Weekly Churn 010: The Devil You Know

Ahoy! This is the Weekly Churn, where every Sunday I post about what I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about over the previous week.

My friend Adam Greenfield was recently interviewed for the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum and has posted the interview on his website. Adam’s work has heavily shaped my thinking on urbanism generally and “smart cities” specifically. Since I’ve been learning about the Quayside project I’ve been trying, and mostly failing, to put my thoughts on the subject into words, even going so far as to have a whole library of books piled near my desk trying to put something together. The closest I’ve come so far is this earlier post about how the language of the business world can have a negative impact on how we think about governance. Thankfully, Adam’s recent interview is pretty direct, and aligns with my own views very closely.

Here in Toronto a lot of people are still talking about smart cities in terms of mitigation strategies, but as Bianca Wylie and others have said, that’s the wrong conversation to be having. Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism destroys any pretence of Google or any Alphabet company being a good faith actor, so Torontonians need to start having a different conversation, one that starts from a position that understands any deal with Sidewalk Labs will come with surveillance, and also understands anonymity is off the table no matter what Dan Doctoroff says.

Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”

Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.

One of the chief places where Adam and I differ is our view of state power. For Adam, the primary danger of this level of surveillance—not the only danger, mind you—is the potential for abuse by the state. That is a real concern, and I don’t want to minimize it, but I think the potential for abuse by private interests is, in the context of Toronto, a more immediate problem (that Toronto’s city government is Adam’s go-to example for cultivated institutional incompetence should certainly alarm this city’s residents). While it’s true that the state has a (near) monopoly on violence and legislative authority gives it enormous power and reach, our employers have more direct and granular authority over our day-to-day lives. Entrusting a surveillance and prediction apparatus far more powerful than the state’s to economic interests is profoundly scary to me. And it’s not even what they’d do with it on purpose that scares me the most, it’s the mistakes they’d make out of arrogance or even just basic stupidity.

Anyway, the entire interview is worth reading.

In the realm of television, Lucifer has returned from cancellation at Fox as a Netflix Original. I’m not going to argue that this show is good, because it really isn’t. The premise is absurd—a homicide detective teams up with the actual devil to solve crimes in Los Angeles—but it just somehow worked in the first two seasons, mostly because of Tom Ellis’s charisma and his chemistry with co-lead Lauren German. It was never a smart show, but it was fun and it never tried to be anything else.

Aimee Garcia in Lucifer

The show hasn’t really worked well since the end of season two, as the character dynamics have changed to ratchet up the campiness at the expense of both the writing and the cast. Tom Ellis’ performance has become a parody of charisma and frequently descends into petulance, while Lauren German has been forced to play the confident and capable Det. Decker as confused, tentative, and oblivious. The only continuous bright spot is Aimee Garcia’s Ella Lopez, whose character was designed from the start to be over-the-top and absurd—the show hasn’t had to push Garcia’s performance into weird places to make her character fit with the broader tone, so Ella Lopez remains charming. Anyway, it’s an increasingly bad show, but it slots into the same category of pleasure as a bag of Old Dutch sour cream ‘n’ onion potato chips, so I’m not likely to drop it anytime soon.

The Good Fight is also changing; this season it’s primarily a political satire that layers issue on top of issue and complication on top of complication, slowly stripping away character arcs in favour of topical set pieces. The main cast mostly escape having their characters subsumed into these set pieces, but not always. Michael Sheen’s performance as Roland Blum has been wonderful, but his character seems only to exist to blow up the show and to sideline or even eliminate Rose Leslie’s Maia Rindell. The Good Fight has been great about addressing some of the most glaring problems of its parent show, The Good Wife, its poor record on race in particular, but while the first season made me feel like Rose Leslie, Cush Jumbo, and Sarah Steele would all have arcs alongside Christine Baranski, with the four women navigating the same issues in unique ways thanks to differences in race, sexuality, generation, and even class,1 that is not the direction the show has gone. I love Christine Baranski, but season three of The Good Fight feels increasingly like her show rather than an ensemble show, and even when Delroy Lindo and Audra McDonald have major storylines she’s inserted into the middle of them somehow. It’s still one of the best programs on television, but I can’t help but think the depth the cast can bring is being wasted, and that some of the amazing actors whose story arcs are being diminished will want to leave for something that lets them stretch out a bit. I have no doubt that Baranski can carry a show, but The Good Fight, like The Good Wife before it, lives or dies on how fully realized the characters around the lead feel, and I worry they’re starting to lose sight of that.

Finally, today is the first Mother’s Day since my mom died, and while I’m certainly having a complicated stew of feelings, I’ve decided to take a pass on dissecting them here for this week.

Anyway, that’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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