This is a guest post by Kim MacEachern from our Letters from the Labyrinth series.
It was at that moment when, sitting in the parking lot in Scottsdale and wrapping up a call with you, I noticed a row of tourists on Segways snaking down the sidewalk across the street that you asked about how technology is impacting my city. Synchronicity is not rare, proving we are living in a simulation. If only that had not led to you revealing to my untrained brain that Dean Kamen, the Segway inventor and founder of FIRST Robotics in which my daughter participated about twenty years ago (and quite successfully – their Arizona Community Team, which was not even affiliated with a school, went all the way to the nationals, no doubt because of support and funding by the dad of her teammate, Steve Sanghi, CEO of Microchip) was funded by the Department of Defense. That revelation nuked my last nugget of Pollyanna-ness.
Phoenix, Arizona and the greater metropolitan area is unlike anyplace in the United States. Until literally forty years ago, Phoenix was a crossroads place: a small, big city. Everyone knew everyone and lots more everyone’s wintered here. Snowbirds would swell the place until the temps hit 100 degrees, and then we would get the streets back and have the place to ourselves, tubing the Salt River, partying in the desert, drag racing on the outskirts, riding horses in neighborhoods, cruising Central Avenue.
Then this happened:
A fourth generation Arizonan, my people were preceded by a few wranglers and the Hohokam, who 1500 years prior had a thriving canal and agricultural system in this area now called the Valley of the Sun. So, I suppose it was natural that technology would not only have an impact but would be the catalyst for people living in the gorgeous (once you come to understand it) Sonoran desert. A child of the 1950’s, I grew up with this place in which the driving economic activity was captured in the logo of our statehood where the Five Cs are depicted: Cattle, Copper, Citrus, Cotton, and Climate. Since our 1912 statehood, not only have the ranks swelled but the C’s are in need of a revision: Cattle, Computers, Copper, Citrus, Chips, Cotton, College, and Climate. Since the Carrier brothers invented air conditioning, thus ameliorating the summer heat, we are now about to host all kinds of technology that is light years beyond the simple canals that gave us our lifeblood to make these expansions.
The disappearance of the Hohokam however, is always in the back of our minds, and with the recent drought conditions it is in the front on many days as well. Now, instead of cowboys we have computation: tons of it going on all over the place, especially if you know where to look. Because everything here is relatively new and was built cheaply, it doesn’t take too much to tear it down and rebuild. Just about every cool thing we ever had has been replaced in this short time. And tons more has been built out. So retrofitting things to accommodate the surveillance state is somewhat of a snap-the big drawback being sprawl. Because it is so young and was uninhabitable before the advent of the motorcar this place was built for cars and planes. Our airport is right in the middle of the city, which is in the middle of a network of freeways that straddle the mostly dry riverbed that is only fed when the reservoirs are full and require releases.
Other than tourism and construction, government has always been big business here as much of the growth was stimulated by the location of military bases mostly in the southern half of the state. Contractors and soldiers serving the military complex saw it as only natural to set up the industrial counterpart of which Eisenhower warned once they came out and were exposed to the lifestyle and the weather. Ergo, then came Honeywell and Motorola and Raytheon and General Dynamics and Goodyear. Now we have Intel and Taiwan’s Semiconductor is building a massive facility in north Phoenix.
And ASU’s Sky Song and School of Sustainability and all its research programs that go with the technology school that Michael Crow created and has metastasized from Tempe into downtown Phoenix. We have Midwestern and Creighton Medical Schools and TGen rounding out the biotechnology category. Mayo Clinic has a massive campus among the half dozen other major hospital chains. Meanwhile, the wide-open spaces and the independent-minded, dare devil, cowboy conservative mentality was devoured by the urban, liberal, technophiles. Always behind housing, the downtown and midtown skies are filling with high and mid-rise apartments complete with ad wraps and digital billboards much like a scene from Blade Runner if it were on Dune. In the salad days before the last downturn in 2008, our flush government willingly funded a boondoggle project that, after 25 years of operation, is still expanding. The Valley Metro Light Rail system cut a linear path from mid-city to the east. Slow, infrequent and rarely policed, the system was a puzzle to me in terms of the cost-benefit ratio, at least until I followed the money. The biggest boon to the valley from this inconvenient monstrosity that forced street cruising to a suburban mall where it died an over-policed death and derailed all the heretofore palm-lined parades to a meander through a not so attractive commercial district (being a new city one would assume that we would do wonders with street and canal scapes—alas, not so much), has been to the construction industry.
