Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Engineering and Freedom, Part 2

click here for part 1  

The author and journalist Tom Wolfe was among the luminaries who were asked by Rolling Stone magazine at the end of 1999 to name the most significant invention of the twentieth century. Wolfe’s reply: “The German engineer Gottlieb Daimler's invention in 1885 of the first small, high-speed internal-combustion engine. Daimler's engine made possible the car, the truck, the airplane — the tank, the ballistic missile and the rocket. Without Daimler's engine, there would have been no world wars, no atomic bombings, no threat of worldwide nuclear destruction, no space exploration, nor, for that matter, any Vietnam War. Such were the minor byproducts of the man's genius. The serious business has been the explosion of families, communities, entire populations. Just about everyone who wants to now ups and leaves, gets in the car, the truck, the bus, the airplane and says goodbye to home, hometown, hometown restrictions and that old-time religion. More than all the ideologues, philosophers and cynics combined, it has been Daimler's engine that has led to people discarding religion so casually and blithely you can't even give them any such somber, knit-brow name as `atheists.’ Thanks to Gottlieb Daimler ... you're outta there! Nobody can any longer look over your shoulder. After all, which did more to get the sexual carnival rolling, the pill or the drive-straight-to-the-room motel?" (Tom Wolfe quoted in Rolling Stone (December 30, 1999/January 6, 2000): from Internet site, November 1, 2001) 

The motorcar, of all internal-combustion devices, has done the most to reorder and re-engineer modern culture and settlement. The automobile is a private possession that is also used as a public conveyance. In order to accommodate this private, but mobile possession, the public (ie. the state) has become involved in various kinds of structural and social engineering. 

The most obvious effect of the automobile has been its transformation of cities from dense, centralized places into highly dispersed, decentralized “cores” surrounded by suburbs. Suburbia came about not only because the car made lengthy daily commuting possible. The noise, dirt and danger of automobiles forced the “sub-division” of cities, such that residence was far removed from work, and work far removed from leisure, leisure from residence, and so on. An unanticipated effect of the shift to low-rise building, due to the automobile, was that it made possible “wheelchair-accessibility.” 

The geographical specialization and spread encouraged by automobile communications, has made everyone a paraplegic, such that dependence on a prosthesis, the motorcar, is essential to getting around. This is how the car became a staple of modern life. Rural parts have been affected as much, or much more, than the urban, by the car. In the twentieth century, internal-combustion technologies (including farm equipment) caused the massive centralization of farm-holdings and small-town settlement. 

For decades, possession of an automobile has been essential to participation in rural life (a disproportionate number of Model-T Fords were sold to farmers), such that country folk are as helpless as city slickers, even more so, when deprived of this feat of modern engineering. 

For country people, the automobile has been a boon. Urban-dwellers experience the true drawbacks of the automobile the most of anyone. The car is supposed to be a utility, a method of “getting from A to B,” but motorists in larger cities are reliably frustrated in this simple goal by the fact of other motorists, their number and their behaviour behind the wheel. 

Traffic jam and gridlock are an inevitability, one that is only temporarily relieved by the construction of new roads and highways, which only encourage further dependence on automobile communications, and thus, further gridlock. Cars effect paralysis when they malfunction and break down, as they frequently do. When breakdown occurs before destination, the motorist is left with the inconvenience not only of stranding, but also of worry about the now-useless prosthesis dead on the highway. Gridlock and breakdown have also created a new sort of crime, “road rage”, countless incidents of law-abiding citizens, when stuck in traffic, lashing out violently at other motorists or pedestrians. 

This kind of aggression is provoked by the necessity of identifying each motorist merely as a car. The private enclosure of the automobile prevents the normal course of society from taking shape in the car-dominated milieu. 

Thus it is that motorcar-mores must be enshrined in law for the most part, and subject to strict enforcement by police patrol. Freedom from arbitrary questioning and detention by police was a hard-won right in liberal societies. There is no legal obligation for people to carry identification when in public, but as the car is an essential instrument in contemporary society, every motorist not only must possess proper certificate at all times, but produce it on demand when stopped by police on the road. 

The car is a private possession, although its function as public transport brings it into the realm of the regulatory state. As such, people in liberal societies have subjected themselves to a degree of control by government, traditionally seen only in authoritarian societies. 

The car breaches the traditional line between public and private in other, more paradoxical ways. The automobile furthers state intervention into the very bodies of people in modern society, and it simultaneously diminishes the “republican” (that is, what belongs to the public) character of any community it dominates. 

There is a prosperous community in Fairfax county, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. Thousands work there, at many upstart and well-established firms belonging to the new economy. Some live there. Yet, to borrow a phrase, there is no there there. Literally: on any map, it is just a particular freeway interchange. The automobile has made it acceptable for people to work and even live in places where there is apparently nothing resembling what is known as “civic feeling.” 

But then, why should there be? In the “Five Corners,” as this business park has come to be known, the prospective patriciate — the business leaders who were the engine of city incorporation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — have no real motive to form an actual an town or city because they already are as barons in their own domains: they are undisputed, often dictatorial, masters of their workplace offices and “campuses,” virtual small towns to themselves. 

