Don’t believe the tech hype

An interview with Dr. Peter Norton

Portrait of Dr Peter Norton


Peter Norton, a historian of technology, has become a leading voice in the debate over driverless cars. In his book Autonorama: The illusory promise of High-TechDriving, he argues that the vision of a fully autonomous future is misguided and that the promises of safety, sustainability and accessibility may be illusory. Technology is not the solution to the many problems we are facing and should merely be seen as a useful tool. “The car industry also knowthat if they just keep waving amazing technology in our face, we are likely to believe them to some degree because amazing technology has the power of restoring lost credibility.”


In your book, Autonorama, you trace the history of the automobile industry from its inception to the present day. What role do you believe the car has placed in shaping mobility and transportation in modern society? And what impact has this had on cities and communities?

“Good questions. I will begin with the U.S. for two reasons, it's the subject of my work and it's also really where the world trends began and went furthest. So, I think it's justifiable in that sense. The automobile in its early years was received like most other innovations were, as a useful tool for certain purposes; for getting the farmer to the market or to the railroad station; getting the doctor to the patient; getting the groceries delivered to the customer. But also for the luxury, for the wealthy classes, it was a new kind of leisure. These tools were much more limited than what we think of when we see an automobile today. And for the industry, which at first welcomed the automobile, being characterized as a useful tool or as an attractive luxury, discovered that its market was limited as long as it was interpreted in those ways. In the 1920s in the U.S. and then later elsewhere in the world, the promoters of the automobile found that their sales could continue to grow forever if they promised it not as a tool, but as an all-purpose solution for everything; for every mobility purpose, even creating mobility demands where there had been none before. It is the early years of consumerism and the engine of consumerism is not merely responding to consumer demands, but stimulating consumer demands. A beautiful illustration of this is that a vice president of General Motors in 1929 wrote an article for his colleagues in the business that was called: Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied. And by this he meant to stimulate their desire for more demand. To keep that desire going, you must constantly promise that there will be some kind of bliss at the end of this consumerism treadmill. This discovery really was the dawn of consumerism, and the automobile was at the beginnings of it. This U.S. consumerist transport model with the automobile as the solution was then exported, beginning with Europe and then to much of the world. The dominant narrative in here is that the car is a symbol of freedom and individualism. At least that’s the narrative that the car industry wants us to believe.”


But it's been challenged recently because of concerns of environment, public health and social equity. How do you see the role of cars evolving in response of these challenges?

“The challenges go back a very long way, and they begin where the challenges were necessary first. You can see them even in the 1940s in the U.S., but especially in the 50s and 60s, when people who did not own a car, especially mothers left home with their children while their husbands took the car, demanded streets that were safer for them and for their children. And those protests were ubiquitous in the U.S. and they were entirely forgotten because our history of the automobile here was written for us to a great degree by the automobile industry. But, those challenges grew and they also spread to other kinds of criticisms. Criticisms about sustainability, about social justice, and about affordability. The Netherlands has a very famous history of this as well, especially the 1970s. And it continues and has grown and I see us at a very critical and dangerous point. A point may not be the right word, because we've been here for decades now, but it's a very sensitive time in history because we are being sold versions of a mobility future that promised us that amazing technology will make everything work. The technology of LIDAR, vehicle connectivity, automatic breaking systems, self-driving vehicles etc. is being sold to us by the people who want to make a lot of money off of it as the means by which we will finally make car dependency sustainable and affordable and equitable and efficient. This is completely false. It can do none of those things. It stands a good chance of making all of those things worse. And so the risk is that that distraction will take our attention away from the things we have now that work today and that in some cases the Netherlands is demonstrating. The OV-fiets for example can do more for congestion, for affordability, for safety, for sustainability than any of the tech. And yet right now for the last six years, General Motors has had the slogan, zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion. They know they can deliver none of those promises, but they also know that if they just keep waving amazing technology in our face, we are likely to believe them to some degree because amazing technology has the power of restoring lost credibility.”


They make these unfulfilled promises about technology being the big game changer. Why do we keep believing this narrative and why aren't these unfulfilled promises exposed?

