Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, November 15, 2010

Q & A

Tom Philpott at Grist asks: "Is my smartphone making me dumb?"

Yes, it is.

PS: I've never had, needed, or missed having a cellphone or "smartphone" (or an automobile for that matter), and you'll all likely discover, possibly only when they all fail, that neither did you. Unfortunately, you'll have come perilously and pointlessly close to destroying the world in the process of learning this quite fantastically obvious lesson, but it's not like anybody ever promised me a rose garden.

15 comments:

Martin said...

You speak of the non-necessity of owning a car because you enjoy the privileges of living in a large city with decent public transportation.

Dale Carrico said...

The effortless, nay automatic, response. Propose that the privileged budge an inch in anything they're accustomed to and you're branded a hypocrite or a would-be tyrant. As it happens, I haven't only lived in big cities, and yet I have never had a car. I must be a magical creature not to need what all car owners need so much they that are turning the world to shit for their need. Rather than insist you need a car -- as if actual organized human civilization didn't pre-exist car culture for centuries -- why not devote yourself to educating, agitating, and organizing for funding for mass public transportation to ameliorate this phony and destructive "need"? Why impute smug hypocrisy to me for pointing out the obvious? Don't worry, I don't have the power to snatch anybody's car away, even if, in aggregate, car culture has the power to snatch the air we breathe away from us all. Look to the snarled highways, look to the zoning that prevents dense walkable neighborhoods from even the possibility if existing, look to car iconography that suffuses the popular imaginary: culture holds all the cards. No need to attack me for living outside a destructive status quo and testifying to the fact that it's not so bad outside, after all. By all means, drive on, America, bulldoze ever forward, see the USA in your Chevrolet, with a rebel yell cry more more more in the NASCAR reek of poison smoke and squealing tires and mob joy, bring it on, bring it on!

Dale Carrico said...

Btw, don't take it personally, Martin -- I'm sure you do advocate for rapid transit and clean cars and so on, and I'm sure you actually do know better than to imply that my pointing to the obvious unsustainability of car culture amounts to a dictatorial wish on my part to steal everybody's precious cars away from them tomorrow first thing -- it's just that I'm going on week two of a post-midterms bad mood that isn't getting any better with events, and my blog is a barky blog at the moment. Bark bark.

Martin said...

Damn, you definitely read more into that than I intended. That was an attack?

It is indeed a privilege that not everyone enjoys to live in a place with good public transportation, or exotic cuisine, or clubs that cater to alternative lifestyles, etc, and there's nothing hypocritical about that.

And while it's great to agitate for better public transportation, right now the reality remains that some people have no buses or trains within miles of where they live. How did they survive before cars? They were primarily agricultural and worked on their own plot of land. They didn't travel 10 or 20 miles *every day* to work and back.

Since I turned 18 in 1996, I've basically lived within walking distance of one university or another, except for Aug 2003 - Aug 2004 and the last 8 months, but I've also put all of 4500 miles on my car in that time span. The average for a year is 15,000 miles or something, isn't it? So I'm not the problem.

But while we're at it, here are two more things you don't NEED: internet access and a blog. :-)

Dale Carrico said...

two more things you don't NEED: internet access and a blog

Citizen access to the internet seems to me incomparably more needful to me than cars. Even if everybody had access to mass public transit systems marginalizing cars to harmless hobbyists and occasional car-sharers, I think access to p2p-media formations for education, agitation, organization, criticism, donor aggregation, collaborative problem-solving could remain indispensable.

But I take the spirit of your point. Like I said, I'm a very grumpy pissed off liberal pinko commie right about now.

Dale Carrico said...

I want to add, by the way, that here in Rockridge we're not in an urban city center. We're 15 minutes' walk from the BART station. My point is not to deny how lucky we are this proximate to mass transit, but to point out that Eric and I are the only people on our street who do not have a car. I daresay many or even most of our neighbors fancy their cars are "needed." But they are not. I don't know enough about your specific circumstances to be sure, but frankly I suspect you don't really "need" a car as urgently as you may think you do. I also think our civilization may well be on a path that ends in forcing a lot of people who think they "need" cars to discover they don't -- because there won't be fuel for the cars or industries to make cars -- and they'll build working lives without the cars the never needed in the first place, but the use of which turned the world to shit.

jollyspaniard said...