Civic feeling is missing among New Economy executives in the Five Corners because the service environment of the car, with its large parking lots and giant expressways, minimizes psychological connect between people who merely happen to work and live in proximity with each other. 

In the commercial/high-tech “parks” that take up more and more land space at the edge of every North American city, there is a discernable lack of comfort for going anywhere without one’s car. Since driving to the next building or two over would seem wasteful, and few wish to walk there, it is often the case in these industrial parks that the closest neighbours remain as strangers except through occasional telephone call or e-mail. Pedestrian traffic is utterly discouraged in the high-tech parks, which rarely bother to construct sidewalks. 

The parks are often financed by a consortium of the firms that locate there, which also construct their own individual office buildings to be convenient only for those coming and going by car: exterior pathways lead only to the parking lot, with the outlying street accessible only by a driveway, for example. Given that geography organized around the car leads to such an estrangement of pride in and belonging to one’s community and fellow citizens, New Economy firms have moved in to provide the leisure and even marketplace needs of their employees. 

All but the dinkiest of companies these days includes at least a small kitchen with a fridge and adjacent dining area for the comfort of employees, and the firms of the information economy, especially - the ones most likely to locate in industrial parks great and small - tend go a lot farther in catering to their employees’ needs. The Ottawa headquarters of Nortel Networks, for example, is a virtual (in the older sense) community to itself. 

However, it pales in comparison to the services offered by the edge city firms in the U.S., such as those located in Fairfax county, Virginia or Silicon valley, California. Edge city companies have sought to make the workplace as homey, as domesticated as possible, as compensation for the lack of society of industrial-park culture. They make it comfortable and ergonomic for employees so they don’t mind as much working the twelve and fourteen-hour days demanded by most high-tech firms. 

One can ask, if most people in the New Economy spend most of their waking hours at work, and if their social network is composed mainly of people with whom they work, do they actually “live” at their homes or at their workplaces? 

The domestication of the work environment is seen everywhere around the new-style firm: from the loss of honorifics for superiors, so that everyone down to the custodial staff is addressed by first name only, to the adoption of casual office dress, to the ritual of distribution and signing of birthday cards, to work-related “retreats” in the woods or in the mountains, to workplace courtship and extra-marital liaisons. 

All this was unheard-of for the vast majority of employers a century or even fifty years ago. Camaraderie among colleagues and co-workers has been a feature of work life for all time, likely. But the spirit that existed among co-workers in former times, as compared to today, tended to be as exclusive and non-domesticated as possible. 

Until recently, of course, the sexes rarely mixed in the workplace, and so associations which naturally developed among craftspeople of either sex were exclusive of the other, and thus not domesticated. The majority of people employed right outside the home, that is men and boys, wanted to make their workman’s associations as undomesticated as possible. 

The modern bourgeoisie in particular mastered the strict division of the domestic and professional life, a split that was reflected often in the personalties of members of the middle class (schizophrenia is often referred to as the “middle-class disease” for the disproportionate number of sufferers who come from that background). It was, ironically, the automobile, a result of the bourgeoisie’s industrially-based civilization, which put private life into obsolescence as it proceeded to domesticate the social environment completely. 

The very fact that the car is private property, and very expensive at that, creates constant demand for its use. The environment of the automobile (which includes everyone whether they drive a car or not) is thus reorganized to assume a domesticated form. The car extends in a limited way the creature comforts of home, and so people come to demand such comforts outside the home, too. 

The standard-model automobile, whether mini-van or sport-utility vehicle, is itself beginning to appear more and more like home. But even more humble cars are now built with ergonomic cup holders, cushioned seats and standard cassette/compact disc players, to approximate the home as much as a car can. One new line of mini-van even includes a digital television set mounted on the back of the driver’s seat. 

The paradox of the car is that while it extends vastly the geographical reach of what is formally called “public,” it simultaneously diminishes opportunities for true public contact between people. 

The car reversed the bias of Western society from privacy and relative economic autonomy to state intervention in the personal and social lives of all people. Property rights and bodily integrity were abridged by the automobile through the vicissitudes of highway construction and highway accident-inspired emergency medical care. 

The current bureaucratic control of public education is also in large part a result of the motorized transport, in the form of the school bus, the only vehicle on the road that can, by itself, legally block traffic coming behind it. The humble school bus, practically on its own, closed the local schoolhouse, shipping kids off to one- or two-thousand student primary and secondary schools that could only be governed by ever-expanding “administration.” Now, rural and small town kids receive much the same education (or at least the same form of operant conditioning) as do urban kids. In this sense, rural folks have become as urbanized as actual city kids, just as the urban environment itself has become domesticated. 

 The automobile has created a catacomb world where the public has been refashioned to appear as much as possible like the private, while the incursions of the state and public into private life are everywhere but go mostly unobserved. The world of the car isn’t all for bad, in spite of what its critics may believe. The very act regulating traffic, in terms of zoning laws and so on, has created beautiful, safe neighbourhoods that the average worker can afford. And the suburbs are not just great collectivities of square boxes full of people made square by their living in such a homogeneous environment. Nevertheless, the “edge” civilization of modern times is entirely dependent upon engineering, the greater part of which in turn is dependent on regulation and subsidy by the state. 

Part three of Engineering and Freedom 

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