Christine Rosen

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A bunch of my favorite articles from 2012. (A couple of pieces from December 2011 are included since I do these lists before the absolute end of the year.) All ungated and free.

  • Pedestrian Mania(Brian Phillips, Grantland): Beautiful piece about world-famous 1870s long-distance walking champion Edward Payson Weston, subject of the book, A Man in a Hurry.
  • Brains Plus Brawn(Daniel Lieberman, Edge) Incredibly fun article about endurance, which points out, among many other things, that as quick as Usain Bolt may seem, your average sheep or goat can run twice as fast.
  • A New Birth of Reason” (Susan Jacoby, The American Scholar): Great essay about Robert Ingersoll, the largely forgotten secularist who was a major force in 19th-century America, taken from the writer’s forthcoming book, The Great Agnostic.
  • One’s a Crowd” (Eric Kleinberg, The New York Times): Great Op-Ed piece about the increasing number of people living alone.
  • How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times): A deep and penetrating explanation of the complicated forces at play in job outsourcing.
  • The Power of Habit“ (Charles Duhigg, Slate): An excerpt from the author’s bestseller of the same name which explains how Pepsodent became omnipresent.
  • We’re Underestimating the Risk of Extinction (Ross Andersen, The Atlantic): I didn’t necessarily agree with the premise (or conclusions) of this interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, but I enjoyed its intelligence immensely.
  • Hustling the Cloud” (Steven Boone, Capital New York): Wonderful piece about a bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night search for free Wi-Fi–and anything else that would seem to make sense–in a time of dire economic straits.
  • Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World (Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine): Fascinating examination of the titular biologist, who wants to make breathing bots that will cure the world’s ills.
  • The Machine and the Ghost(Christine Rosen, The New Republic): The author riffs on how the rise of smart, quantified gizmos and cities necessitates a new “morality of things.”

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I recently posted something about the South Korean insta-city, Songdo, billed as the world’s first “smart city,” which will be embedded with technology that will constantly collect and respond to streams of data. In “The Machine and the Ghost” in the New Republic. Christine Rosen begins her excellent consideration of the rise of the machines with a description of Songdo:

“JUST WEST OF SEOUL, on a man-made island in the Yellow Sea, a city is rising. Slated for completion by 2015, Songdo has been meticulously planned by engineers and architects and lavishly financed by money from the American real estate company Gale International and the investment bank Morgan Stanley. According to the head of Cisco Systems, which has partnered with Gale International to supply the telecommunications infrastructure, Songdo will ‘run on information.’ It will be the world’s first ‘smart city.’

The city of Songdo claims intelligence not from its inhabitants, but from the millions of wireless sensors and microcomputers embedded in surfaces and objects throughout the metropolis. ‘Smart’ appliances installed in every home send a constant stream of data to the city’s ‘smart grid’ that monitors energy use. Radio frequency ID tags on every car send signals to sensors in the road that measure traffic flow; cameras on every street scrutinize people’s movements so the city’s street lights can be adjusted to suit pedestrian traffic flow. Information flows to the city’s ‘control hub’ that assesses everything from the weather (to prepare for peak energy use) to the precise number of people congregating on a particular corner.

Songdo will also feature ‘TelePresence,’ the Cisco-designed system that will place video screens in every home, office, and on city streets so residents can make video calls to anyone at any time. ‘If you want to talk to your neighbors or book a table at a restaurant you can do it via TelePresence,’ Cisco chief globalization officer Wim Elfrink told Fast Company magazine. Gale International plans to replicate Songdo across the world; another consortium of technology companies is already at work on a similar metropolis, PlanIT Valley, in Portugal.

The unstated but evident goal of these new urban planners is to run the complicated infrastructure of a city with as little human intervention as possible. In the twenty-first century, in cities such as Songdo, machine politics will have a literal meaning—our interactions with the people and objects around us will be turned into data that computers in a control hub, not flesh-and-blood politicians, will analyze.

But buried in Songdo’s millions of sensors is more than the promise of monitoring energy use or traffic flow. The city’s ‘Ambient Intelligence,’ as it is called, is the latest iteration of a ubiquitous computing revolution many years in the making, one that hopes to include the human body among its regulated machines.”