Google gets out of the city-building business
And the rest of the week that was.
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The company Sidewalk Labs announced this week that it was being absorbed back into Google, a striking drawing-to-a-close on Google’s once grand ambitions to remake how cities work. But let’s back up.
“The world’s first neighborhood built from the Internet up,” they called it, and we were intrigued. This was back in the spring of 2018, and one of my editors at POLITICO with Canadian ties had heard about something Google was up to up in Toronto that seemed worth digging into. The company — or, at least, an offshoot of it called Sidewalk Labs — was in the early stages of a project that would attempt to integrate innovative technology into an actual real-world piece of that city, a bleak strip of land on the edge of Lake Ontario called Quayside. The streets would be designed from the start for self-driving cars, and melt snow themselves during Toronto’s long winters. Residents would pay for only the trash their garbage chutes tracked them tossing, and during warmer months could reserve coveted chairs along the lake via an app.
Sidewalk itself had been created in 2014, during a boom era for Silicon Valley, when it seemed somewhat natural that its hugely successful companies would port their world-making power from the web to the offline world. (No one had heard of Cambridge Analytica yet.) The seed: former Google CEO and then executive chair Eric Schmidt reached out to former New York City deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, who’d played a key role in rebuilding lower Manhattan after the horrors of September 11th. Reimagining the city, said Schmidt, was one of the long-held dreams of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Would Doctoroff help make it real?
Toronto would be their first attempt. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, eager to pull some of the innovation and jobs and money of the American tech industry over the border north, got behind the idea, if warily. “We know the world is changing,” Trudeau said at the press conference launching Sidewalk Toronto, “and the choice we have is either resist it and be frightened by it or to say, we can step up, together, and shape it.”
And so up to Toronto I went, and came back and wrote about Google was experimenting with there — what made the holistic vision different from other ‘smart city’ efforts, the potential and possibilities, the very real risks.
(And I heard from a surprising number of Canadian readers that the waterfront seats weren’t actually Adirondacks, but “Muskoka chairs.” I swear that to this day I can’t look at one without thinking about the lashing I got.)
But what was starting to become clear then, and which became even more obvious in the months and years that followed, was that Sidewalk hadn’t really come to grips with the complexities of building what it called “the most measurable community in the world.”
For one thing, the team hadn’t begun to consider the idea of collective privacy, or that data not tied to one specific individual could still tell more about a community than a community would want it to. For another, there was the fact that all that data would be processed and stored in the United States, a country that then as ow lacked a robust set of relevant privacy laws. More than that, what would ‘public’ mean in a place with a single corporation baked into its very infrastructure? Would actual humans really live in a city planned down to the smallest detail?
A diverse and robust set of questioning Canadians sprung up and grew, poking and prodding at the project. And the resistance was helped along when it became clear that Google’s real ambition wasn’t just remaking Quayside, but building out across the sweeping 800-acre stretch of land next to it.
It was too much for the whole thing to bear, and in May of 2020, Sidewalk Toronto collapsed. "It has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable,” Doctoroff said then. The subtext: if locals wouldn’t allow Google to go big, it couldn’t — or at least wouldn’t — go at all. One of the central thinkers driving the whole effort, Sidewalk’s “head of urban systems” Rit Aggarwala, left his full-time role that November.
And now comes word that Sidewalk itself is no more, and for a sad immediate reason. Doctoroff shared Thursday that it’s likely he has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. “[G]iven the likelihood that my lifespan will be significantly shorter than I thought, I know there are changes I need to make in my life now,” he wrote in a post on Medium. Sidewalk and some of the tangible tools built under its roof — the parking sensor Pebble, the energy tracker Mesa, and the development planning software Delve — are folding into Google’s urban product wing. But focusing on one-off products is a significant scaling down of Sidewalk’s ambitions, and is a likely end to the Sidewalk project.
For Google, Toronto was a sandbox. For Toronto, Google was a lifeline to some sort of sustainable future. There’s no real cost to Google for it not working. Google marches along.
And Toronto still needs to figure out what to do with its waterfront.
A few doors down:
— “How Governments Used the Pandemic to Normalize Surveillance”: A ‘smart city’ near Busan, South Korea, is ground zero for the debate over whether public-health wins justify the trade-offs with personal privacy.