This stupid train has become a magnet for cookie cutter “luxury” apartment complexes that have popped up like acne on a teenager. At least it generated a somewhat sensible response, unlike the billion dollar sky tram at the airport that is solely for schlepping travelers to and from rental cars, which would be wholly unnecessary if we had a truly functioning public transit system. These apartment complexes are not cheap, rent wise. A one bedroom/bath 800 square unit runs $2500 per month but sports keyless entry, smart thermostats (one offered a/c only-not sure what happens on chilly days) and upscale fitness, gathering areas-some include business working space-and secure, personal, Gigabit WiFi that travels with you throughout the community! And you can wash your dog in a station just for that.
Around 2010-2015 I was spending a lot of time at the Arizona legislature primarily to make/monitor changes to criminal statutes, but I did pay attention to things going on around me. I recall debates on laws related to smart contracts, insurance products for autonomous cars and a fin-tech sandbox, a first in the country to set up a regulatory framework to attract tech financing. Of course, once they passed this finance thing, the first thing they did was contract with a consulting company to set up a system to get bank money to idea companies; it appears to be a sort of system for streamlining venture capital for people in these kinds of businesses by making a regulatory structure that is workable. (If you are in a legacy business you are on your own.)
From the application:
Area of Specialization.
Select all that apply*(required)
Infrastructure/Core banking Digital Banking
Although a quick check of the website contains zero news, the page was entertaining to look at. Apparently things are not exactly looking up, as no news is no news. Even though this particular program seems a little in the tank, according to the Arizona Department of Commerce website, we are home to 1200 defense related businesses, a handful of manufacturers (including Frito Lay-chips which are like sausages—you never want to see them being made), bioscience and healthcare (lots of elderly/retirees so lots of hospitals), money businesses, film (no tax credit but an awesome climate), and technology businesses. One of those is Waymo.
I listened to a podcast while working on a piece of art around 2017 or so and announced to my 86-year-old dad that autonomous cars would be a thing within ten years. Of course, he said I was crazy. He passed away a year ago, just short of the time when the Waymo vehicles that have been driving around to map our neighborhood for the last couple of years were finally able to launch their driverless ride service. It should be only a couple more weeks before we are inured to it and stop gawking every time we see one of these unmistakable vehicles on the road. Although the website says operating in multiple cities, it only includes two: San Francisco and Phoenix; LA is “coming soon” (I am sure mapping that is a piece of cake). Given the crime situation in SF I am sure that this would make a fine getaway car because there is no one to ID you if you toss your burner phone after hailing the ride. Anyway, check it out at Waymo.com if you don’t believe me. It’s real.
Of course, autonomous cars raise the specter of public safety. Early on, one of these cars hit and killed a bicyclist who darted out in front of it under the cover of darkness while it had a human driver behind the wheel who was unable to react in time because she was looking at her phone. It was a headline mess for a while but doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore. This public safety aspect brings me to a friend who works for a local surveillance company that has altruistic if suspect intentions. In the name of public safety, they have been mounting cameras on intersections all over the country. I am trying to help my pal move over to the company that makes tasers which has a much closer alignment to actual public safety.
Today I drove through one such intersection and noticed a big bulky round obelisk that was painted dark green on the corner. It was not art, nor was it labeled. It gave me the creeps, but then again that may have just been the result of the frequency change I experienced being near it. In addition to the increasing number of cashless transactions in local businesses (to my utter delight I still get a discount for cash at the local sausage store which is another place I don’t wish to go behind the scenes but in this case I trust it is all fresh, organic and local as do any number of restaurants in our area), the other big thing that stands out to me, just a luddite native, is the sky. I used to hate wind; now I pray for it because it is one of the few times that are skies are not being frosted like a cake by the geoengineering planes that must be flying out of one of the nearby US Air Force bases. These activities are unrelenting, and although I will admit it has been an unusually cool and wet winter, at least by recent standards (my childhood weather was more like this actually) all their efforts do not seem to be having any impact on that spring phenomenon where we jump from the 70’s right into the 90’s and beyond.
I have a friend who is as cynical and skeptical as I am, partly because her husband was a career military/law enforcement person. She mentioned that she knows some pilots who say they are sworn to secrecy about these missions. Now, these two factors: the lack of impact on the temperature and the secrets are enough to make one suspect what the heck is in there besides the bohrium, strontium and aluminum that Dane Wigington, bless his heart, is so fond of naming (he is at geoengineeringwatch.org). On the plus side, it makes for some darned good sunsets. Here is a pastel rendering I did from a photo taken off my balcony
Being a small, cross section sort of city in that everybody here is from somewhere else, Phoenix has long been a test market for new products. Over my lifetime we got a lot of the new-fangled consumables before anyone else in the country. It looks like, in terms of technology, it is no different. We are in the saturation zone. Phoenix just is not the place it used to be, but I guess nostalgia gets you nowhere.