When hitch-hiking, a certain irony is common: Time and time again, the authors’ of this post have been picked up by drivers who immediately instruct them that hitch-hiking used to work, but now is impossible. That these conversations were taking place at all would appear to contradict this supposed fact. This is not to say that it is always easy. Roads bar access to their sides for pedestrians and seldom provide safe space for cars to pull over if their drivers, pressed for time and travelling at high speeds, would even be able to react to strangers by the roadside. The architecture of the automobile system conspires to eradicate the conditions which make hitch-hiking possible. But thousand of hitchers do manage to find these conditions, and rumours of the demise of their mode of travel are highly exaggerated.

How can the promises of automobile infrastructure be challenged?

There is nothing natural about automobile infrastructure, and what may now appear to have been an inevitable development was a process mired in controversy. Stories of the origins of the activist side of the degrowth-movement itself often begin with protests which in Lyon, in the early 00’s, challenged the apparent inevitability of car-full cities. But the fact that the automobile infrastructure is not inevitable does not mean that it is not desirable. How can its promises of speed and mobility be challenged? On the one hand, one could set out in search of counterproductivities, where (say,) a new need to travel further distances come to cost more time than is saved. On the other, one could assess the energy efficiency and resource use of such an infrastructure.

The problem with both strategies, however, is that such critiques make use of the very same language – efficiency, energy, hours and minutes – which underwrite the very justifications of the system of automobility itself. This is where we can turn to the phenomenon of hitch-hiking in order to learn something else – something which is an issue of quality, not quantity. But before this is clear, we need to make a detour through the works of Ivan Illich.

A qualitative transformation in the nature of space itself

This is what we have done in a paper recently published in the International Journal of Illich Studies. This is a journal dedicated to the life and thought of the social critic Ivan Illich, whose work is foundational both for critiques of automobility and for the degrowth movement. But in both cases, it is the early works of Illich which have been influential. That is, works where he expounded precisely on the sort of counterproductivities mentioned above. Later in life, Illich’s thinking of such matters had changed significantly. Instead of concerning himself with quantities of time and space, he now expounded on the issue with automobility in a new key:

Locomotion is a very modern concept. People have walked in all societies, but they had no way of moving through a three-dimensional Cartesian space. It didn’t exist […] The prevalence of wheels says that I am engaging in locomotion when I walk […] Thinking of myself as engaging in locomotion places me in Cartesian space; and by placing myself in Cartesian space, I limit my experience, and my sense of reality, to Cartesian space […] It is my duty not to be constrained into three-dimensional space […] What would happen to me there? I would lose the interiority of my heart. (Illich in Cayley, 1992, pp.113-114)

What we find here is a concern with a qualitative transformation brought about in the nature of space itself; about how space and everything in it become the kind of things measurably by adherents and detractors of automobility alike. But, then, what are the criteria which might make one kind of space preferable to another? Taking count of the larger trajectory of his own thinking, the older Illich maintained that “the love of friendship, philia, as practicable under the social and symbolic conditions engendered by modern artifacts, has been the constant subject of my teaching” (Illich, 1996, p. 6). At this point of his life, such concerns had become focused around a novel interpretation of the Story of the Good Samaritan.

Who is the neighbour?

This is the biblical story about the wounded Jew by the roadside, and the Samaritan who defies traditional boundaries between groups in order to care for him. Conventionally interpreted as telling us how to treat our neighbour, Illich insists that the story tells nothing of the sort. For the question that the story is told as an answer to does not inquiry into this how – it asks who the neighbour is. The point would then be the very transgression itself, and how it grounds a relation between the two persons, not by any preceding law, prescription, or in-group logic. Henceforth, and for the very first time, it “is open to anyone who walks down that road to move away from the road and establish a relationship, a fit, a tie, with the man who is beaten up.” (Illich and Cayley, 2005).

A concern with the conditions of possibility for this call and response now marked Illich’s thinking, including how the qualities of different kinds of space were juxtaposed. These conditions are those channelling a carnal, bodily experience which calls the self towards the other. As Illich goes on to claim, “[t]ake away the fleshy, bodily, carnal, dense, humoural experience of self, and therefore of the Thou, from the story of the Samaritan, you have a nice liberal fantasy, which is something horrible.” (Ibid, p. 207) The call from the Jew struck the Samaritan in his belly (ibid., 227). In the Cartesian space engendered by automobility, Illich regarded the self as disembodied to an extent that no such call could reach it.

Hitch-hiking as a point of entry for critiques of automobility

This is what makes hitch-hiking a point of entry for critiques of automobility. Illich himself did not scrutinize automobility in these terms, but our paper goes through some effort to demonstrate how viable it is to do so. The very story of the Samaritan tells of an event taking place by the roadside. So also for hitch-hiking, which takes place when a call is made from one person to another, in plain sight, and this call is voluntarily answered. Hitch-hiking may be but a distant echo of the former event. Nevertheless, there are significant similarities in the conditions of possibility for these events to take place, and what hitch-hiking demonstrates to us now is the marginalization these conditions have suffered within the transformation of roads into thoroughfares for car-bound transport.

The ability to notice the loss of self-driving cars

A critique structured around these ideas would also be applicable to the imminent rise of self-driving cars. About this prospect, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe maintains that

automated driving will be the next revolution in the field of mobility. As human errors are the main reason for road traffic accidents, driving automatically controlled by a computer is expected to make future road transport safer. It has also the potential to be more environmentally friendly, efficient and accessible. (UNECE, 2016)

Here, a future of auto-nomous cars is taken as both inevitable and desirable. The former it is clearly not. How about the latter? The terms by which UNECE marks it as such using a language of efficiency. Now, we could scrutinize whether this is actually the case. But, more radically, we could note how the picture which accompanies the text shows a man sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, reading a newspaper. In such a system, then, human movement would be even further divorced from sensory engagement with ones surroundings. And the car which now takes care of orientation has no entrails by which a call from a wounded Jew or a hitch-hiker could travel in the way Illich describes. How we ought to think about this loss remains for us to decide, but with the help of Illich we are now ready to at least notice it.

To many, and rightly so, the word “degrowth” immediately draws to mind people concerned with the contradiction between infinite un-dematerializable economic growth and planetary boundaries which are finite. More recently, whether making recourse to concepts of autonomy, care or dépense, there has been a concern to develop critiques independent from a mere concern with “sustainability”. In our concern with hitch-hiking, we develop the means of such critique, and do so through a partial return to one of the original concerns of the movement. While focusing on this particular issue, we have also sought to make headways towards a mode of critique based neither on efficiency nor on the sustainability of life as such. Instead, we would have a critique which follows upon Illich’s understanding of human interpersonal relationality as the source of meaning for that same life.

For a more elaborated version of this discussion, see: Krüger, O., & Burkhart, C. 2016. Automobility and Hospitality. The International Journal of Illich Studies 5(1): 25-43. The International Journal of Illich Studies also provides many resources for those interested in the many other aspects of Ivan Illich’s thinking.