“That's a very important question and there's a couple of angles on it. It really begins with a dictum by George Santayana, the philosopher, who said in 1905, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We don't have a long collective social memory. Worse than that, much of what we think we remember was fed to us by people who wanted a version of history that would suit their purposes. For example, in the United States, there's a statement that's extremely common. It's in the press almost every day and it has been for sixty years, and it's the following expression, Americans have a love affair with the automobile. This expression was invented by people who wanted us to believe a version of history in which there was only enthusiasm for cars, especially in the US, but there's versions of it worldwide. And this version of history is credible because it's half true. Of course, cars are attractive to most people and most people welcome the chance to have one, but the half-truth conceals the falsehood. The falsehood is that nobody ever wanted car domination. Nobody ever wanted car ubiquity, car dependence. People always wanted choices and people always wanted alternatives. And the love affair story conceals all of this very effectively. Your question also has another important aspect to it which is, why do we believe the claim that the latest tech will finally make things work? And here, instead of George Santayana, I would like to use Arthur C. Clarke. He is the electrical engineer, scientist and science fiction writer, best known as the writer of the film 2001, A Space Odyssey. He was an engineer and had a great imagination and a great power of philosophical reasoning about science.”


A futurologist maybe even?

“Yes, that's exactly right. He was a futurologist and one of the better ones. Most futurologists are not very good. But Arthur C. Clarke did foresee homecomputers, networked computers, artificial intelligence. The list goes on. When he was writing the script for 2001, A Space Odyssey, he also wrote a letter to Science magazine. And in that letter he made an important observation. It's fairly well known, but I don't think it's very well appreciated. The statement was: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is an amazing statement and it expresses, I think, more than a first impression will reveal. Because magic is not only amazing but magic also compels us to question what we thought was impossible. And state-of-the-art technology by its nature is always amazing, because what makes it state-of-the-art is that it can do something we haven't seen possible before. And therefore, a state-of-the-art technology like chat GPT, like LIDAR, like artificial intelligence and so on, all of that technology makes us hesitate about what we thought was impossible. And people who have something to sell to us can use that effect and they do use it constantly. They will say things like, everything's changed now or everything’s different. Your skepticism used to make sense, but it doesn't make sense anymore. These are the routine promises. They even take the version of promises like history is irrelevant, because what was impossible then is possible now. The leader of the team that developed Google's self-driving car in the early 2000s, a head of Waymo, a guy named Anthony Levandowski, said history is irrelevant. We shouldn't study history, because if you're in technology, there's no point. And I think that was a very stupid statement, but also a very smart one, because I think he knows at some level that if we learn from our history, we will learn not to believe his kind of claims. And so he would rather that we forget our history. His goal is not to tell the truth, but to attract investors. And to attract investors, one of the most successful techniques is to wave extremely impressive technology in their faces.”


To link that with the autonomous and electrical vehicles, it's often seen as a potential solution to challenges facing the automobile industry, congestion, pollution, accidents, etc. What do you see as potential pitfalls associated with these technologies and how might they transform cities and communities?

“To begin, I think it's important to make a distinction. All of these technologies can be extremely valuable. But to be extremely valuable, we have to recognize them for what they are, namely tools. A tool is something that you choose if I want to do something. You find the tool you need for the job, and I decide what the job is, and then I find the tool that I need for that job. The way these sorts of technologies are represented to us, though, is typically as solutions. Solutions say, don't worry about a thing, you have no responsibilities here. You can just relax, this will do everything for you. And so even though in engineering people often say the word technology and the word tool as if they are synonyms, they are in fact profoundly different things. So, battery electric vehicles can be very valuable tools and sensors, automated systems, and so on can be very valuable tools in mobility. But they will be very dangerous if we misidentify them as solutions and they are being sold to us as solutions. So, for example, if battery electric vehicles become a solution, well, then we have to sort of ravage the planet scavenging for all of the battery metals that are necessary for millions of very heavy, large batteries to get the lithium, the cobalt, the nickel, and so on that's necessary for these batteries. Many people are acquainted with the quite horrendous labor conditions, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo where much of the cobalt for battery anodes comes from. Or with the fragile ecosystem where the lithium in Chile comes from. That would be madness. All we do is exacerbate the problem. We change the problem, but we don't address the symptom. So electrification is necessary, but it's also essential to reduce the demand for electric power because if the demand for electric power rises, then it's harder to get the grid to be based on sustainable energy sources. The easiest way to make mobility more sustainable, safer, more affordable, more inclusive, and more efficient is to make driving less necessary. To make proximity practical and possible and comfortable. And in the U.S. we have taken exactly the opposite path where we pursued safety in ways that make driving longer distances more inviting. We've pursued congestion relief in ways that make people drive more greater distances and so on.”


