Today I want to offer a quick provocation that might make for interesting conversations (read: arguments) with family and friends this holiday season. Statistically speaking, you are probably on the road right now. Maybe you are just sitting down at your favorite reststop Sbarro (The Official Food of You Don’t Have Another Choice™) and, after checking in on Foursquare, you start reading some of your favorite blogs (that’s us). Then, maybe its your nosey uncle, or your 10-year-old sister, or your husband leans over and tells you to, “get off the Interent and interact with the real world.” Its a slightly rude thing to say, but you put your phone down and engage with those in bodily co-presence. What is it about the Internet that invites strong criticism from such a wide range of people? It is often said that 1) the Internet encourages anti-social behavior; 2) that it makes us lazy and contributes to increasing waistlines and decreasing attention spans and; 3) our increasing reliance on Internet services means we are widening the “Digital Divide” and cutting out the poor, the elderly, and the differently abled. Statements like these are too numerous to cite with links. Its the kind of socia commentary and pop psychology that has graced the pages of most news magazines. Could we take these arguments and apply them to other large sociotechnical systems? Since we all have transportation on our minds, let’s levy these criticisms against the highway and see where it takes us:
1) Highways encourage Anti-Social Behavior
In 2005, the average American spent 100 hours a year commuting to work. Most people do this by car, and they do it alone. Talking to friends on Facebook seems a lot more social than spending over an hour a day alone in a metal box. An argument can be made that highways help us see each other more often. We can quickly and easily drive to friends and family that live far away, and visit them in person. A highway helps you get to grandma’s house for Christmas. But would grandma live that far away if highways did not exist? In other words, does the highway get you to grandma quicker, or does the highway make it easier for grandma to live further away? Highways, and the automobile-based suburbs they enable, have allowed Americans to live further apart than ever before. They make it possible to live in cul-de-sac suburbs that encourage isolation, rather than community. Highways also give us spaces to develop healthy amounts of road rage and aggressive driving habits.
2) Highways are bad for our health
Again, sitting in a seat for the equivalent of two weeks-per-year, is not healthy. A study conducted in 2004 showed a direct correlation between living in the suburbs and increased risk of obesity. Highways also are large sources of air pollution, stress, and death from injury. In many countries, cars are the leading cause of air pollution. Car accidents cause over 40,000 deaths a year in the United States, and we don’t even make the top hundred list of traffic fatalities per capita. Car accidents account for a third of all deaths of American teenagers. The suburbs make us fat and lazy if they don’t kill us first.
3) Highways make it difficult for the poor, elderly, and differently abled to access critical resources
Transportation takes up a huge portion of a family’s annual income. Behind housing and food, transportation is the third largest expenditure of most americans. Many Americans live in places where having access to your own car is a prerequisite for getting a job or getting to food. Those that cannot afford a car, are usually left no other option but to use under-funded public transportation that is ill-adapted to the existing physical environment. An automobile-human cyborg quite often requires a normal-functioning human body. Anything from ADHD, vision problems, paralysis, or limited dexterity make it more dangerous -if not impossible- to drive a car. This leaves the elderly stranded in their homes, and turns neighborhoods into deadly obstacle courses.
I am not trying to absolve the Internet of all sins against humanity. Surely, a digitally augmented society is much different than one that is not. Some of those changes can be seen as good, some are bad. These distinctions are a mix of subjective preference and empirical observation. What I am trying to do, with this thought experiment, is encourage us to point the criticism cannon in multiple directions. If we can question the embedded politics of IT hardware, and if we can recognize the profound changes the Internet has brought to our society, then we should also try to critically assess those technologies that have been around for a few decades.