They've got the urban balance right in Europe. The cities here were built before automobiles exsisted making them largely an extra. I don't own a car and neither do most of my friends. The ones that do leave them parked most days.

In the morning I walk to work or take the bus. It's a 5km walk past rows of beautiful 100-200 year old buildings. Or I can take the scenic route along the beach. The commute home is a walk (maybe stop off at a pub or friends home halfway) or a brisk jog. And if you have a bike you're laughing.

Back in Toronto, definitely a car city, I did the same thing but it was far less pleasant. Walking or jogging next to a noisy stream of cars and their exhaust with not much in the way of scenery. The proposition becomes a lot less attractive (and the distances much longer) so less people do it. It's a landscape that practicaly shoves you into a car out of necessity. One of the reasons I left.

Regarding Smartphone if you've got a home computer or laptop you don't have much need for a smartphone. However a lot of people will use a smartphone as their main computer. Another advantage of smartphones is that they are often the only way to circumvent the ridiculous firewalls and computing restrictions people face at work. Ie blocking people from using computers to communicate with friends and family. And that communication is shifting from phone calls to social networking for a lot of people which is primarily what they're using smartphones for. That's a good thing IMHO.

I think Smartphones are brilliant. Pretty soon they're going to be trickling down to poor people across the world who undoubtedly find all kinds of productive uses for them we haven't thought of.

For my part I haven't much bothered getting one myself. I'm happy to keep using my existing phone until it stops working. Same with my tired old but still sufficient laptop.

Martin said...

Well, first, Europe's better public transportation is more a consequence of their higher population density than higher intelligence, planning, politics, or morality. They ride public transportation out of necessity. Most European countries have population densities 10 - 20 times that of the US. But where the US approaches Europe in pop density -- particularly in the Northeast corridor from Washington, DC to Boston -- pretty good public transportation exists. Rail lines cross the whole region. I have a friend in Fredericksburg, VA, whose father works at the Smithsonian, 45 miles away. He rides the train to work and back, thus turning a 3 h fight against traffic into a pleasant 45 minute trip (where he can spend his time reading the newspaper -- probably on his smartphone these days -- rather than switching lanes).

But most of the US has a population density that makes GOOD public transportation economically impractical. Yes, there are buses here in Lexington (pop: 270,000), but the buses suck. Yes, I *could* take the bus, but I'd be turning a 15 min trip into an hour and half, each way. Maybe I don't have an excuse, but some people have shit to do. They need to get home to their kids and so on. I understand why they drive.

Now you could argue that public transportation would improve if everyone used it. Perhaps, but somebody has to start. It's like libre software. If you believe in p2p and creative commons as against proprietary products and corporate monopolies, you should be using Linux. But as long as very few people do, the software won't rival Photoshop and MS Office, giving people less incentive to switch. So, despite all the complaints, people stick with Windows out of convenience.

Dale Carrico said...

I think the health hazards of hand-helds are being deliberately downplayed by those who profit from them in the usual way. I also worry about the pace at which hand-helds find their surreally toxic wasteful way to landfill. I also think communication via tiny hand-held screens and keyboards turns people into imbeciles.

Books are a technology. To prefer durable demanding books to the superficial, imbecilizing, fragile (you'll see!) iFraud twitterverse is not to be a technophobe, but to prefer better artifacts and techniques to crappy ones.

I don't doubt that hand-helds facilitate novel and desirable practices (human beings are crafty and creative beings after all), but to the extent that they become our epochal mediator, they mostly facilitate cultural suck in my view.

Martin said...

It seems environmentally conscious people should prefer e-readers, since you can fit thousands of books on a single device, which kills fewer trees, and you can take your entire library with you (I don't know about you, but I'm the type of person who reads 3 or 4 books concurrently). Smartphones are increasingly offering that functionality. They should really be called mobile computing devices, since they can (increasingly) do everything, from phone calls to book reading to web surfing. Also, stocking landfills with these devices should be preferred to huge desktop computers.

Dale Carrico said...

Yes, I *could* take the bus, but I'd be turning a 15 min trip into an hour and half, each way. Maybe I don't have an excuse, but some people have shit to do. They need to get home to their kids and so on. I understand why they drive.

Oh, nobody's denying the short-term convenience of cars, the question is whether it's worth longer term catacysm or whether you still get to say you are a smart or good person if knowing what you know you prefer the short-term over the longer-term.