It has also led to social isolation.

“The isolation that is connected with car dependency in the U.S. really is extraordinary and it takes many forms. Not only does it take the form of the fact that a person is likely to be alone in an enclosed vehicle with the windows up and disconnected from all other people, except perhaps for the expression of anger that you get if someone cuts you off in traffic. And that's about the extent of it. Or, bizarrely, one of the most sociable places in an American city is likely to be a parking lot because this is the one place where people get out of their cars and see unfamiliar faces. Besides that, we also have a kind of car-dependent residential isolation. Although the country boasts about individual freedom and liberty and so on, in fact we have very restrictive zoning rules. And they limit much of the residences to single-family occupancy houses, which are located in such a way that you can get practically nowhere except in a car. And if you're intrepid enough to try to get somewhere else on foot, you're likely to have to cross a big highway to get to the shop because of the fact that the zoning separates the commercial and the retail from the residential in such away that you are going to have a very long walk. There's probably no bus that you can take and taking a bike is likely to be dangerous. So, there's an isolation in the suburbs, and it's particularly hard on the enormous part of the population that can't drive, especially children, who within the last thirty or forty years, it's become customary for children to be driven by their parents everywhere, which is a kind of confinement of childhood autonomy that is a real tragedy as well. So yes, the isolation, the social isolation is profound.”


So why is there no bigger outcry of people that are angry?

“Part of the answer is that people are enraged. Many are angry and many are demanding change, but with few exceptions, you're right, there is much less dismay at this than you would think. And I, as a historian, attribute this to a generational change where the abnormal has been normalized and the normal has been abnormalized. So, for example, walking has really been abnormalized in much of America to the point that if you tell somebody that you walked one kilometer to a destination, you're likely to get an expression of surprise and two or three kilometers and you'll get something like shock from them. This is an indication that our social norms have adjusted to an environment that is hostile to walking and an environment in which the automobile is taken to be almost as natural as clothing. Just as you have to wear a coat to deal with the cold, you have to have a car to deal with distance. This is so normal that an extraordinary number of American parents buy their child a car as soon as the child is 16 or 17. As if, very much like they bought the child a coat when the child was old enough to go outside. So this is a normalization of the abnormal. There are people who will attribute this to a sort of natural cultural cause. They'll say, well, this is American culture. I argue against that because there were decades of resistance to this. But in the end, the auto sector, the businesses that saw a material interest in car dependency, they did prevail.”


How do you develop a more holistic approach to addressing mobility issues or challenges?

“I don't know if we can, but my work is dedicated to the hope that we can and to the effort to make it happen. I think we have some things to learn from unimaginable change that actually happened. History gives us many examples of unimaginable change that actually succeeded. One example is when I was a child, it seemed like every adult smoked and there were ashtrays everywhere you went. People smoked on the planes and buses and everywhere. That's now very rare. That change was an unimaginable change. It was resisted very much like the tech companies and the automakers are resisting anything besides car dependency. The cigarette companies, once they had to admit that there was a danger, they then pretended that their particular brand of cigarette was safe because it had an amazing filter and had an amazing tobacco formulation that made it safe. Of course, it was not true, and it cost people decades off of their lifespans. It's a very similar situation right now in the sense that we too have to find away to drive less, but we're being sold a version of car dependency. I call it high-tech car dependency, where the technology is supposed to make this work when it can't any more than a cigarette filter made the cigarette safe. We in the US, thanks to strenuous efforts by people like Rachel Carson in the 1960s, put an end to certain dangerous insecticides. That was an unimaginable achievement. I think there are lessons in those unimaginable achievements about how you make unimaginable change happen. It takes much more than saying, OK, we need a new technology, we need a new app, we need a new device. It's a broad spectrum change and it's also a change of mentality. We've seen mentalities change before. The success at denormalizing walking in the US indicates that our idea about what's normal and what's abnormal can change, and that suggests that we can re-normalize walking. There are lessons from those successful transformations, and we need to apply those.”


