In the book Road to Nowhere Paris Marx exposes the defects of Silicon Valley’s vision of the future. In it he argues for a drastic change in how we organize mobility, away from the holding grip of the tech industry that only considers the need of the tech worker instead of the marginalized and underprivileged. Mobility should be shaped collectively instead of being controlled by an algorithm. “Just implementing new technologies is not going to be the way to solve our mobility problems.”
Your book, Road to Nowhere, focusses on Silicon Valley’s vision of the future and particularly on mobility. What made you write this book?
“It is a topic I have been interested in quite a long time. I started writing about technology and transportation around 2015, around the same time when Uber ascended and when there was a lot of hype around self-driving cars and what they would mean for cities. There were also many other proposals coming from tech companies and influential figures in the tech industry that promised to solve a lot of the problems with the transportation system without having to deal with the difficult politics of mobility. They basically said, we are going to create this technology that we are going to insert into the system as it exists today to fix the problem without us having to deal with really difficult questions. By entering into that discussion at that moment and watching it evolve over the course of the past number of years, it was really instructive for me to see that a lot of the promises that were being made by these tech companies were really not fulfilled. They were not able to realize a lot of the promises that they were making. The master’s degree I did in 2018 allowed me to dig into what these tech companies were proposing for transportation in a more in depth way. When I finished my master’s degree in 2020, some people were suggesting I turn it into a book. While there had been books looking at specific ideas that come from the tech industry, there wasn’t really a book that zoomed out and took a broader focus.”
What did you find?
“The lesson I took away from doing that research, was that the tech companies like to come in with these really promises as to what their technologies can deliver for cities, for transportation systems and for residents of cities. But when you actually examine the impacts of those technologies, it becomes very clear that a lot of the proposals they are making are designed to address their personal inconveniences about getting around in the city.”
So, they are not delivering solutions for the masses?
“Exactly. The example that I tend to use in illustrating this is Uber, because it is a service that many people are familiar with and it has been rolled out globally in a significant way. Uber’s promise was that they were going to reduce car ownership, reduce traffic congestion and make transportation in the city more efficient. It was going to be complementary towards transit systems and serve the underserved within the transportation system. And then a few years later after these big promises were made, academics were able to get independent data to study the effect of these companies.”
And what did they find?
“What they found was the exact opposite of what Uber had been promising. There was very little difference to car ownership in cities and it took people away from transit rather than complementing it. It made traffic congestion worse in cities and the trips were worse for the environment rather than better because it produced more emissions per trip than how people would have gotten around otherwise. They also mainly tended to serve young college educated people with above average incomes in cities, which I like to point out is your general tech worker. That really illustrated to me that yes, I think there is a role for new technology in transportation, but that needs to be paired with politics that recognise that the decisions we have made over the course of a number of decades have led to problems that we have today. Just implementing new technology is not going to be the way to solve these problems.”
But they use some kind of smoke and mirrors trick to make us believe they do. Quite fascinating how that works.
“It absolutely is and I think part of that comes from the fact that a lot of people and especially people in power want to believe what these companies are selling. Because it gives them a way to not have responsibility for the problems in the transportation system. They say we don’t need to do anything and we can just easily step back, because these tech companies are going to solve our problems. And on top of that there is, in the general culture, a desire to believe, or at least for a while there was a desire to believe what these tech companies were selling us.”
Why do you think that is?
“I think that is for a number of reasons. On the one hand we have this general notion of progress that is connected to technological development. And the narrative that we receive is that as technologies improve, our lives get better. And as the tech companies from Silicon Valley and other parts of the world were promoting their ideas on how technologies were going to solve all these problems in society, I think there is a natural desire to believe that is fitting in a broader idea we have of technological progress and how that tends to work. In 2008, we experienced an unprecedented economic collapse we haven’t experienced in a long time and governments around the world were looking for industries to drive growth and create jobs into the future. And the tech industry is the one that emerges as the one that was going to do that. So in that moment, are you going to be critical of what these companies are proposing the future is going to look like and the kind of services and products they are going to roll out in the world? Or are you going to step back and accept what they are telling you, so that you can buy into this notion that they’re creating jobs, that they’re creating prosperity for the future. I think there now is a reassessment of what these tech companies have done to our societies and that is intimately connected to what the tech companies have been doing in the transport system as well.”
