Surveillance tech is making gentrification worse
Having something stolen from you is always awful. The sting is even worse when the thing taken was a personal indulgence. So when a rare treat to myself of some good wine was recently lifted from just outside my front door, I was definitely angry, but I was mostly sad.
For a moment, I considered getting a so-called "smart" doorbell, something like the Amazon Ring, which doubles as a camera. If someone tried to steal from me again, I'd catch them! Or, at the very least, I'd know what they looked like. But I became uneasy with how quickly my mind defaulted to surveillance. I imagine my east end Toronto neighborhood is like many gentrified areas around the continent: Alongside subsidized old folks' homes and shelters sit high-end boutiques, third wave coffee shops, and tiny semi-detached houses that often sell for more than $1 million. Here, privilege and poverty live cheek to cheek.
For many, the impulse to fortify one's house with tech is understandable: The crime rate here is higher than in most places nearby. But the tension between the haves and have-nots long predates the digital turn, and modern tech seems uniquely poised to exacerbate that divide and make the already troublesome process of gentrification even worse.
Surveillance doorbells have become something of a household staple, particularly in online neighborhood groups on Facebook or Nextdoor. On these sites, users regularly post clips of things getting taken from their porches, often in the mostly futile hope of catching the thief. And I sympathize with them. Like most crime, theft tends to make you feel unsafe and violated, and upsets the idea of a home as a sanctuary. But turning to tech — either in the form of online groups or physical monitoring tools — can have toxic results. Sites like Nextdoor have well-publicized problems with racial profiling. Users report persons of color walking down the street as exhibiting "suspicious behavior." Facebook neighborhood groups have similar problems, wherein the very issues exacerbated by poverty — crime, addiction, prejudice — meet privileged homeowners deeply unsympathetic to both those problems and how they come about.
Gentrification is, at its heart, about displacement — replacing one kind of resident with another. By helping turn neighborhoods into mini-fortresses where people with means are able to keep an eye on those without, often to harmful effect, surveillance tech enables and fosters that displacement.
Making matters worse, tech also links the gentrifiers with police. A recent piece in The Atlantic outlined how products like Ring are used to send police footage, with some police even offering discounts or free Rings in exchange for an agreement to share footage. That mixture of surveillance and enforcement is bound to mostly help those who are already privileged — those with not just the time and resources and know-how to protect their own interests, but who also know the police will be on their side.
More broadly, tech has become an integral part of how and why neighborhoods gentrify in the first place. Instagram, Yelp, and Foursquare all contribute to the idea of the city as a playground for the fortunate, drawing hoards of people to the latest hip new place in what was previously an unpopular area. The strange thing is that this isn't intentional: No one is sitting around at Facebook or Amazon asking how they can gentrify neighborhoods. Rather, like so many problems in tech, this is about unintended consequences. Like online harassment, radicalization on YouTube, or election interference, this is about putting new tech into the world without thinking about how it might be used nefariously.
There is, however, an additional wrinkle here. Currently, Google parent company Alphabet is preparing to build out an experimental "smart city" neighborhood on Toronto's eastern shore under its Sidewalk Labs arm. The plan, which was just recently released in full, has come under vociferous attack from critics because not only does it include the planned collection of data using sensors scattered throughout the area, it also suggests that Sidewalk Labs would own public land, collect revenues, and be allowed to develop further.
This is a vicious cycle: The normal desire people have to feel safe and secure institutes a culture of surveillance. Meanwhile, big tech plans to integrate itself even more deeply into cities by getting into the act of city-building itself.
I'm still bummed about my wine. But there's a lingering irony in my loss: To have some artisanal booze stolen seems like a fitting comeuppance. I may not be rolling in money, but my presence here in Toronto is still changing the neighborhood. And while it may have been an understandable impulse to want to spy on whoever took my stuff, it might also be worth asking why someone stole in from me the first place — and how tech, rather than making things better, is only making the forces of poverty worse.