By Taylor Shelton
Around the country and around the world, municipal governments are turning to new technologies in order to solve a range of problems facing contemporary cities. From the futuristic control room created by IBM at the Rio Operations Center to the bevy of apps created by Code for America fellows around the US, these technological solutions are seen as ways to make urban management more efficient and effective in an era where cities are simultaneously faced with booming populations, global climate change and austerity programs.
But the idea that technology can change the way government operates isn’t new. Work like historian Jennifer Light’s From Warfare to Welfare demonstrates how these ideas took hold in an earlier era, when the technology-centric mindset of the American defense industry began to be imported into the realm of American urban planning in places like New York City through institutions like the RAND Corporation. Similar processes were happening all over the country, even in Atlanta.
While browsing some of the archival documents available online through the Georgia State University Libraries’ Planning Atlanta collection, I happened to come across the 1972 Annual Report of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. A summary of some of the county government’s most important (though still fairly mundane) initiatives for the year, three pages stood out towards the end of the report under the heading “Effectiveness through computerization”.
Featuring large pictures of both an IBM 2401 magnetic tape storage unit and an IBM System/360 mainframe computer, these pages extolled the benefits of new computational technologies for the functioning of the Fulton County government. Interestingly enough, however, these benefits were largely couched in the same language used to talk about the benefits of more advanced ‘big data’ technologies to urban problems today.
Through the adoption of these new computing technologies, the county government could “provid[e] the taxpayer with the maximum return for his [sic] tax dollar” by “increasing productivity by producing more with the same amount of human effort”, even allowing “one department [to] reduce total personnel required over a five year period”. The computer was thought to “improve allocation of resources”, “render service in the most effective and efficient manner” and even “rapidly simulate the effect of contemplated changes” to various policies in order to choose the optimal path. The report even argued that “the computer can…provide an impartial watchdog”, echoing contemporary notions that the use of data-driven processes in government can remove the ostensibly unnecessary politics from government decision-making. It even makes some (admittedly strange) diversions into the potential “use of data for psychological modeling” of juveniles at risk of delinquent behavior, a kind of proto-predictive policing.
Ultimately, however, we can see a clear connection between the past and present of urban technologies. Even though we’ve come a long way from magnetic tape and analog switches and knobs, many of the same actors (e.g., IBM) and discourses have remained firmly in play. So for all of the talk about the revolutionary potential of these new technologies, it’s important to keep in mind the very situation we’re in now was brought about (at least in part) by technologies that were thought of in much the same way nearly half a century ago.