We live under a constant barrage of advertising — messages from companies who want us to do or believe something that’s profitable for them. And in case you haven’t noticed, the barrier between advertising and news is tenuous, not just because of advertising disguised as news, but because journalists are human. Sometimes they’re personally dazzled by celebrity, and in any case they’re under pressure, as they’ve always been, to tell stories the way their powerful sources want them told.
This is a big issue in urban transportation, because so much journalism on the topic, especially “tech” journalism, is generated under these intense pressures.
So here’s a basic habit that will help you think more clearly about urban transportation and tech issues.
Lean into the wind.
To stand up straight in a high wind, you need to lean into the wind, that is, opposite the direction that the wind is blowing.
To keep your cool while under a barrage of self-interested messaging, such as what’s coming out of the tech companies, you must do the same. You must notice which views are being obsessively repeated and be more skeptical of exactly those views, and only to the degree that they are being exaggerated. That doesn’t mean rejecting those views, but it means holding them to a higher standard because they are obviously dominating the media narrative for reasons other than their objective value.
If you just accept the intensity of the media narrative as evidence of its truth, you fall over in the direction that the wind is blowing. If you just reject all those messages and assume the opposite of what the media narrative is saying, you fall over in the other direction, which makes you equally helpless. Either way, once you’ve fallen over, you can’t see what’s going on.
So lean into the wind just far enough so that you can stand up straight, and see.
Another good corrective is to remember that, contrary to all the claims of advertisers since the dawn of time, “new” does not imply “better,” because (1) most innovations fail and (2) many innovations that appear to succeed turn out to have bad side effects that you could have foreseen and that your grandchildren will curse you for.
All this is relevant because the media wants to talk about the new and not about the old. That’s because corporations want to talk about patented and therefore profitable things, not great ideas already in the public domain.
But many old things work well. Mobile phones still drop more calls than landlines do. Software updates routinely introduce new bugs and destroy functionality that the user valued. When I give a public lecture, the rapidly vanishing clock on the wall is much more useful to me than a clock on my phone.
So it makes sense, always, to question all claims of novelty and ask:
- What will the world be like when everyone depends on this invention?
- What is already working that this invention proposes to destroy but may not replace with something better?
The high wind of self-interested marketing doesn’t want you to ask those questions, so you must.
Here was the vantage of early motorists:
“The automobile practically annihilates distance, thus greatly increasing the number of places which can be readily reached from any given spot. A picnic to which the company go in motor-cars may be ten, twenty, or more miles away… When half a dozen friends go off for a frolic, it does not so much matter what sort of place they choose, because if it does not come up to their expectations they can eat their luncheon without leaving the car.”
From “Good Form for All Occasions” by Florence Howe Hall, 1914 (relayed to me by my friend, Marissa K.)
There’s a lot to note here. Thankfully, we have 100+ years of hindsight to need not explain it.
“Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise.”
― William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
The often quoted example of not throwing out old technology is that radio has survived the advent of both broadcast television and the internet, just used somewhat differently. Even more interesting is that we still light fires and draw on walls.
People often lack nuance. Relating to the example Eric cited above, while it is certainly true that a private vehicle is wonderfully liberating to the choices of secluded excursions available to a couple or a family on Sunday morning, that does not make it the best choice for getting to work, school, shops, or many other places on Monday morning.
The trees in the picture are leaning the wrong way! For a more dramatic visual, see the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the CRS-8 mission (capsule to the space station) land on an barge at sea on April 8. It’s leaning into a 50 mph wind on its approach, then straightens out for landing.
On a tactical point: if your phone runs android, check out Studio Clock
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