In The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Portuguese writer José Saramago depicts a peculiar and clarifying meeting. This part of the book is one of my all time favorites. It goes more or less as follows. One day when he was living as a fisherman, Jesus rows his small boat into the sea. It's misty, and there's no one else in the water. After some time, Jesus finds himself surrounded by fog. He feels the boat shaking lightly as if weight has been added to its other end. It is his father. Not Joseph but the other, divine, one. It is not the first time they meet, but it seems things are more important this once. A bit of anxious chatting starts, but the father tells him to wait before the real conversation can take place. Then the noise of someone swimming, getting closer and closer and finally climbing to join them in the boat. It's the opponent, another face Jesus has seen more than once in his lifetime. Jesus and the two finaly start discussing the future. His father's plan was already laid. He would have to sacrifice. At some point the opponent proposes a truce. "What if none of this was needed? I will stop perpetuating evil, and the boy doesn't need to die". The father dismisses the attempt of peace. His plan was inevitable and in motion already. Before accepting, Jesus asks his father to tell him how many people would need to die, and who they were. It is a moment of clarity and fear, and also disgust. And acceptance, and conformity. Even though Jesus is on his boat with those other two, and has on his side a sharp intelligence, a skilled voice and the freedom to express it, he won't have a say. The decision was made and all he can do is playing his role.
Obviously I won't be comparing myself to any of those characters, but the situation reminds me of a meeting I had some years ago. The disgust and lack of agency seem incredibly the same. It was 2012. I was living in Campinas, studying for my Master's. On the side, I was also collaborating with a consultancy working on regulations for electronic waste in Brazil. Later that year we would have municipal elections in each one of Brazil's more than 10,000 municipalities. A friend and co-inspirer had introduced me by email to a person from Portugal who would be visiting Campinas to quickstart a project about Smart Cities. Naturally, by then I had already had my share of criticism to such projects. It's been some years since I met Adam Greenfield and his work critiquing the sort. I even wrote some blog posts (in Portuguese) in that same direction. But I was not ready for that meeting. It may be that I didn't expect my friend to hook me up with that kind of person, which I believe even made me disappointed after the meeting.
The guy was a sort of regional sales manager in a company connected to PlanIT valley, the project attempting to create a 'smart city' from scratch somewhere in Portugal. He went quickly through his pitch, presenting that project as the future all cities would gravitate towards. I believe he may have shown me a presentation and/or video, probably in a shining iPad. He was not at all memorable, except for his portuguese accent. What surprised me was that when talking about the elections I mentioned my attempt to contribute ideas to a campaign for mayor in Ubatuba. Ubatuba is a quite small municipality by the ocean, surrounded by nature. The city's budget should not be that attractive to an international company, but the guy's eyes shone. Only then it occurred to me that he was not at all interested in the impact those new technologies had in society. His interest was only on having access to public money. He quickly mentioned he had business relationships with all those large companies - Siemens, IBM, GE, etc. He asked me then what kind of problem the city had. I figured it would be a good idea to tell him about the management of solid waste in Ubatuba, but as soon as I said 'waste' he did interrupt me to say 'we have a solution for that'.
In many aspects I tend to the naive part of the trust spectrum, but since the days of MetaReciclagem I believe any technology should be adapted to society's needs, and not the opposite. And the very fact that the guy was claiming to have a solution even before I told him what the problem was made it an impossible, and disgusting, conversation. I could concede that the context there was not different from other cities, and that the issues we had might indeed echo those of other localities. But I'm also quite confident that every place is made of very peculiar parts, and the more involved we are in them, the more sensitive we are to foreign solutions - even more so when they're only trying to make easy money.
I never had the chance to explain in full what I though was the real problem in Ubatuba. I had lived there for almost four years before moving to Campinas, and was already planning to return as soon as I could. What I had learned so far was that the municipal landfill was deactivated some years earlier. Due to the fact that Ubatuba has most of its territory inside nature conservation areas, it was impractical to seek licensing for new landfills. What the city did then was to spend an enormous amount of money every year to 'export' solid waste elsewhere. If I'm not mistaken, it equated to almost eight to ten percent of the municipal budget being spent in hiring a company to handle it. The company had trucks going to most neighbourhoods, taking materials to a transfer station and then driving everything 160 kilometers up narrow, curvy roads to surpass a mountain range and finally get incinerated. No recycling, no reuse, no value assessment, no conversation with the waste generators. No account of the impact of those many trucks to the nature reserve bordering the road. To add complexity, there are many layers of decision-making in the city because of its environmental interest. As well as very isolated communities due to its fragmented geography. On top of it all, that touristic city's population may vary from less than 100,000 people for nine months in an year to three or four times more during the summer.
I doubt they would have any off-the-shelf solution for such a complex scenario. From that moment on, the conversation became gradually more schizophrenic. At first it felt as though we had a different accent, then it evolved as if we were speaking different languages. By the end I was sitting with an extraterrestrial alien who had no ears, and I couldn't tell his voice from the background noise, and felt as though I was on a boat contemplating a great plan laid out by a powerful being (not the guy, but the industrial complex backing him) in which I would never had a say.
After the meeting, both of us had the decency never to make contact again.