Wrong Road

The phone is a car: a symbol of freedom and convenience that transforms into an inescapable burden

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Sometime around 1860, a man named Jacob Sharp stood at the intersection of Chambers Street and Broadway in Manhattan and counted the omnibuses. By his count, there was one every 15 seconds, or more than 6,000 in a 13-hour stretch. Each omnibus — a horse-drawn coach that could carry about a dozen people — was fast, uncomfortable, and profitable. But Sharp knew he could do better. By counting the traffic he could make his case to the New York City Council that they should let him lay rails in the middle of the road. By replacing wooden wheels on cobblestone with steel wheels on steel rails the same horses could pull many more passengers in a train. That meant a more orderly street with less horse poop, more regular routes, and a smoother ride. He was right: The rails were laid, and eventually the horses were replaced by steam engines, and then electricity. 

But even as the meteoric rise of streetcars continued into the early 20th century, there also came the automobile. It could not make its case on social efficiency and improved public safety — it brought on ruthless carnage that left thousands of people, mostly children, dead in the street as new motorists struggled to understand this new power that Henry Ford had given them. Nonetheless, it would surpass streetcars and become the dominant transportation technology, reshaping the built environment into a testament to its own seeming inevitability. 

The automobile reshaped the built environment into a testament to its own inevitability

Initially, the auto was reviled. About a century ago, regular parades publicly mourned the loss of life to the automobile, which was seen as a deadly toy of the rich. Many cities drew up laws mandating speed governors in all cars to maintain some semblance of order on the streets. Despite this groundswell of resistance, car companies were able to organize car clubs and government-lobbying groups to not only counter anti-car sentiment but marshal millions of dollars of public money to build the infrastructure necessary to expand auto use. By the middle of the 20th century, the Eisenhower administration had committed to building a national highway system that would allow only motor vehicles. In two decades, cars went from anathema to human freedom and safety to a critical component of the “American way of life.”

The advent of autos led to car culture — not inevitably but through a coordination of induced demand, lobbying, infrastructural changes, coercion, and eventual path dependencies. In a way, all the things that made the car bad for cities and people made it the perfect commodity for midcentury American businesses. The car needed cities to be completely reconfigured, offering opportunities for land speculation, real estate development, construction, and building retrofits. The car needed constant maintenance, thus creating whole new industries for parts, gasoline stations, parking lots, and garages. There were totally new fields of insurance, law, engineering, and urban planning. And all the companies that extracted the raw materials and turned them into fuel, parts, and related infrastructure could cash in as well. It was a complete reorganization of the physical, economic, and cultural underpinnings of society, and corporate leaders knew that if they could get in early, they could firmly establish themselves atop the American empire. 

It is important to understand just how subtle and psychological these kinds of transformation are. Changing how people get around has ripple effects on everything from individuals’ mental maps of the city to the commodification of the natural world. For example, in his 1991 book Nature’s Metropolis, historian William Cronon describes a problem that emerged in the mid-19th century, as agricultural production began to outstrip the transportation system’s capacity to accommodate it. So much grain was moving from Midwestern farms into the grain elevators of Chicago that they didn’t have anywhere to put it all. Until that time, “the transportation network had assiduously maintained [that] Farmer Smith’s wheat from Iowa would never be mixed with Farmer Jones’s wheat from Illinois until some final customer purchased both,” which meant the grain had to be kept in separate bins. When grain elevator operators, with the help of the Chicago Board of Trade, abolished this practice it not only streamlined the commoditization of agriculture but it also opened the way to speculation on future grain prices by East Coast banks newly connected to the Midwestern market via telegraph wires.

This three-step move — from Farmer Smith’s rye to generic rye prices to a contract to buy rye in the future at a price set now — would be repeated with respect to the development of roads for autos. First there is the road in front of my house. Then standard engineering specifications are developed for urban roads in general. Finally, there is land speculation based on future road improvements. At each stage, an emerging transportation technology transforms things as they are into “underlying fundamentals” for financial assets. 

