(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 362: The Traffic War is Never Won

December 8, 2021

This week we’re joined by University of Virginia Associate Professor Peter Norton, to talk about his new book Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving.  Peter discusses the false promises of auto makers and technologists and the mobility solutions that are already in front of us.

To listen to this episode, find it at Streetsblog USA or the Libsyn hosting page.

Below is a full and unedited transcript:

Jeff Wood (43s):
Peter Norton. Welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Peter Norton (1m 18s):
It’s A pleasure to be here, Jeffrey.

Jeff Wood (1m 19s):
Well, thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Peter Norton (1m 24s):
Well, I’m a historian, I’m an associate professor in the department of engineering and society at the university of Virginia. And I write about street traffic people and the past and the future of mobility.

Jeff Wood (1m 39s):
And it’s great to have you back on the show. You might not remember that you were on the show in episode 104, but you were the keynote speaker at live ride share in Denver in 2016. And so we published your keynote and I think it was a big hit, but that first book fighting traffic was such a big hit. Are you still getting response from that initial book?

Peter Norton (1m 56s):
Yes. And the pleasure of it for me is that I wrote it as an academic, you know, thing, and expected some response from my academic colleagues and there was some, but the real response came from advocates of walkability and sustainable mobility. And I was delighted by that. Are you still,

Jeff Wood (2m 17s):
We’re getting a lot of responses even now. I mean, what’s the latest, I mean, are people still reading the books still coming back to you and having new questions that maybe you didn’t get before?

Peter Norton (2m 25s):
Yes, in fact, the new book is because of the interest in the old book. So with the old book, I would get invited to speak like I was in Denver and my focus would be on the past. And inevitably though the audience was very interested in what the implications of that past were for our future and how that past might actually help us justify the futures that people are hoping to get. And that led me to, you know, speak in part about what the automakers and the tech companies are saying. Our future will be, which I find so disturbing that I thought, well, let’s write a book about that.

Jeff Wood (3m 7s):
Now, what got you to start thinking about kind of the history of motor dumb initially? Like what was the impetus for going back in time and thinking about kind of this transition? Well,

Peter Norton (3m 16s):
He began driving relatively late for an American. I was about 27 before I began driving frequently. And so that meant that in my twenties, when I was in grad school, I was struggling with living in America without a car. And it struck me as strangely difficult. And at the same time as a historian, I wanted to know, well, how did it end up this way? And I quickly was pretty dissatisfied with the conventional answers, which had to do with Americans, all loving cars that just didn’t seem like that could be more than a piece of the answer. And the more I dug, the more interesting it got that,

Jeff Wood (3m 59s):
Autonorama it still looks at history, but specifically at the history of motor dumb selling a vision of the future that never really comes true. I’m curious if you’ve already ruffled a few feathers in the world of, of future driving advocates.

Peter Norton (4m 10s):
Oh, definitely. Most recently I got sort of scolded and lectured for, for example, confusing public relations with what the technology could do. And in my reply to that was of course in history, it’s the public relations that matters. You know, public relations gave us fascism public relations gave us Stalinism and public relations gave us Maoism and public relations gave us consumerism. And so the engineers don’t get to decide. Some of the engineers would tell me they’re disturbed by what the marketing departments and the CEOs were saying about their technology. They were over promising as marketing departments usually do.

Peter Norton (4m 53s):
So. Yes, the answer is yes, I have been scolded for, you know, speaking out of my depth or whatever the criticism of the day is.

Jeff Wood (5m 4s):
Well, that sales pitch, I mean, it’s interesting to read in the book about Charles Kettering and I’m wondering why his idea of consumerism overall is so damaging the idea that, you know, give people a new model every year. So they’re never quite satisfied.

Peter Norton (5m 16s):
Well, it was a genius move on his part to recognize that if you, I mean, Henry Ford understood that if you want somebody to buy a car, once every eight or 10 years keep the consumer satisfied, Kettering realized that if you want to sell someone a car every couple of years, you need to keep them dissatisfied so that they come back and buy something in a kind of perpetual effort to become satisfied. It’s of course, really damaging because it puts you on a kind of treadmill of consumption, which can take a personal toll on you financially and morally in terms of your morale. But of course, globally, it means resource depletion, and it means, you know, carbon emissions and so on.

