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“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” That slightly glib phrase often regurgitated at tech conferences, is perhaps something worth contemplating on for a few minutes.

It speaks of course mainly to social media companies, conceived by a generation of technologists who understood and harnessed the viral power of social networking online. And it‘s been a hugely successful and profitable enterprise. No longer are they the idealistic college nerds, but CEO’s of multi-million dollar corporations.

The deal is simple. They loan you a free patch of land within their walled garden. On this land you can grow your own content like photos, videos, text, comments and you get to share them with other people who also live within the walled garden. But you don’t own the fruits of your labour. They do. And they harvest that content and auction it to other companies who want to try and sell your stuff. A kind of 21st century digital sharecropping!

This is the stark reality of online social interactions in 2017. Our personal information, which we don’t own, trapped in a series of walled gardens being harvested and sold at auction to the highest bidder.

Probably not what Tim Berners-Lee envisaged when he sat down at his CERN desk in 1989 and invented the World Wide Web. The now ubiquitous information space of connected documents that we all access via the Internet. Indeed not what any of the early hypertext pioneers like Vannevar Bush (his prophetic 1945 paper ‘As We May Think’ is well worth revisiting) would recognise as anywhere near democratisation of data.

And this is also only half the story. Social media companies also control what you see, or at least filter what you see, with a biased towards what they think you might like. So cyberspace censorship! How do they know (or guess) what you might like?

I don’t know exactly, as this is part of their well-guarded intellectual property. However it probably involves algorithms that use some form of machine learning such as neural networks or Bayesian inference. In effect, they ‘learn’ what you like to click on and what you don’t, then filter your social feed accordingly.

Nothing wrong with that you might say. Getting to see more things you like is actually a nicer, more enjoyable experience. True. And of course social media companies wouldn’t do it if it didn’t stimulate more interaction, more clicks, more likes and ultimately more money for them.

In our age of individualism they know we all feel more secure when we see ourselves reflected back in the mirror of social media.

But this kind of experience decontamination is not conducive to better interactions. Polishing the rough edges of human experiences, it seems, actually has a polarising effect. Everyone becomes more entrenched in the opinions that they and their friends already hold.

Indeed there is evidence to suggest that the more time you spend on social media the less happy you are. Too much time comparing yourself with your peer group and not enough time having your beliefs challenged and tested.

This is not a criticism against the intentions of social media companies, but good intentions and principles often get mislaid on the rocky road towards glory and profit. Sadly behind the superficial freedoms of the Web are now a few gigantic corporations with obscure technology that binds us in mind-forged manacles.

Technologists unsurprisingly tend to have a ‘black and white’ mentality. A mathematical proof is either right or wrong. A bit is either 1 or 0. More technology is better than no technology. A city will of course run better with as much technology as possible. Can utopia be reached if we embrace as much technology as possible? This is of course nonsense!

We could never make ALL trains run on time, we can never eliminate ALL traffic and we can’t make an occupants experience in a building TOTALLY frictionless.

Why would we want to do that anyway? Doesn’t a totally frictionless daily experience sound utterly boring and desolate?

I recently heard an executive at a global technology company describe what the perfect commercial office experience would be like. You would walk into the building, it would know who you are and the gate opens automatically. The lift would take you to exactly the right floor without pushing a button. You would sit down at your desk and it would remember exactly the temperature you prefer and what music you want to listen to. To me, this description totally misunderstands and misrepresents the human experience!

It does not speak to the joy of feeling warm sunshine on your face as you look out of the office window on a frosty winter morning or the two minute chat you have with the receptionist, laughing about the TV series you both watched last night. However trivial, these small things collectively amount to what it is to live in a human society.

We recently wrote in an article titled Designing Human-Centric Buildings in which we said “In the smart building, occupants are thrown into a world of buttons and features, or one of automation and no control; there is no opportunity to create an attachment with the technology. By ‘simplifying, perfecting, and starting over’ with the user in mind, the smart building can become the technological extension occupants actually desire.”

Let’s keep the human experience at the centre of our future smart buildings and smart cities; And we can start by avoiding the mistakes of social media and start knocking down data walls instead of building them.

We don’t need a top down controlled, hierarchical system controlling our cities and buildings. Anthony Townsend, a research director at the Institute for the Future talks about how smart cities could develop, using the analogy of a mainframe vs. the web. He writes:

“These model smart cities are like mainframes where everything’s going to a central place. There’s one suite of software that dictates how everything works and can be very carefully engineered. But our ‘smart’ cities are going to look much more like the Web, where there’s going to be a lot of things deployed by individual decision, talking to each other through open standards in very ad hoc, loosely knit ways”.

Data should flow freely through Open Standards and although this may well lead to more messy, less elegant solutions that’s OK because ultimately, like democracy, it gives us the freedom to choose and change things if we want to.

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