Short Review - How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables

30 April, 2023

Publisher: Meatspace Press

Editors: Shannon Mattern, Mark Graham, Rob Kitchin, and Joe Shaw

The ideal city, at least to the denizens of certain ideological circles, is one in which that city and its services are run like a business. More to the point, a city and its services that are in the hands of private enterprise — preferably one or more technology firms.

That kind of a shift is touted by its boosters as making local government leaner. As allowing those governments to make better decisions with data. As offering better services, more efficiency, and at lower costs. Which, in turn, results in lower taxes and fees. And who doesn’t want that?

But does the vision match what will really happen? That’s difficult to predict with absolute accuracy. In How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables, a group of academics and writers with deep interests in technology and public policy uses a set of short stories, poems, essays, and essay fiction to present a different perspective.

What emerges from this book isn’t the image of a smoothly-running metropolis, one basking in the wonders of the free market and lean, data-driven digital processes. Instead, it’s a city of social credit scoring. A city of constant surveillance and data gathering, of scrambles for scraps of gig work. A city in the throes of a race to the bottom fueled both by the need to survive from day to day and by the greed of the corporations pulling the digital levers. It’s a metropolis in which the divisions we see in our society today are further deepened by algorithms. Hardly the technological utopia promised by the likes of Sidewalk Labs, IBM, and Cisco Systems.

How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables is a thought provoking and sobering read that provides a counterpoint to the tales of the rosy futures that many technologists are spinning to try to convince us their vision of tomorrow’s city is what’s best for us. Speculative though it may be, this book offers a look into a potential tomorrow. A tomorrow that isn’t the future we signed up for. One which, if we take what’s been happening in the technology world over the last decade or so into account, could be a likely tomorrow.

Scott Nesbitt