Peter Norton (6m 1s):
And the segment of the economy that accounts for the greatest share of greenhouse gas emissions in America is the transport sector. And, you know, Charles Kettering deserves some of the credit for that record.

Jeff Wood (6m 15s):
It’s the consumerism. I feel like it’s in reading the book anyways. I feel like in the way that you’ve described it, this consumerism for automobiles led to a larger idea of consumerism led to more products being, you know, made functionally obsolete after a certain amount of time, et cetera, was this the beginning of a mass market kind of movement that is changed all sectors, not just transportation

Peter Norton (6m 39s):
Well in the, you know, it was in the early 20th century that you start to see what we later called consumerism, which is when, you know, in the old market model, the entrepreneur comes along and figures out what people need supplies that are the good price and they’re for the business succeeds. But by the 20th century, the productive capacity of the factories and the manufacturing companies was exceeding the consumption capacity. So, you know, they needed advertisers to promote consumption and not only to promote consumption of the goods, people already knew they wanted, but to create new wants, you know, this is when mouthwash was introduced when daily or weekly shampooing became the norm that had to be sold to people.

Peter Norton (7m 31s):
People had to be convinced that they needed these things, and we’re still on that treadmill because new needs are being invented all the time. I was shocked a few years ago in the supermarket when I saw shelf after shelf of something called bodywash, I hadn’t even heard of this stuff. And you know, this was a new product and preceding it, there had to be a new demand created

Jeff Wood (7m 57s):
When reading this book, I continuously thought about the movie Spaceballs, have you seen Spaceballs? And you know, the one quote from the main character, Rick Miranda’s plays, you know, when will then be now, soon, he looks at the screen, you know, rotating itself. And it made me think of that quote over and over again, because the continuous kind of promise of a future that wasn’t quite here yet, but then people asking, you know, or at least promoting that this is coming soon when it really, in reality, it’s a 20 year cycle of rehashed promises over and over again. I’m curious how you felt about that 20 year cycle that seems to continue with, and you go through it in the book with all the future dramas and Tonya Ramas, et cetera.

Jeff Wood (8m 37s):
I’m curious how that kind of cycle fixes into their thinking. It really,

Peter Norton (8m 41s):
Really reminds me of a lot of our personal lives, where we learn. Everybody’s got that friend who sort of needed your help and promised something in return and never quite delivered and you become skeptical, but then they earn back your credibility. You know, they’re a nice person and they maybe get a better job or whatever it is, and they gain back that credibility. And then you find out, well, you’ve been led along again. Or of course this is classic and dysfunctional relationships, right? Like that’s the last time I will cheat on you in this sort of thing. So I think we could see this on a large scale in a lot of marketing campaigns, where in the short run, it’s always to the advantage of the seller to promise more than they can deliver in the long run that over promising catches up with them.

Peter Norton (9m 35s):
And then when that happens, there’s going to be a shortage of credibility. And the seller is going to have to find a new way to restore that credibility. One thing they can do is try to keep us focused on the future. The message that the past is the past and is irrelevant, is always part of this. Another thing they can do. And it’s been a favorite with the future Ramas and with today Autonorama is to show us really amazing technology. And when they show us the really amazing technology, along with that display, there’s a message of, well, now anything’s possible. And so yes, transistors never really did make driverless cars happen everywhere, but now today, machine learning will,

Jeff Wood (10m 25s):
That was another interesting part is that, you know, always with the quote-unquote technology, as you mentioned, the book technology, and as a word is its own interesting kind of history itself. But, you know, they always thought that they could do autonomous driving, even from the first thinking about the future. And it never really came to pass. So with every new kind of technological advance, they felt like that was the time to go. And even now we’re seeing, we were promised, you know, in 2010, et cetera, that we’re going to see self-driving vehicles by 2020. And here we are in 2021. And we’re nowhere near closer than we were. Then we just see a bunch of vehicles driving around the streets of here in San Francisco with LIDAR on them. And then they still have drivers. It seems like it’s never going to change.

