The Digital NIMBYPosted: June 10, 2016
“The landscape was always made by this sort of weird, uneasy collaboration between nature and man. But now there’s this third coevolutionary force, algorithms…and we will have to understand those as nature. And in a way, they are.”
If hundreds of cars suddenly started flooding your street in your otherwise quiet neighborhood, you’d probably wonder what changed. Maybe a mall or a Trader Joe’s just opened nearby, something that could make the house you own more valuable.
It turns out you’re not so lucky. Not only did nothing materially or permanently improve in your area, but something got worse: Construction closed off a nearby thoroughfare and Waze identified your block as the fastest detour. Now, your little residential street is an arterial highway without the capacity to handle its new traffic. Your home is no more valuable and there’s nothing you can do to stop the cars.
The above scenario, described in this week’s Washington Post, has become the latest in a long list of nuisances that worry and occasionally torture suburban inhabitants. Map apps bail out their increasingly dependent users with not merely an acceptable detour to follow, but the optimal one—which is quantified and therefore the same for everyone, until the best option causes too much congestion of its own. Instead of randomly dispersing around a road closure, a platoon of Waze-guided cars can march along its detour with the precision and endlessness of an ant colony.
In negotiating the built environment, we have always sacrificed the local to the global: Major public improvements that benefit broad constituencies—airports, for example—have to go somewhere, even when none of the beneficiaries gain additional benefits from living near them. “NIMBY” (“not in my backyard”) eventually emerged as the name for this political resistance to large-scale developments in one’s neighborhood. The phenomenon is most associated with suburban homeowners not unlike those terrorized by Waze reroutes today.
Stadiums and power plants still get built in people’s backyards, but now a new type of globally eminent system, the digital platform, has priorities to assert against its local citizenry. Without the unforgiving tradeoffs of geography, one would think, the digital should be easier to live with and compromises less costly to achieve. The internet doesn’t need to “be” anywhere, and certainly not in anyone’s backyard.
Unfortunately for the digital NIMBY, by not being anywhere, the internet is everywhere, as the Waze example teaches. The digital is no longer a place to hide from meatspace—perhaps it never was, but it’s less so now than in the message-board ‘90s. In every sense, the digital world has been reinscribed upon its geographical counterpart, furnishing the logic that guides so much activity in the latter. What better demonstration of how closely the two are intertwined than a traffic app temporarily “activating” a block for use?
To fight against a proposed airport expansion or condo tower involves clear political processes, known stakeholders, and the possibility of tangible victory: If you block the development and it goes elsewhere, you won that battle. The absolute fluidity of the algorithmic landscape means that nothing is ever finished. The victims of a Waze reroute in Takoma Park, Maryland used the app itself to report fake speed traps and accidents, turning the platform’s own logic against it to gain momentary relief. The temporary success of that strategy, however, is dwarfed by its long-term futility—the algorithms learn and adapt, and today’s victory is tomorrow’s start from scratch.
For much of history, maps described the world more than they prescribed behavior in it. The internet has brought about a near-total inversion of that relationship, isolating the map’s prescriptive qualities—informing certain decisions—and tightening that feedback loop while expanding the loop’s user base. The descriptive function of maps has dwindled accordingly: We often use maps without looking at them, as the embedded logic behind a Yelp search or Tinder swipe. The internet has similarly inverted the descriptive-prescriptive dynamic in almost every domain it touches by turning data into decisions without involving the inefficient middleman, the human being.
Kevin Slavin, in perhaps the best TED Talk ever, describes the algorithmic underpinnings of Netflix and similar services as the “physics of culture.” He concludes by pointing toward algorithmic trading and its imperative of instantaneous speed, which has hollowed out buildings and strung underground fiberoptic cables between New York and Chicago to produce the necessary edge in financial markets. Yes, algorithms can route extra traffic down one’s street, but they also literally shape buildings and terraform the earth, completing the unification of two universes that always seemed separate. Keeping these phenomena out of one’s backyard is the uncharted territory of NIMBY politics.