My daughter, being sixteen, just got her driver’s license. I asked her a question a few days ago: ” If you had to choose one and give up the other, which would you choose: a personal vehicle or the internet (including social media, wifi, smart phones, etc.)?”
She thought for a bit and said: “It’s a hard question but I would choose the internet. Nobody actually likes driving, it’s just something we have to do, but I really like having access to movies at home and all that other stuff.”
She is just one young person, but the choice and the distinction that she made surprised me. I’m not sure that an older American (Boomers, X’s) would be capable of dis-owning the automobile with so little mental anguish. We “olds” have our sense of social identity tangled up with the system that requires a personal vehicle to “keep up.” Car equals social survival and, beyond that, social status.
These younger ones, whose smartphone use we so often deplore, may offer a strange kind of hope.
Imagine if we could build upon this opportunity: the remapping of social identity from personal mobility to personal connectivity. Imagine if the US fleet of personal vehicles were to shrink just a bit every year. That would be an amazing reversal of our ever more frantic consumerism. It wouldn’t solve everything but it would be a beginning – a sliver of a wedge – and any wedge is welcome in what seems like a hopeless struggle .
And there is hope in thinking that our civilization’s hell-bent investment in social connectivity – the massive server farms, the underwater cables, the satellites, the FoxConn factories, the rare metal mines – might not have been entirely wrongheaded. Perhaps we can leverage the transformation in connectivity to effect another transformation: the de-coupling of personhood from the personal vehicle? I’m not, generally speaking, a believer in eco-modernism i.e. the idea that technology will save us from the negative side-effects of technology, but perhaps our obsession with our smartphones could have a useful outcome after all.
The catch is that we have to actually capitalize on the opportunity and make it possible to have a decent life without each of us having to own several tons of metal for personal transport. We need to convert on the investments we’ve made, somewhat blindly and frivolously, in personal connectivity. We have to dis-own car culture. And I don’t see my generation having the will to do it.
But maybe my daughter’s generation may have the social capacity to make that choice. Maybe they can gently tip into another paradigm.
Ruben Anderson of A Small and Delicious Life describes social capacity this way:
Three things are needed to make change; we need three capacities. We need the Technical capacity, the Material Capacity, and the Social capacity. Let me explain:
If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie.
If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie.
And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie.
If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.
And the social capacity to let go of our automobiles has seemed to be the missing element . So it’s exciting to see a glimmer of something being born that was not possible before. Just a tiny glimmer.
Of course the danger is that virtual connectivity overwhelms and undermines us humans at our very core, that we become creatures of our machines even more fundamentally, as E.M Forster described in his prescient short story The Machine Stops, (1909) –
…beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.
Our greatest strength is to need no machine, no garments of steel or intricate devices. But that is not where we are at right now. Right now we are searching for a staircase away from the cliff, and for any little glimmer of a path.