I suspect the good people of Lexington could organize and agitate to get better bus service if they got off their asses and decided to give a shit about destroying the world their kids have to live in, if, as you say, they have kids and such.

But, yes, of course, people have shit to do. Not me. I have used for decades and continue still to use public transportation even where it was and is crappy and turns 15 minute commutes into hour-long commutes because I am a special magical being who doesn't have shit to do.

Or maybe I just brought a book or graded papers or organized my day and learned soon enough to enjoy or otherwise make use of the "burden" of that unspeakable inconvenience and discovered soon enough that it wasn't one. Again, tho, I'm a special magical being utterly unlike normal folks with their urgently demanding indispensably lightning-paced fantastically satisfying lives, as has been amply established already.

Martin said...

"[F]olks with their urgently demanding indispensably lightning-paced fantastically satisfying lives."

Now that was funny. :)

Dale Carrico said...

I think we need to destroy the legal and regulatory and funding regimes that encourage proprietary formations over p2p-formations, car culture over public transportation.

Screw spontaneist fantasies of the little people getting together and having a freesoftware party or green consumers buying feelgood hybrids because the tee vee tells them its the latest "thing" for a season -- all the while the state firehoses money and might to the incumbent-elite bad guys.

Fuck fantasies of a very special episode of Glee helping yuppies feel warm and fuzzy about insulating their attics with recycled denim (tho' you really should), when what is wanted is to seize the state and direct its might and money instead to the institution and maintenance of dense walkable neighborhoods connected by urban and trancontinental public mass transit and car-sharing programs.

Stop subsidizing ruinous petrochemical consumption to the short-term parochial benefit of incumbent-elites. Tax families with more than one car back to the stone age before they knock us all back to the Stone Age for real. Prioritize rapid rail over highways in state budgets. Re-orient Detroit into a wind-turbine industrial city. Turn urban roads into pedestrian malls. Stop sucking car culture cock as a nation before we're all fucked (and not in a good way).

And fuck this geek-leet pining for people to give up their windoze and jump on the linux bandwagon. Politics isn't a goddamn rave, temporary autonomous zones can't scale to accommodate the political realm. Howzabout: Dramatically widen fair use provisions, dramatically shrink the copyright term, give substantial public grants to knowledge-creation that is offered up on to the public domain to render its efforts sensibly worthwhile, make tenure a tradeoff contingent on non-commodification of university research. A progressive tax can re-capture the wealth all these sociopathic silicon-valley bazillionaires comandeered from the efforts of legions and generations of unpaid enthusiasts and then pretended they created ab initio like they were Ayn Randian wet-dream fountainhead archetypes rather than just clueless narcissists willing just deluded and ruthless enough to confuse their PR with reality.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. And as sure as I'm sitting here it's only by reference to seizing control of the state and directing it to world-historical ends that one becomes a real political actor -- not through one's acts of consumption or kindness or beauty. This is not to denigrate everyday living or everyday miracles of kindness or beauty, but to grasp that p2p-democratization and sustainable polyculture are outcomes playing out in a different agentic-historical register than these.

Dale Carrico said...

The immaterial internet is driven by burning coal and accessed via artifacts made of toxic materials.

Also, I can easily imagine the day when people find their blank cracked juiceless protocol-defunct proprietarily circumvented unfashionable piles of hand-helds useful as nothing but book-ends for the bound books they had the good sense to keep on hand even after the glorious digital dawned.

jollyspaniard said...

European cities for the most part were built before the automobile which makes all the difference. One of the reasons population densities is so low in NAmerican cities is all the room allocated to very wide roadways and parking lots. Plus factor in all those useless greenery strips that line that asphalt. That stuff takes up a lot of space and consumes a lot of resources. The worst example of them all is Calgary, even the centre of that city feels like an exurb. The city has buses but you really need a car to exsist in that city.

You mention a town of 270,000 with bad public transit. The town I live in has slightly more population and has excellent public transit. There are two bus nexi and 2 rail stations and 2 rail stops along a 3 mile stretch from which you can get anywhere quite easily.

And by the same token you can drive me Brighton but it can be more trouble than it's worth. Parking can be hard to find and there are often better options.

I get around town by walking but if I want to go to London I've got a train platform a 100 yards away, from there it's a 50 minute chilled out train ride right into the heart of london.

North American cities will be making a transition to a more pedestrian/high pop density mode. It's already started in Vancouver and Seattle and the style of redevelopment is becoming increasingly popular.