Peter Norton (11m 6s):
That’s right. So I think we’re, we’re seeing a sort of contradiction unfolding in front of us because on the one hand, the technology really is astonishing. I mean, it’s machine learning that makes, say, Google translate work very far from perfectly but impressively well, but then there’s things that these technologies can’t deliver. For example, they can’t make a car. As we know it spatially efficient, it can’t make propelling people around its speed and separate metal boxes safe. It can’t make traffic congestion go away. The energy intensivity involved in moving that kind of a mass is there and fixed, and the technology can offer you marginal improvements, but it does not change Newton’s laws that say it’s going to take a certain amount of force to move that much mass.

Peter Norton (12m 3s):
So the technology’s impressiveness becomes a distraction from some basic givens, like the size of the vehicle, the forces involved in moving it that quickly, and the energy required to move it that quickly.

Jeff Wood (12m 17s):
Now you make clear in the book that the problem isn’t necessarily cars themselves, but rather car dependency. And I think that’s a really important point because as you mentioned as well, there’s certain tools to do certain tasks, but we tend to want to use a hammer for everything, which is the car. And I think that’s an important discussion as, as it pertains to the discussion of why this, you know, Futurama Autonorama is somewhat flawed because they want to see a car only future, whereas mobility as a whole should be a suite of tools,

Peter Norton (12m 48s):
Right? So this is such an important point. It’s so easy to sort of miss too. You know, when I say criticized cars, it can sound like I’m criticizing them under all circumstances. The car began as a special purpose transport tool. And that’s really what it is and has been. It was particularly useful for getting farmers connected to their markets or getting a pharmacist to deliver to a patient or whatever. It was never the all purpose transport necessity in its early years to sell a lot of cars, took redefining it as an all purpose mobility, not necessity.

Peter Norton (13m 30s):
And we’ve inherited that. And you know, I liked your reference to the hammer because if a carpenter is driving in a screw with a screwdriver, no one’s going to say to the carpenter, what do you hate hammers? I mean, what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you use a hammer? And the carpenter will say, no, I don’t hate hammers. I just know what a hammer is useful for. And I know what a screwdriver is useful for. Well, the same distinction, really exactly the same distinction applies to cars. They are useful tools, but if you try to use them for everything well, like most, all purpose tools, it doesn’t work well equally at all jobs. I think there’s a super important distinction between a tool and a solution.

Peter Norton (14m 12s):
And the marketing departments always want us to think of tools as solutions. In other words, the solution does everything. The user doesn’t really have to control it. In fact, the user kind of disappears from the equation. The solution does everything. The beauty of a tool is it empowers the user. It gives the user choices. It puts the user in charge. And I think a lot of the trouble we’ve gotten into not just in transport, but in a lot of other realms as well is when tools get misrepresented as solutions.

Jeff Wood (14m 46s):
That reminds me of one of the things in the book, clever marketing twists. You know, I have seen the future, not just a possible future, right? The people are telling you exactly kind of where they want you to go. Not maybe a scenario.

Peter Norton (14m 58s):
Yeah. That was a little button that they gave every visitor to the original 1939 Futurama exhibit a. They gave that to every tourist, every fair goer who saw that. And then you put it on your lapel. And it said, I have seen the future and it was general motors future. So in other words, they were selling a specific future and they were implicitly excluding people from choosing their futures. And that’s exactly the situation we’ve been in ever since. So in 2021, when the tech companies or the automakers show us a future, they’re showing us their future. And they’re not just say asking us what they can sell us that will help us get where we want to go.

Peter Norton (15m 46s):
They’re selling us a future that requires us to buy what they have to sell. And that’s a very different thing. And I think it’s a dangerous thing.

