On organisations stunning ability to absorb nonsensical claims about technology

So i have finally managed to finish Adam Greenfield’s Against the smart city (i had lapsed soon after this picture was taken). The book is well worth reading and contains a number valuable insights but there is one passage that stands out for me.

Towards the end of the book (or pamphlet as Adam refers to it) he explains why his method of examining the language of marketing and promotional copy of IT vendors is important even though the same vendors, when challenged on the claims contained in it are quick to dismiss its as mere marking language. This passage is one of the best explanations of how marketing language (and more particular: claims about technology) gets absorbed by organisations (in this case municipal governments):

But refusing to take this sort of language seriously means succumbing to a certain naïveté about the ways in which knowledge tends to be reproduced nowadays, and the processes through which it does its work in the world.

At the launch of any new corporate smart-city initiative, content promoting it and aligning it with the enterprise’s overarching brand proposition is generated by the marketing department, and released into the wild on the global website, where it will be indexed by Google in less than a minute. This initiative almost immediately comes to the attention of the planet’s several thousand technology bloggers, writing for outlets of various provenance, who generally have automated keyword searches set up to notify them whenever an item of interest is published. Because these bloggers are simultaneously under intense contractual pressure to post several times a day, are by definition enthusiastic about technology and are, by and large, unschooled in the arts of skeptical reportage, they tend to take the claims they are offered at face value. (This is true of bloggers writing for the Guardian or the New York Times every bit as much as it is of their less well-positioned peers.)

In a manner of minutes, talking points from the original press release are paraphrased in the blogger’s idiom of choice and bundled into a new post, and this may happen across dozens of competing sites in a very brief span of time. Links to these posts are, in turn, instantaneously produced by automated Twitter accounts, endlessly replicated both on Twitter itself and via other social-media channels linked to it through its API; these in turn spur a wave of response from a far larger number of people around the world who are equally excited at the prospect of living in the future, and within a few hours at most a rich loam of online commentary has been laid down. Very little of this commentary evaluates what is being claimed in any depth, or even compares the item at hand to previous assertions made by the same institution, but the volume of buzz is impressive. And due in no small part to the way Google itself works, this distributed colloquy creates an immediate impression that there is a there there. Over the space of a few hours, a framing or perspective originating in a deeply interested party has simply become an unquestioned part of the fabric of consensual knowledge.

What happens on the receiving end, inside the municipal bodies that constitute the primary presumptive audience for such a marketing campaign? Low-level bureaucrats, pressed for time and starved for insight, stumble onto this thicket of conversation via a cursory keyword search; they copy-and-paste a few lines from the first reasonably credible-looking search result into their PowerPoint slides, unmodified; and these slides then get submitted up the hierarchy. The language propagates across the institution — and, what’s more, it meshes with that found in the hurriedly-downloaded white papers on the subject that someone found on the website of a name-brand management consultancy. The savvier staffers start to feel confident using these terms: speaking in them, thinking in them. While misgivings may in fact be prevalent, there are likely to be relatively few in the bureaucracy who are able to express them forthrightly — that is to say, who are sufficiently comfortable with the technology to understand precisely what is being proposed, familiar with the way their city works to convincingly articulate why this is problematic, assured of their own position to feel safe in doing so and passionate about the issue to willingly shoulder the risk involved. (If, as the saying has it, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, it’s also the case that one may find oneself on shaky ground contradicting something printed straight from the IBM website.) When finally pressed to make a “recommendation as to how the city’s resources should be allocated, the easiest thing for a committee member to do is go with the flow, to at least outwardly agree with the person at the table who seems to know what they’re talking about, simply to bring the drawn-out process of decision-making to a close.

This sort of thing, of course, happens across the entire range of issues a municipal agency may be asked to face. But it appears to be especially true where questions of information technology are concerned, given the unusual amount of mystification that shrouds even consumer-grade products and services, to say nothing of the degree of intimidation otherwise competent adults routinely feel in their presence. Where there is a decision to be made, a confident point of view being advanced and no party with the necessary bona fides stepping forward to challenge it, the natural, the human thing to do is defer. And so this body of ideas gets reproduced, just as surely as code libraries are when they are downloaded from open-source repositories like Github or SourceForge. And every time this happens, a very particular set of valuations and priorities is reproduced alongside them. What was once merely a sequence of words crafted by a marketing department for their euphony, service to a business model and alignment with a particular set of brand values becomes inscribed in, or as, a city’s official program.

This, in broad outline, is how a premature and preemptive consensus formed around the desirability of something called the smart city. I should emphasize that the individuals

If you like this passage you almost certainly should read the entire pamphlet which can be obtained here.

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