commissioning the technologies. And I’m not sure these groups are talking to each other.

It means we’re not having an essential discussion about what our relationship is to these technologies.

There are important questions

  • What surveillance is necessary to gather data that’s needed to power technology-driven services in the city?
  • How are these technologies funded?
  • Who controls these technologies and the data they create?
  • Under what circumstances can the data be accessed and used?
  • Who do these technologies exclude?
  • What happens if the companies supporting these technologies close down?
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Following the recent elections I’ve seen more discussion about technology and accountability (Photo: Twitter screenshot/IF)

Who we’ve been speaking to

Culainn, our researcher on the project, has been interviewing people who work in local councils and planning departments. So far, it seems that these groups are not thinking about the social injustice that technology can create. Technology is thought of as something that’s quite passive, and decisions over whether a particular technology is installed is largely decided by price and time. So if a technology can be installed for free or at a reduced price if the company providing the service have access to the data, it’s probably very hard to say no. But as long as city planners are agreeing to technologies that depend on surveillance capitalism, the contracts are not working in the public’s interests.

There’s a gap that needs to be bridged

The people or organisations who are thinking about the implications of technologies are just too distant from those people in councils or city authorities who are deciding how our spaces will be designed and by whom. We need to start talking about the social effects of new technologies in the places we live and work, so that we can be clearer about the benefits they bring and mitigate the risks.

It’s a gap that urgently needs to be bridged. The next Sidewalk Labs project is LinkUK. They’ve partnered with BT to install kiosks in Camden over 2017.

We’re working with Google Open Research, you can read Georgina’s introduction post about this project.

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