Jeff Wood (15m 54s):
It gets me to think about it earlier thing you discussed, which is the disconnect between the marketing and the engineering as it were. And, you know, I’m wondering how much of the engineers actually believe that kind of the norm would be their technology within a five to 10 year period, or if they’re more kind of cautious about things. And then the marketing is what wraps them up. The example that I have in my notes is, you know, that radar would be aiding driving five years from 1958. And it’s clear that that didn’t happen. But I’m wondering if you think they honestly believe this, or if this was just kind of the cycle that got away from,

Peter Norton (16m 29s):
Well, of course there were a lot of different opinions about this, but in general, the engineers have always been in a sort of quiet panic about what the marketing departments and the CEOs are saying about what the engineering can deliver. Now that’s complicated by the fact that sometimes the engineers sort of recognize that their own interests are involved in over promising what their technology can do. In other words, the engineer’s career stands to gain. If they say that this can do more than it really can do, but I have been surprised. I’d almost say shocked on a couple of occasions when engineers, whose money was coming from the over promises from the technology companies, the automakers said off the record.

Peter Norton (17m 19s):
I mean, one of them said, you know, I don’t want you to repeat this, but I’m very concerned because the technology can’t come close to delivering what they’re promising it to deliver. And so we have a weird inversion and that engineering is about reality. It’s about, you know, sometimes it’s called applied science and science is the study of reality. And marketing is never really that interested in what’s real. It’s interested in what will get people to buy. And so we have an inversion where the engineers are, the reality. People are subordinate to the purveyors of attractive fictions.

Peter Norton (17m 59s):
And, you know, we have been in this jam for a long time. It helps explain some of the problems we’ve gotten into, you know, the Boeing 7 37 max case is a good example where the engineers were all privately, extremely stressed out. As we know from their internal emails about what the marketing people and the CEOs and the management were saying about what the 7 37 max could do.

Jeff Wood (18m 27s):
It’s also the circle of, of the hype machine that leads to these crazy valuations and even fundraising. It feels like some of that is also tied to their existence, you know, at all, because, you know, if they don’t get the funding to continue their research, they’re not going to be able to move forward. And so there’s kind of that gap between selling the hype and then, you know, trying to continue their work. It’s almost like they’re trying to keep the perpetual motion machine moving, but it’s dependent on that lie or a white lie or, or just that tiny thing that’s gonna make the difference.

Peter Norton (18m 59s):
Perpetual motion machine analogy is a great one. You know, their system cannot perform as promised and yet the people selling it have to oversell it, or they, as you say, will not attract the investment that they need to attract. Now, I have to say, I’m surprised that the investors keep putting money into these over promising companies. But I think some of what’s going on is a savvy appreciation of the fact that even if the promises are extravagant, if you put your money in at the right time and get out at the right time, you will still make a killing off of this balloon. So it is a weird sort of inflationary cycle that has to hit a hard wall like a Ponzi scheme does.

Peter Norton (19m 47s):
At some point

Jeff Wood (19m 49s):
I was interested in language and framing and you know, how important is language and how we talk about transportation policy generally, and our future goals versus some of these promises.

Peter Norton (19m 60s):
I can’t tell you how much I think it’s important. I think it’s profoundly important. And I agree with you emphatically about that. And I think the people who want to sell us the futures that will make them rich are very smart about how to put into words, what they’re trying to sell to us.

Jeff Wood (20m 19s):
I’m just curious about like, what you think about just the language generally and the choices of words, you know, mobility versus transportation is one of the ones you bring up in the book there. So many different ways that words have been co-opted throughout history to start to mean something different. I mean, words always changed because people realize their power and then try to, you know, take them for their own. But I’m curious what you think about those changes like specifically like mobility?

Peter Norton (20m 46s):
Well, I think there’s strategic. I think they’re generally smart and astute. The most successful ones are the ones that you don’t really notice. They get past you. And pretty soon you’re talking their language and that language is serving their interests. So take the term mobility, which was there a late arrival in the world of transport, you know, a generation ago, people spoke about, say urban transportation. Now we’re much more likely to speak of urban mobility. And there’s been a sort of interesting dance going on because some of the interest in speaking about mobility instead of about transport has come from recognizing that there’s a lot of mobility that’s really valuable, but that the word transport misses.

