The lady sitting in front of me on the tram was clearly into her music. She was using headphones, but we could all clearly hear Eric Clapton’s dulcet tones explaining that he would, “wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves.” Deep stuff, Eric; but also, rather loud. I mirrored the attitude of the Dutch passengers around me, stoically ignoring the noise and searching for some sort of inner peace. However, the tram driver felt differently and requested the passenger turn her iPhone volume down, which she did.
In the relative quiet that followed, I realized there were two tech matters addressed in that single moment. Firstly, in a future (or in some places, current) world where there is no tram driver, we would have continued to listen to the tinny echoes of Eric Clapton passing through the headphones; and secondly, tech ‘smarts’ can be, and often are, ignored by consumers.
I say the latter, because Apple takes some lengths to remind us that we shouldn’t be listening to extremely loud music via headphones. Siri will helpfully suggest that it may be too loud for comfort and for the sake of our eardrums (as well as those around us), a lower volume would be a good idea. But we can overrule such a suggestion. And while I feel that we should be able to, I’m not convinced that will always be the case. As we embrace artificial intelligence, rather than simply helpful suggestions, I can see a time when the music volume may perhaps be determined for us.
That may be (and probably is) a very trivial concern, but it is a small sign of the ‘freedoms’ that we could give up, ever so slowly, as we allow more ‘smarts’ to seep into our world. And the smarts are coming. Almost every tech company out there salivates at the idea of a ‘smart city’ and what that means in terms of future revenue and new product opportunities. What is required is a careful balance between the consumer’s desires and technology’s drive towards more intelligence. And please don’t mistake me for someone with nightmares about a dystopian, Blade Runner-esque future: I’m a self-professed nerd who is pretty excited about how technology can help create a smarter city.
But this is where I hope the term ‘smart city’ can be used a little more widely than simply in a tech context. A smartphone is not really ‘smart’; rather it’s a small computer (and we don’t call the ‘PC’ a Smart PC very often). The same is true of a Smart TV, adding apps does not make it smart, it just broadens its use case and makes life a little more convenient for us all. The key here is the term convenience: a smart city should provide us more information with which we can make decisions. More so, a smart city should provide us with a more entertaining, playful world around us, which does not necessarily mean more overt technology, as much as it does a cleverer, more creative implementation of everyday products that surround us. For that, we all need to think far beyond the current state of technology and do a better job of blending tech with everyday activities. That said, the activity needs to remain at the forefront, rather than letting technology drive the direction… even if it does mean occasionally listening to someone else’s music on the tram. But that can have advantages too: I haven’t listened to Cream for a long time and I can thank the lady on the tram for the reminder to give them another listen.