Tech borrowed the transportation sector’s underlying business model: path dependency

To be sure, real estate speculation was at the heart of streetcar development too, not just the automobile. Financiers and local officials recognized that easy transportation between nearby towns could easily turn the landscape into a single bustling metropolis, and the land next to these lines would be very lucrative. When San Francisco’s famous streetcars first went online, according to John Anderson Miller in Fares Please!, the property values of Nob Hill and the Embarcadero doubled overnight. But the priority of speculation over social efficiency also paved the way to the streetcar’s obsolescence.

Now the pattern is recurring again. Only this time, the technological change triggering new speculative possibilities is not a matter of engineering refinements in how people get from here to there, but the opportunistic application of intrusive tracking devices and opaque algorithms to century-old car designs. The U.S. transportation system is being “updated to stay the same” (to borrow a phrase from Wendy H.K. Chun) so that it confirms old prerogatives and protects the same interests and ideological investments in suburbia. But it dictates more than just a land use pattern: Our individualistic transportation network reflects American capitalism’s fundamental and perpetually renewed dependence on speculation, financialization, and rapacious consumerism.

Paris Marx’s Road to Nowhere: Silicon Valley and the Future of Mobility traces the historical echo between automakers’ takeover of the North American continent and the present monopolistic powers of the tech industry that “want to make us dependent on their products, not just when we browse the web but when we are in our communities too.” Part of this is through a direct adoption of the earlier pattern in transportation: Through both monitoring and controlling transportation systems, companies like Alphabet subsidiary Waymo, Tesla, and Uber can insinuate themselves as data brokers for real estate developers, home buyers, and anyone else that wants to know more about or control who goes where and for what. That information can feed into new methods of extraction (e.g. dynamic pricing, access controls, subscription requirements for auto functionality, etc.) as well as new systems of real estate speculation and manipulation (e.g. automated housing markets) that can adapt more quickly and precisely to changing conditions. Everything from how you get to work to how much your housing costs can be perpetually adjusted to maximize return on investment, not human needs or collective well-being. 

But tech didn’t merely intervene in the transportation sector; it also borrowed its underlying innovation: path dependency as a business model. The first half of Marx’s book offers a rundown of how car companies managed to create car culture in the 20th century, as was detailed above. In spite of the massive grassroots backlash, U.S. automakers managed to convince the government to outlay unprecedented sums to expand roads, build highways, and ensure for ample parking. These arguments should sound familiar, because their highlighting the overriding value of personal consumer convenience over collective welfare has recurred over and over with each new “disruption” of established social patterns. 

This framing of convenience as the epitome of American life became self-justifying. Car culture appeared as the natural expression of a disarticulated people’s will. “As the power of the automotive lobby increased,” Marx writes, “planners’ perspectives changed. They began to see the street as a marketplace in which their role was to respond to demand — and what they perceived was being demanded was more space for cars, so that is what they facilitated.” 

Marx parallels this history with that of the computer industry, and its similar ambitions to reshape society in its image. In 1980, Steve Jobs even made a direct comparison between the personal computer and cars, saying that it “offered its power to the individual” just as the car had a century prior. Like the car companies, Microsoft, IBM, and their like were able to squash competitors while simultaneously convincing the government to subsidize the infrastructure necessary to them: Government-owned network architecture and basic research were sold to telecom corporations, redistributing wealth from the public trust to private interests. Just as the government sponsored the build-out of a road network with automakers (and not the public’s interest or safety) in mind, it sponsored the development of internet technology with tech companies in mind and not what sort of network would best serve the citizenry.

These two moments presage their emerging combination in a new effort to retrench corporate power: The land-greedy automobile can be fused with the data-hungry network under the auspices of technological innovation, which is posited as beyond regulation in how it outpaces cultural norms and public policy. If chaos ensues from such developments, as ride-sharing companies congest streets and undermine public transit options and semiautonomous vehicles kill pedestrians, then what of it? Price of progress. 

The government sponsored the build-out of road networks with automakers in mind

Such simmering crises put regulators in a reactive position, forcing them to carry out political triage between competing capitalist sectors and an increasingly disenfranchised public. One could go so far as to call it the Joker theory of the administrative state: Capitalists sow chaos, without any particular plan for the “new normal” other than the ability to continually reassert their own dominance, while “opposition” dwindles to the feeble efforts of sequestering customers from the worst externalities and retroactively legalizing whatever it took to get there. Criminality is ret-conned into innovation.

