Technologies can change the way we live in an integrated world. The twentieth century saw a tremendous number of changes in our lives based entirely on the influence of the car. What is important is not the technology itself, although it is possible to ruin the planet with a bigger, better idea run amok. What matters is how people respond to the technology and use it to reflect their own hopes and fears.
The car is what we would call a “distributed technology”, which is to say that no central authority appears to control it. It was taken as the manifestation of Freedom� itself, allowing people to live far away from the smoke and noise of the city. We could go anywhere, and did. Our world has reached the point where there is little need for a thing called a “Downtown” in most cities, because factories and offices can be located nearly anywhere. It’s all about access.
With the arrival of the internet, another key distributed technology, it has become even more possible to live far from any kind of central action. Offices can be located anywhere in the world, and they can still communicate with each other. Telecommuting is even possible, allowing us to interact with actual humans only as much as we want to.
Introducing the internet to a car culture has the potential to be devastating.
It’s not that the car changed us. It’s that we chose to use it in a way that allowed for splendid isolation that is the problem. People in other lands have not taken this as a way of cutting themselves off from everyone else in their town and region, so why have we?
The simple answer is that we were different from the start. We have a great deal more fear of other people, a fear that is based on the simple fact that we have so many ethnic groups and a grinding poverty problem. At the first chance to get away, we did. This isn’t the values of the car, which is only a tool no more good or evil than a crescent wrench. The way we used it has always been up to us, and we chose to flee.
What is the purpose of an old city, especially its downtown, in all of this? Increasingly, there is no purpose. An entertainment district often forms where the funky brick buildings of no more than about 5 stories make an exciting yet homey backdrop for scooping out chicks. Even this, however, is usually a world apart from the lives of most people, populated by twenty-somethings who enjoy having their own world.
The internet is only beginning to sink into the way we order our lives. The old patterns of life remain, but email and web based information sits on top of them. This will probably not hold forever. Those of us who are concerned about the effect on our lives need to study the effect of the last great wave of distributed technology.
It’s not about what the technology does to our lives, it is about what we want to do with it. If we still fear each other so much that we feel a deep need to live far apart, the internet will ultimately allow us to live even further apart. Our politics and our sense of spirituality will become more me-centered. Divides between us will deepen. We will cease to be able to call ourselves one people, even if we pack 2.5 million people into one “metro area”.
All of this will happen unless we start to decide that it is a recipe for disaster and talk about what we want from this new technology. What are the hopes that we have for it, beyond the obvious fears? Can we use this to talk to each other, and not merely exchange snide comments? It’s all up to us.