Peter Norton (21m 32s):
So transport carries connotations of economic value and exchange of goods and services. And so on. In other words of economically valuable mobility and advocates of mobility have made the point. And I think it’s an essential one that being able to walk to grocery store is as important as other kinds of transport, but that got excluded with the word transport. So they said let’s use mobility, but at the same time, the people trying to sell us expensive, high consumption, energy, intensive transport, recognize that the word mobility could serve their interests as well.

Peter Norton (22m 16s):
And so as long ago is even 60 years ago, you begin to see mobility, supplanting transport in the marketing of automobiles. They start speaking of them as giving you mobility. This really has taken off though only in the last say 10 to 20 years, when now all the tech companies and all the automakers in the autonomous vehicle business will all tell you they’re in the mobility business. And I personally think we should be skeptical of that claim because if you live in a world where the only way to get around is by an expensive energy intensive vehicle.

Peter Norton (22m 56s):
That’s also spatially inefficient and not very inclusive of all people that that’s actually debilitating to mobility. It may be impressive as transport. And I’d like to keep that distinction that the advocates of walking and cycling and public transportation and livability were making, when they really promoted the use of the word mobility a few decades ago, I think that’s a really important distinction. And I fear that the marketing people, as they often do are depriving us of that valuable distinction by muddling the waters

Jeff Wood (23m 32s):
And you can’t sell a mobility, you can’t monetize it. That’s another kind of framework that functions for these companies. They’re trying to sell your data. They’re trying to collect your data and they’re not actually trying to move you around necessarily mean they, they move you, but it’s kind of the side business for some of them. There’s a distinction there as well, which is the sales of people’s data versus the actual moving of people. There’s a separation. And if, if it’s a mobility, that’s not monetized, or it’s not lucrative, that may be for them. It doesn’t count

Peter Norton (24m 2s):
That’s right now, this was a relatively late realization for me. But when I began reading the reports from the companies, trying to attract investors from the consultancies and so on, I began to read pretty astonishing things about how the vehicle was going to become. And I quote the ultimate mobile device. In other words, it’s going to become like a smartphone on wheels. And the genius of this is that even if as a transport tool, an autonomous vehicle, like a robo taxi is not a big moneymaker because of the fact that the vehicle is so expensive and to charge a fair that anyone will pay gives you a small profit margin per fare.

Peter Norton (24m 53s):
The real difference they’ll recoup is by gathering data from the vehicle occupant, because I mean, the data collectors biggest frustration with the smartphone has been that there’s two times when people aren’t generating data on their smartphone, one is when they’re sleeping. And the other is when they’re driving. Of course we know sometimes people are even generating data on their smartphone when they’re driving. And one of the huge attractions of the autonomous vehicle in the tech sector has been now, people will in effect be driving their phone and will not have to pay attention to the road. And this thing, this sort of mobile phone will be impaneled into on the interior with screens.

Peter Norton (25m 38s):
And you can be working, playing, doing social media, whatever you want, and you will now be generating a lot of data even while you’re driving. So it’s like opening up a new market. And so you said it well, when you said, you know, it may look like transport to you and me, but to them, it’s a data collection technique.

Jeff Wood (25m 59s):
And I just, I go, go back to that comment that you can’t make money off walking. I mean, I guess you can, because then you’re measuring, you know, if you have a smartphone in your pocket, you can measure, but that’s not a large 20,000, $50,000 vehicle that has all kinds of parts and those types of things. So it’s not as lucrative maybe to walk than it, as it is to get in a vehicle and be whisked away and watch show tunes or whatever you want to watch on the TV inside.

Peter Norton (26m 23s):
It’s so important to get the distinction between what is good mobility and what is profitable to the company. That’s says it’s selling you mobility. So if in a given situation walking is what works best for you. That’s not how it’s going to look to the companies trying to sell you their version of. And so they will try to repackage your transport decision in such a way that you’ll choose the energy intensive, expensive mobility instead of walking.