Tech companies see it as their mission to “innovate” by bringing as many things, places, and people under their watch as possible. Sometimes that means embedding unobtrusive sensors into lavish goods and fun gizmos; other times it means forcibly redeveloping the world to make it more compatible with their profit streams, as like when the car companies irrevocably changed the landscape to fit their products in the 20th century, or when tech companies invaded our privacy so blatantly and completely that our norms changed in the 21st. 

The newest round of disruption seizes on the negative externalities wrought by the car industry to sell the public and government on a new set of lies: that self-driving cars, underground tunnels, EVs, and a bevy of drones can relieve gridlock (and that gridlock itself is the most important problem to be solved). Through the magic of machine learning efficiently routing trips and suites of all-seeing sensor packages on vehicles and streets, cars will become safer, more reliable, and best of all, convenient once again. 

The reality is that this is a land grab: Autonomous driving, ironically, relies on the sort of well-maintained road markings and signage that an austerity-crippled American landscape cannot offer. If self-driving cars are to exceed their small pilot programs in the Southwest, they will require even stricter pedestrian control systems that separate cars and people with hard barriers and automated gating systems. It may also require handing over right-of-ways to the companies that run these transport systems — just as the Sharp’s railway companies and the early telecom companies like MCI, Worldcom, and the regional Bells received for their needs — so that they may have more control over signage and road markings, which will be necessarily oriented toward machine vision. (Imagine the splendor of the open road dotted with millions of QR codes.) 

So much of the new transportation technology presupposes and reinforces the suburban land use model. Marx recognizes that “the problem with automobility is not solely the fuel that powers it, but the way that companies and governments have successfully reoriented our entire lives around automobiles and, in many cases, have decimated more efficient alternatives.” A landscape that’s good for cars — lots of impermeable smooth surfaces with car storage at final destinations — makes every other kind of transportation more difficult to implement simply because everything and everyone is too spread out. 

New tech, even when it seems to be a step along a better path, is preconditioned by these legacies and hamstrung by them. Consider the charging of an electric car: Even if charging times could be brought down from the several hours they currently require, they would still need to be wherever cars are parked. That is, they would still need to be considered convenient to be viable. In a suburban environment where people are compelled to drive everywhere, ample parking may make such retrofitting cumbersome but manageable. But in an urban environment, chargers the size of an ATM might end up seizing ever-shrinking sidewalk space next to street parking. Or it might drive electric vehicle owners to abandon the city, and pundits to declare urban life to be unsustainable.

An optimist at this point might note out that many tech companies are trying to push people away from car ownership and toward car-sharing arrangements that would decrease the total amount of cars on the road and in parking spots. But such systems always come with a heavy dose of surveillance to enact the undemocratic and often arbitrary authority built in to opaque user agreements. 

This perspective, in which access to basic services like transportation come with constant monitoring and payment, resembles what I have previously described as a subscriber city: a condition where apps and services determine where you can be and when. It foregrounds the promise of new kinds of convenient access like renting the perfect interview outfit you otherwise couldn’t afford to own, while empowering new threats of sudden and uncontestable prohibitions, like what many American states do to those receiving government food assistance when an algorithm decides they no longer qualify. The surveillance that extends convenience to one population can also at the same time be mobilized against another population to exclude them. And as tech companies start to take advantage of their monopoly positions, we can expect the dual nature of surveillance to become its central feature: organizing the world based on who can afford the ever-rising rents. 

The transportation sector is a good lens for showing how technology gets deployed under capitalist conditions. The moving of people and things is treated as a precondition for speculative investment opportunities, and people’s lives and desires and norms are reoriented to accommodate and justify these transformations. But you can only push people so far until the shape of the world must change to contain all its people, and all our hopes and desires.