So basically the tech companies have been given free reign?
“Totally. It is fair to say that a lot of governments ceded the ground of thinking about the future and presenting a better future for the citizens they are supposed to represent. Tech companies stepped into that void and offered them a vision of the future that is going to make everything better for everybody. They basically said just trust us and we will make your societies better. I think that promise has not really been fulfilled.”
If you look at the mobility sector, what do you think is the core narrative that underlies mobility innovations from Silicon Valley?
“I would say the core of it is really that of trusting us and we will invent all these new technologies and as a result we will disrupt the transportation system and by doing that disruption we will fix the problems that you are facing. Whether that is traffic congestion, road deaths, the contribution to climate change caused by transportation and many of the other issues that a lot of people recognise exist within the transportation system today. But, If you really look more deeply at what these technologies have been proposing to do or how they are proposing to change the transportation system it really is not the kind of revolution or overhaul that they make us think it is. There are all these companies that have been talking about disruption, but what has changed so fundamentally as a result of their roll out of these technologies about how we get around? I would argue not a whole lot. They have inserted digital technologies within the transportation system as it already exists, so that they can start to extract some value from that system as well, rather than change it fundamentally from how it works right now.”
This is already so embedded within people’s minds, how can we turn this around?
“I think you really need governments to step up and start looking into the consequences of these technologies and to ensure that before they roll out, they are actually going to deliver on the promises that they make about what the technologies are supposed to do. In many cases they don’t follow through on those promises but then they have already been rolled out and it is harder to put it back into the box. Furthermore governments really need to have policies that are going to fix these problems rather than just leave it to the tech companies who have particular ideas of how that should work.”
What kind of policy?
“They need to implement policies that invest and improve the transit system, expand cycling infrastructure and to ensure communities are designed in a way where the things that you rely on, like services and businesses, are not really not far flung but located closer to where you are. This also requires an organized public to demand that they take those actions.”
But how are people going to kick Silicon Valleys products? We are all over reliant on their services.
“I think we have slowly seen some movement in the direction of people demanding action from the government to change the way the transportation system works, to try to make it more equable and more sustainable. We can draw and learn from past examples, like when the automobiles were rolled out in the 1920’s in North America, there were groups organized in order to push back against it, because they saw that it really changed the way they lived. In the sixties and seventies we can see backlashes from a safety and environmental point of view. Certainly in The Netherlands with groups like Stop the Child Murder, who effectively lobbyed to get policies implemented to restrict automobolies and promote cycling. We can learn from these examples and take those lessons and shape them and take them to the 21st century as we face new challenges in order to push back against tech companies and other interests that want to shape the transportation system in ways that benefit them rather than the public.”
What do you think does the current ‘addiction’ to mobility solutions from tech companies mean to communities and mobility in the short and long run?
“I think ultimately it doesn’t solve the problems that people are really facing, if we think about the many challenges communities face. There is for example a safety point of few with the overreliance on automobiles, especially in North America and to a lesser extent in Europe. People still die in road accidents and let’s not forget the climate crisis. These are problems that need to be addressed and fixed. And the other piece to this, there are still a lot of people who don’t have access to good mobility, that allows them to get to where they need to go in a reasonable time and in a reasonable way. I think that is one of the biggest problems when we think about the intervention of the tech industry into transportation. One of their big promises is that whatever solution they are rolling out is not just to benefit people like themselves but rather they are really serving the underserved; the people that are not served by the transportation system right now. And time and time again when we look at the actual impact of what they have rolled out, is not how it is actually experienced.”