— “Corner Stores Are the New Darlings of the Global Tech Industry”: One of Silicon Valley’s big next ambitions is to conquer local geographies, and the humble street-side shop offers them ready-made outposts across the world.
— “A Look at Nextdoor”: The Motley Fool folks consider why the neighborhood-based social network, which has gone public via SPAC, might and might not be worth all that much.
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The Biden White House has announced a bilateral prize challenge with the UK aimed at privacy-enhancing technologies, a.k.a. PETs. Biden’s science advisor Eric Lander calls those tools “a critical component of the suite of democracy-affirming capabilities that can support our shared democratic values in the face of authoritarian exploitation of emerging technologies.”
With Tish James’ decision that she’d rather try sticking with being New York attorney general than going for the governorship, antitrust advocate Zephyr Teachout is taking leave of the AG race.
The Internet Association — one of DC’s highest-profile tech lobbying groups — has fallen apart. It’s not hugely surprising, if not inevitable. After all, IA came about after, post the SOPA-PIPA battles of 2012, ‘Internet’ companies realized they didn’t have enough in common with hardware and software makers to justify prioritizing being in a trade association with them. And what binds Internet companies together isn’t what it once was, and as Emily Birnbaum notes for POLITICO, IA staying out of antitrust debates raised questions about its whole raison d'être in the year twenty-twenty-one. Or two. It could have chosen to degrade gracefully, but that’s a difficult choice to make when you’re trying to justify your existence to funders year in and year out.
(If you’re a fan of the hugely entertaining show “Broadchurch,” the whole thing might bring to mind the wonderful moment when David Tennant’s detective inspector character yells at Olivia Coleman’s detective sergeant character, “What is the point of you, Miller?!”)
UNC-Chapel Hill researchers Daniel Kreiss, Bridget Barrett and Madhavi Reddi argue that online platforms should move away from “color-blind” policies and instead embrace race-conscious rules that reflect the realities of life in the United States.
The history of the blinking cursor: How it came to constantly ask us, ‘What’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’ Short version: “The blinking, it turns out, is simply a way to catch the coders’ attention and stand apart from a sea of text.” But the long version is more interesting than that.
The recent web outages are a reminder that the Internet — in theory a series of networks made remarkably resilient through decentralization — in practice depends on a few parts run by a few companies that can sometimes go down.
The cherry on top of 2021 might be Log4J, the “security flaw that’s freaking out the Internet.” And here’s to 2022: “The really bad stuff is just around the corner.”
Meatless meat isn’t all that new: “For hundreds of years humans have sought alternatives to animal milks and meats because they were scarce and expensive." The difference is all that iteration means we’re converging on deliciousness.
User-centered design gets the Biden seal of approval: “The Executive Order directs Federal agencies to put people at the center of everything the Government does.”
But you don’t have to tell the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau twice. “CFPB Calls Tech Workers to Action,” reads a new post from chief technologist Erie Meyer detailing how the consumer-protection federal agency is, she says, rolling out a user-friendlier way for people in the tech industry to whistleblow.
Phrase of the week: “context collapse.” It’s kinda sorta the Costanzian “worlds are colliding!” but on social media.
Talk about world’s colliding: as ‘new tech’ encroaches further and further into the financial space, there are branding issues. H&R Block is suing Square over its rebranding as “Block.” Says the tax preparer, “The goodwill that Block has so carefully created and nurtured over the past six decades is now under attack by a Silicon Valley fintech company.” (Do people actually call H&R Block just “Block”? New one on me.) Another way to do it: the company that was Facebook is just buying, for $60 million, the trademark rights of a bank named Meta.
Facebook/Meta’s head of policy and comms Nick Clegg gets interviewed in the “metaverse.” Clegg: “Can we get the sneering and mockery out of the way?” Some old-timers beg us to remember that Second Life was a thing, and it was not great.
(One has to say, avatar Nick Clegg looks about as much like actual Nick Clegg as the NBC peacock looks like an actual bird.)
Just for fun
We get to watch the moment that, for the first time in the history of the world, a human-made spacecraft touches the sun (or more precisely, flies through its corona). Technology, man.