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.