Or that they promise?
“They promise that it is going to benefit people with lower incomes, people in marginalized communities, people who don’t have access to good transportation right now. The research that has been done on these systems and on the proposals from these tech companies shows time and time again that’s not actually how they work out. So if we actually want to address this question, we need governments to step in. The reason the system is inequitable right now is the result of policy decisions that have been made over the course of many decades. This is not going to be resolved by new technologies or ideas from tech companies. It has to be resolved by policies that make the investments that are necessary, so that people can have access to good mobility. That is why the political aspect of this is so important. The more that we act as if politics doesn’t matter and we can just leave it to new technologies, the longer it takes to actually solve these serious problems.”
How can we turn this around?
“To a certain degree these things are starting to change. I think we are starting to see a greater degree of awareness that a lot of these proposals from tech companies are not delivering on what they promise. There is also a much greater recognition of the fact that for example Uber changed a whole lot in cities and causes a lot of workers to have much worse working conditions and are paid much less for providing these services than providers like taxi companies used to. I also think, certainly in North America, that there is a greater awareness of the drawbacks of the automobile. The excessive reliance on the automobile for example has fueled a desire to see an investment in alternatives. Furthermore we need to ensure that the problems that exist with the system are not hidden away and information is available to the public. One of the other things that we need to see moving forward, is a greater investment in alternatives to create a more equitable and sustainable transportation system that works for everybody rather than one that just works for cars. During the pandemic, one thing that we saw was a lot of cities closing streets to cars and opening them for pedestrians, because people needed space to spread out and get out. It showed a lot of people that a city could operate in a different way and how all of that space did not need to be given to automobiles and more of it could be given over to pedestrians. It was really instructive that once the pandemic had passed, automotive interests very quickly pushed for these streets to be closed to pedestrians and reopened to cars. I think a lot of people saw that and thought things could really work differently if we are able to get people and governments to think differently about our streets.”
But how to change the dominant narrative of the car industry?
“That won’t be easy and part of the reason that our societies are so reliant on cars in the first place is because of the influence and the power the car industry had to get governments to adopt policies to ensure the automobile became a mass form of transportation. People were encouraged to buy them and in the meantime the industry invested a lot into marketing. We are currently at some kind of crossroads where we recognize the transportation system as it exists today, needs to change in order to address its contribution to climate change. We now have a choice whether we make investments and try to get as many people as possible out of cars. The most sustainable way to go would be to invest in cycling infrastructure and make reliable alternatives to get around. Or we invest in electric vehicles and promote people to get around that way. I think it is not one or the other, because I think electric vehicles always have a part to play, but it is a question of how much we want to be reliant on that versus getting people out of cars altogether. I think one of the reasons we are seeing governments in North America, but also in Europe going really heavy on electric cars as the means to solve the problem, is because there are such big car industries in the various countries that are pushing this direction on how to address climate change and transportation.”
What should we be doing more?
“It really is important we ensure that the information is out there about the problems with automobiles and the many drawbacks that exist in societies. And have reasonable conversations with people so they start to recognize that there are problems with the system that needs to be addressed. We should also work more with groups that are organizing for a different set of policies and who stand for a different approach to transportation. We need to try to allow those ideas to enter more into the mainstream and push back against the dominance we see of the automobile. This will be challenging because the automobile industry is very powerful and the narratives that they have put out there are entrenched in people’s minds, but that’s not to say that these things cannot be challenged and pushed back on.”
Should we come up with a new narrative ourselves?
“Absolutely. A new narrative not for how transportation could work, but how our societies and our cities can function. Not how it just could work differently, but the benefits that come of that way of living and organizing society. The relations that can be formed as a result of that and the benefits people can have in terms of mobility. That society can be built in a different way. More focused on the needs of people and individuals, improving their quality of life, rather than being designed for the automobile and to generate the most profit possible for particular industries.”
More to explore
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.