Smart infrastructures require governance, specifically governance of intelligence and intelligence-enabled control. For example, in some very important respects, smart infrastructures should be dumb and that will take governance. One way to quickly see the point is by way of analogy to the Internet and the decades-long and still ongoing debate about network neutrality. The end-to-end architecture of the Internet and open Internet regulation govern certain uses of intelligence and thus intelligence-enabled control by infrastructure owners. Network neutrality is about engineering a governance seam between layers of an infrastructural system, and societies will face very similar challenges for many different infrastructures and services.
The Internet unleashed the wave of smart technologies that promises to transform most of the environments within which human beings live and develop, ranging from smart homes and smart offices to smart cities. The smart technology transformation is likely to work its magic first, however, on the basic infrastructures that operate unnoticed by most of us in the background. Smart grids and transportation infrastructure will pave the way for the smart technology revolution.
Infrastructure systems are incredibly complex. Often overlooked, pervasive and interdependent social policy and technological design questions concern where and how intelligence and control technologies are deployed within infrastructure systems. Who gets to decide how such technologies are used?
The history of the Internet provides a decent map of future governance dilemmas society will face. In particular, the network neutrality debate will not only persist for the Internet but also will return in modified form for other infrastructural systems. At its core, the network neutrality debate is fundamentally about whether and how private owners of the Internet’s underlying communications infrastructure could use the intelligence they gathered. In other words, the debate was and still is about how smart the Internet infrastructure should be. The core Open Internet rules aim to prevent broadband Internet service providers from using intelligence about the identity of end-users and uses (essentially, who’s doing what online) to exercise control through various means (blocking, throttling, pricing). Constraining the networks in this fashion enables and even empowers end-users to be active and productive rather than merely passive and consumptive (For extensive discussion, see Frischmann 2012). As we extend networked intelligence to other infrastructures—e.g., transportation and electricity—and into other spaces—e.g., cities, workplaces, and homes—society will need to grapple with how to govern intelligence and intelligence-enabled control.
Consider transportation. In the eyes or algorithms of traffic engineers, vehicles on roads are just like data packets online. Both draw on network capacity, can create congestion during transit, and generate value upon delivery. There are important differences between vehicles and data packets and between roads and the Internet. The analogy draws attention to functional similarities and helps us see relationships between the infrastructures and society.
Functionally, traffic management depends upon intelligence and control. Typically, managers must know something about supply, demand, actual and expected traffic flows, interactions among traffic flows, etc. And they must be able to exert control over the traffic and users. Control is an essential feature of traffic management, and it can take many forms, ranging from pricing to norms and technological constraints.
Infrastructures matter to society for many reasons. Many economists, sociologists, and historians focus on how infrastructure investment played a major role in shaping the modern economy. Changes to transportation are inextricably linked to expanding cities, the rise and sprawl of the suburbs, and the transformation of rural areas. At the same time, infrastructure has shaped the human condition by enabling us to exercise and develop fundamental human capabilities. Consider free will, autonomy and sociality. These concepts play a central role in ethical and political visions of responsibility, entitlement, and social life. It’s one thing to theorize the importance of people making informed and uncoerced decisions. It’s quite another to create reliable pathways for citizens to realize their potential for free thought, action and collaboration. That requires opportunities to be mobile, communicate, and socialize.
To democratize these existential benefits and many others, both roads and the Internet historically have been managed as commons. Guided by the logic that priority shouldn’t be granted to anyone or any purpose, egalitarian policies have regulated infrastructure access and use. In an emergency, police can break speed limits and run red lights. But this narrow exception and others concern situations where our collective social welfare is at stake. They’re not instances of fast lanes going to the highest bidders.
Different governance regimes can protect neutrality. The end-to-end architecture of the Internet can safeguard this goal. So can bolstering public ownership of most roads with regulations that promote public goods. Respect for the commons goes a long way towards explaining why traffic engineering usually aims to mitigate congestion and not maximize market value or profits. But this ambition can change.
Forward-looking, powerful industries are actively involved in the design and regulation of smart transportation infrastructure. It would be naïve to expect that shareholder expectations won’t influence the policy goals of using smart grids to enhance safety, minimize negative environmental impacts, and create efficient routing. These expectations are part of the package deal of using proprietary products and services to mediate how smart vehicles communicate to other smart vehicles and interact with smart infrastructure. As with the Internet, all layers of the emerging smart transportation system present opportunities for surveillance and control.
Smarter technology isn’t always better technology. As we collectively decide how smart new forms of infrastructure should be, we should keep in mind that sometimes, smart systems can be too smart for our own good. Keep in mind that traffic management depends upon intelligence and control, and what we are concerned with is the specific use of intelligence to exert control and set priorities. Such infrastructural power can lead to significant and difficult to resist forms of techno-social engineering (For extensive discussion, see Frischmann and Selinger 2018). Prioritization of traffic (infrastructure use) based on willingness and ability to pay (market value) rather than some other measure of social value affects the distribution of infrastructural affordances. Simply put, prioritization determines who is capable of doing what and often with whom. It is nothing short of social planning.
What does this mean for our future smart transportation system and by extension, other smart infrastructure systems? There is a strong case to be made for network neutrality style rules at the infrastructure layers of any smart transportation system. Such rules sustain an underdetermined environment and thus serve as a defense against engineered determinism (Frischmann and Selinger 2018). Transportation systems are incredibly complex, and intelligence can and should be used to manage certain costs—such as congestion—and risks—such as accidents. This can be done in a manner that does not discriminate or prioritize based on the identity of drivers or some proxy for their value (e.g., market valuation). This is a social choice involving complex tradeoffs.
Further, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that such costs and risks can or should be eliminated or even driven as low as technically possible; there are tradeoffs to doing so. Tolerating some congestion, friction, inefficiency, and transaction costs may be necessary to sustain an underdetermined environment conducive to human flourishing.
I remain optimistic about the potential of a smart transportation system that intelligently saves lives, manages congestion, reduces environmental costs, and identifies maintenance needs. Autonomous or self-driving cars increase human agency by providing people with more time and attention to devote to other pursuits, whether productive, consumptive, contemplative, or social … who knows? While people debate exactly how many lives autonomous cars can be expected to save, it’s widely thought to be large enough that it would be immoral not to make them street legal as soon as possible. I am sympathetic to this view so long as enough attention is given to the difficult issues concerning governance, technical design, and social choices about normative priorities. Who decides needs to be front and center as industry and governments pave the way for the emergent smart transportation systems. We cannot afford to leave it to technologists, politicians, or some abstract and ultimately meaningless conception of a free market.