Jeff Wood (26m 56s):
I’m curious about if there’s a question that you wish people would ask you about the book that maybe you haven’t been asked yet, or if there’s a topic in the book that you feel like is under appreciated or, or kind of under-covered as opposed to the other.

Peter Norton (27m 9s):
Right. Well, I mean, you actually already raised one I’ve. I always try to work in the fact that there’s a really important distinction between a tool and a solution. And I almost never get asked any questions that lead me up to that. But you, you did that, I guess, to elaborate on that a little bit, I would say this a big influence for me was Rachel Carson and her classic 1962 book silent spring, a cautioning us about where we were headed. If we continued to use so much chemical pesticides. And one of the things I really love about that book is that she really stresses the importance of the distinction between a tool and a solution.

Peter Norton (27m 52s):
Now, she does that without using either of those two words, but her criticism is not of chemical pesticides. In fact, she repeatedly defends their prudent use. And implicitly her message is when used as a tool, chemical pesticides can be valuable. It’s when we mistake them as this miracle that solves all our problems as a solution. That’s when we get into trouble. And I think we have a story, a flattering story. We tell ourselves about silent spring, which is that, well, we, fortunately, we listened to Rachel Carson and we stopped this abuse and we banned DDT.

Peter Norton (28m 31s):
And so her message really got across to us. And I say to that, well, in part, yes, but we are still surrounded by this error. One of the biggest being in the way we handle transport, there’s a line in her first chapter where she says the chemical war is never one, but all of nature is caught up in an endless spiral of destruction when we wage this. And I was just struck how generalizable that statement is. She says the chemical war is never one. It could be The Traffic War. You never eliminate traffic congestion.

Peter Norton (29m 13s):
And in that particular sentence, she’s criticizing a metaphor that has really been devastating, particularly in this country. And that’s the war metaphor, which unsurprisingly became popular after world war two in this country. And so she says the chemical war is never one because you don’t control nature by treating it as an enemy to subdue, you have to work with nature. Well, we’ve had a war on drugs, which was a catastrophe because of the fact that drug addiction is not something you wage a war against. It’s something you manage. You treat, you work on, like you work with a garden, you don’t wage a war against, you know, weeds and insects.

Peter Norton (29m 58s):
You manage your garden, you don’t force your plants to grow. You give them the environment in which they can grow. And so I really think Rachel Carson’s book is in general terms, not just about chemicals, pesticides, but in general terms, a caution against this war metaphor, a caution against pursuing some kind of utopian perfection because in that pursuit, that destruction is just devastating.

Jeff Wood (30m 28s):
Well, even now we’re still kind of wrestling with biodiversity loss, the loss of bio-mass overall insect reductions, et cetera. And so it seems like, you know, her book, which was a very important piece at the time, and even now has predicted this kind of the climate change future. We were trying to, like you said, we’re trying to manage these, these ecosystems, but ecosystems are not things to be managed. They’re kind of the symbiotic relationship. And I talk about this a lot on the show, we talk about a lot of different topics. And I keep saying that I think people are frustrated listening to it, but maybe they aren’t thinking about, you know, the way things interact with each other, because it’s not just about transportation. It’s about the way we manage floods, the way we manage cities, the way all of these things interact together, that we add our own peril.

Jeff Wood (31m 16s):
We separate them out into their silos. Whereas they’re all kind of interconnected things that are important to the overall discussion about humanity and living on this earth.

Peter Norton (31m 26s):
I don’t think you can get that message out there enough. That is such an important message. And I’m glad you raised the word ecosystem because the people selling us autonomous vehicles are constantly talking about ecosystems in a way that’s really disturbing. I think namely, they use ecosystem to speak about the coalitions and networks of profits. You can corporations that are going to, you know, provide us with this high-tech mobility. And at a certain point, I began to see this term, you know, the urban mobility ecosystem or the autonomous vehicle ecosystem so much and in such a disturbing way that I dug into the word’s origins.

