17.5. The Automobile

Imagine Mr. Smith, early in the last century, climbing into his Model T to go help a sick friend on the other side of town. He might well have the thought, "This automobile is an amazing machine! Look how easily I can visit someone in need. Surely the automobile will draw us together, knitting our towns and cities into much more tightly integrated communities."

It would have been a reasonable surmise. The ensuing century, however, told a different story a story of urban sprawl; devastated city centers; malls; neon-lit commercial strips; the dissolution of families; long commutes; a culture of distraction and flight; the disappearance of an underclass beneath the freeway ramps; and the strange "society" of drivers crammed together in congested traffic, each isolated within his own bubble of glass and metal.

Not much of this looks like a strengthening of community.

As with the other devices we have considered, there is no need for the simplistic argument that the automobile made all these things happen. The point is only that it fits harmoniously into the picture a picture that differs radically from the seemingly assured results the early users might have expected.

Certainly it was a good and neighborly deed when Mr. Smith drove his Model T across town to assist his friend. The act seen by itself was a strengthening of communal ties. And certainly the trip now seemed easier than with the old horse and buggy. What, then, went wrong?

Nothing went wrong. Mr. Smith's good deed remains, in its own terms, a good deed, and we can be glad for it. It's just that he committed the mistake that bedevils nearly all initial assessments of technology: he looked at some particular new thing he could do, marveled at it, and then extrapolated from it. He didn't bother to consider how society as a whole would re-shape itself around the technology.

Yes, his was a deeply communal gesture. But, if he had the historical perspective we now have, he might instead have said to himself as he got into his Model T, "By using my car to do this good, communal deed, I am doing my small part to destroy community."

Technologies pose a riddle for us. If, as we use our new inventions, we are not also looking deeper than the immediate uses, if we are not addressing their riddle, then we can be pretty certain we are cooperating in the production of some very unhappy consequences.

Part of the problem lies in the narrowness of our focus when we take the new technology in hand and say, "Look! Now I can do this!" We assume that everything about our current circumstances will remain the same, except that now we have this neat, new capability.

But things do not stay the same. How, after all, would the benefits Mr. Smith enjoyed spread more widely throughout society? As it happened, they spread by means of ownership one or more cars per family as well as millions of miles of paved roads carving up both countryside and city. What fuels the automobile, where does the fuel come from, how will it be gotten to consumers, and what are the by-products of its burning? By what processes, social and technical, is the machine manufactured, and what institutions and policies bear on the economics of manufacturing? What sort of road is required, and how will the proliferation of these roads change the landscape? What pronounced tendencies of our own does the machine play into? (If we have already shown a preference for abandoning community, won't the automobile give us a more effective tool for the abandonment?) How will the presence, noise, and emissions of the automobile affect the various ecological balances upon which it impinges? And so on ad infinitum.

Or think of it this way. The whole idea of a distancecollapsing technology is to enable us to get more quickly from point A to point B. But getting more quickly from A to B means having less time and opportunity for attending to any of the points between A and B. Moreover, as the influence of distance-collapsing technologies spreads, A and B themselves become intermediary points in an ever-expanding net of one-time destinations that are now mere way stations. If we're to cover those spaces efficiently, we have no more time for A and B than for any of the points between. And so we find ourselves in a world where we're all just passing through.

How can people who are just passing through determined to crisscross each other's paths at ever more dizzying speeds come closer together? The easiest result not an absolutely necessary one, but the result we can most naturally fall into is the one that can seem paradoxical only at first glance: we find ourselves flying further and further apart rather than coming together. As abstract spatial distance yields to our technological prowess, the qualitative nooks and corners of particular places places where significant meetings can occur disappear into the quantitative vastnesses of that abstract space.

Clearly I am distinguishing here between two different senses of "coming together." And that is the crux of the matter. Technology can indeed overcome those physical spaces, but if this is how we frame the problem (and we must frame it this way if we want a perfectly effective technological "solution") then we have turned our eyes away from the much less easily defined problems that hinder our social coming together. This is how the new and wondrous technology becomes guaranteed to make the real problem worse.

The likelihood of the unhappy reversal, in other words, is a direct result of a technological fixation that encourages a subtle but disastrous shift in what we imagine our problems to be. The engineer, of course, can always say, "Hey, I was just trying to overcome the problem of spatial distance. What people do with this opportunity is their choice." There's profound truth in that. But the disclaimer is more than a little disingenuous in a society and an engineering culture where the exercise of the technical machinery for connecting persons is chronically confused with personal connections.

In sum, you have to picture how this new capability you have enjoyed will be realized across the whole of society, and how all the elements of this realization will bring the world into a different shape. A lively imagination is required one that can grasp complex, organic interrelationships.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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