In Speculative Communities: Living With Uncertainty in a Financialized World, sociologist Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou develops a conceptual approach that addresses this emerging condition. His idea of a “speculative community” is an update of Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community,” which he claimed emerged in the late 19th century with the rise of mass print media (newspapers, novels) and fostered a shared sense of belonging to a national population. In the 21st century, the rise of algorithmic social media has engendered a different kind of belonging, a speculative community predicated on a different kind of information environment. Unlike the imagined community, which was bonded by static texts that served to create shared experiences and culture, the speculative community, Komporozos-Athanasiou suggests, helps accommodate people to how social being has been subordinated to speculative interests — i.e. the “path dependencies” and induced demands described above.

“Speculative imagination” helps make sense of a world that is unrelentingly predictable in its malice

It’s entirely predictable say, that Starbucks and other chains will fight unions, and tech companies will harvest data and target ads, and credit agencies will exacerbate income inequality, but exactly why or how these happen appear up for speculation. That creates an opening for a kind of resistance. The “speculative imagination” that social conditions have engendered can help make sense of a world that is both unrelentingly predictable in its malice but keeps its inner workings obscured. 

One of the speculative community’s tools for this is what Komporozos-Athanasiou calls a “real fake” (the topic of his next book, he says), which he defines as “where the politics of progressive counter-speculation germinates.” Speculative communities use collaborative, conspiracy-theory-esque styles of thinking — real fakes — to gather and process information together and develop their own counter-narratives that make some kind of meaning out of it. 

For example, when delivery companies’ replacing gig workers with air-delivery drones or sidewalk robots might be their attempt to reduce costs and the direct reliance on human labor. But the drones can also be construed as spies, a means for warrantless police searches, and thus become the basis for a politics of shared speculative conclusions. Since the tech companies refuse to disclose how their systems work, that ambiguity can be seized as a political opportunity to create new kinds of coalitions of resistance. 

Speculation, Komporozos-Athanasiou argues, can thus be understood as “the vernacular through which we express our collective disbelief in the waning legitimacy of neoliberalism.” Real fakes would be “alert to the falsities of liberal democracy and neo-populism as they are open to our own vulnerabilities and those of others.” That is, real fakes would first and foremost be politically expedient explanations of why the world works how it does, ignoring the fog of opacity and doubt that has been fomented around various practices. 

The neoliberal turn toward a more perfect merger between society and market logics (like the fusion of tech and car culture) has meant that information — specifically intellectual property and the inner workings of firms — has become more obscured for competitive reasons. This creates fertile ground for speculation: not just about where society is going, but how the powers that be are trying to get us there. They release scary-sounding initiatives like The Great Reset, and if you’re not willing to buy what Alex Jones types are selling, there’s few decisive means of making sense of it all.

Some speculative communities are plainly antisocial, as when QAnon weaves half-truths, outright lies, and mainstream media accounts of current events to create a directionless, reactionary anger. Gamergate, to grab an example that feels ancient yet is less than a decade old, latched onto rumors and gossip about video-game production to create a massive anti-feminist cultural backlash. While the gaming industry was changing in ways both good and bad — diversification of who developed games amid corporate consolidation — the real fake was a reading of those changes as a pointed vendetta against young men. 

But the idea of “real fake” can also lend itself to other kinds of politics, especially given the sort of “fakeness” that now hegemonic ideologies (“car culture”; “tech culture”) were steadily built from. What could the average person’s speculative imagination be turned to that would encourage solidarity and mutual aid, rather than fear and paranoia? 

It is a big question with few satisfying answers. Narratives proliferate and many moments of massive protest have come and gone without sustaining political activation directed productively toward a common goal. For all their effective diagnosing, Marx’s and Komporozos-Athanasiou’s books mostly overlook the potential of organized labor to deindividualize the problems we face and turn them into goals for collective bargaining. No other institution in recent history has been capable of effectively managing the speculative power of the masses into concerted efforts to better the lives of working people. 

In uncertain times it can be a relief to just go with the flow: let companies and politicians do what they want and hope for the best. Sometimes we might even vote or invest in ways that seem reckless but the downsides pale in comparison to the grim road before us. For my part, I would rather see workers combine their power and work together toward a common, discreet goal. Speculating our way out of chaos feels like a capitulation. United we bargain, divided we bet.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.