Are there examples of cities or communities that have successfully challenged the dominant narrative of the car and the tech industry around mobility? Could we learn something from these experiences?

“Certainly, there are impressive cases and many of them coming from Europe of course from the Netherlands, but also from Paris who have an extraordinary record under Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The center of Oslo is nearly car-free except for taxis; the trams are crowded, the sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians, but there's very little car traffic. We can learn from those success stories. We can learn from successes like that of Hans Monderman, the Dutch traffic engineer, who introduced what we call shared space over here. In the U.S., the successes are far more modest. They also incidentally come from cities where the local government and local advocacies had the humility to learn from success stories in other countries. New York City really changed a lot in the early 2000s. Janette Sadik-Khan, the transport commissioner, said she learned from Colombia, from Bogota, from Medellin, also from Brazil, about things like bus rapid transit, and that willingness to learn from other examples is essential. The U.S., I'm sorry to say, has a history of a certain kind of pride that presumes that it doesn't have to learn from other countries, that in fact, the rest of the world should be learning from the U.S. It's an embarrassing fact, but it's a fact. For example, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure had me as its guest because it wants to learn from other countries, but to my knowledge, the U.S. Department of Transportation has done nothing equivalent to learn from the Netherlands, even though, frankly, the U.S. has far more to learn from the Netherlands than vice versa.”


So how can we build coalitions and alliances across different sectors to push for more sustainable and equitable mobility systems? And what strategies have been successful in the past or what strategies can we use to do so?

“There has been a lot of such coalition building. Since my first book came out, which was fifteen years ago now, things have happened that I did not see coming at all in terms of organized advocacy, typically beginning local but then networking in such a way that we find those coalitions, as you call them, growing. And of course, there are international networks, and in effect, we right now are engaged in a kind of international exercise in getting the change that we need because it includes also getting the word out through every means available to us, through podcasts, through articles, through blogs, through media of various kinds. And that's essential, too, because the first steps toward the transformative change that we need is a population, a general public audience that's large enough that can recognize the necessity of this change. We've seen that happen before with, say, environmentalist values. We've seen it beginning to happen with climate change responses. We saw it in the past with some public health responses, particularly reduction in smoking. We can see that kind of change again, and it really does begin with that kind of coalition building.”


How can we de politicize this and steer away from a classic left vs right standpoint?

“I don't know if we can, but I think, theoretically at least, it can be done. Because I think fundamentally, mobility choices is not a left, progressive, liberal or conservative position. A future in which you can choose from alternatives is presumably a future that everyone along the entire political spectrum wants, with the possible exceptions of some extreme fringes. I think there are ways to frame this in such a way that it can be received by conservatives with some enthusiasm, and I think it's going to be important to frame it that way. I also think it's going to be important to be careful not to frame it as taking something away from somebody, because if we create car dependency, as we've done here, and then you take away the means by which people get to their destination, we are triggering a threat response, and it's a quite reasonable threat response. So, we must be very careful not to trigger that kind of threat response, and that is by giving people new choices rather than taking away what they're doing now.”


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There is an urgent need to rethink our thinking about mobility. The current expectations on mobility innovations are often rooted in the advances in digital technology and are generally greeted with eager optimism. Unfortunately what is often overlooked are the unmet needs of humans and our planet. The Lab of Thought attempts to explain mobility from this standpoint, so we as individuals and as societies lessen our impact on the planet, now and in the future.