Peter Norton (32m 12s):
And I found that the naturalist who coined the term an Englishman named Arthur Tansley back in the thirties was so annoyed by the abuse of the term ecosystem, by other people that he wrote an article in 1935 saying, stop abusing this word. So I really like to get that article out again, because if we misunderstand this term, then we don’t recognize the real ecosystem. The real ecosystem of urban mobility is the person trying to cross a street to get to a bus stop and missing the bus because of all the speeding cars, that’s part of the mobility ecosystem.

Peter Norton (32m 52s):
And it’s totally invisible to the corporations that never stopped talking about the mobility ecosystem. The mobility ecosystem is the child. Who’s not allowed to cross the street to go to her friend’s house because of the traffic. And yet that deprivation of mobility is totally invisible to the people who never stopped talking about the mobility ecosystem or the autonomous vehicle ecosystem. And obviously I could go on, but the point’s been made, but I think that’s a really important thing. And ecosystems are never perfected. They’re never purified. They’re never utopian.

Peter Norton (33m 32s):
They’re always in a state of flux and evolution. Another inspiration for me was of course, Jane Jacobs, because in death and life of great American cities, she treats the city as the ecosystem that it really is. And this is the basis for objecting to efforts to turn the city into a centrally controlled machine, because like a garden, like a forest, it is an ecosystem of interdependent, dynamically, interdependent parts, and trying to master one component of the system will cause unpredictable disruptions elsewhere in the system.

Jeff Wood (34m 16s):
This is a little bit not off topic, but it’s on the same topic a little bit, but I’m curious with all the media and kind of over saturation of information that we have today, do you think it’s possible for a silent spring or a death in life or a book of that magnitude to come out today and make such an impact? Do you think that’s even possible?

Peter Norton (34m 38s):
Yes, I do. I think it comes out in different ways today because of the way media has changed. So in the early sixties, when Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson were at work, a best-selling book was a really great way to get a message out like that. And especially if you could write well and Rachel Carson in particular writes beautifully, Jane Jacobs writes well is too, of course today. I mean, there’s, there’s tools that are, if anything, give us new advantages. Like it’s possible for people with almost no budget to make a good video and posted online. I think, you know, people like Clarence Eckerson who makes street films does a superb job, the video blogger or YouTuber who does not just bikes, does a wonderful job with that as well.

Peter Norton (35m 30s):
And of course you do, you know, with your podcasts. And I think these things, while they shift the attention from a small number of people who can get a big New York publishing house behind their book project, if anything, that’s a good thing because it means more of us can weigh in on this. More of us can compete. Of course, at the same time, we’re up against strategies by the purveyors of the high tech car dependent future who use the same techniques that the short watchable video, the social media posts.

Peter Norton (36m 11s):
And so they’re hard at work at this too. And of course they have the budgets to get those things out there. So it’s possible, but it’s not easy.

Jeff Wood (36m 18s):
Well, yeah, earlier this week I sent you the BBC article that I found, which was what’s the future of autonomous vehicles. And I had to laugh because I was in the middle of your book. And I was like, well, this is exactly what Peter’s talking.

Peter Norton (36m 30s):
I have to work in the fact that I have been profoundly disturbed by how many articles get into circulation in the media. And you’ll read in it somewhere in small print, a sponsored content. And you know, the first time I saw that line, I didn’t even know what it meant. I mean, I was that naive when I saw it a couple of times and then noticed what was in the articles. This is maybe a decade ago, then alarm bells started going off. And I deliberately looked for these sponsored content articles. And I have been disturbed to see publications that appear to be reputable, like MIT technology review, for example.

Peter Norton (37m 12s):
And of course there’s many others and you’ll find in small type somewhere sponsored content and they’re pushing product in the form of journalism, the same thing happening, of course, in published research as well, where the research is sponsored by the people who have an agenda in what the research will find.

Jeff Wood (37m 31s):
So I, you know, I put together the newsletter each day and I go through about 1500 articles every day. And I have to kind of sort through all that. And whenever I see sponsored article or, you know, anything, there’s, there’s usually a little name at the top. I’ll just immediately delete it. I just exit out. But the other kind of insidious one is these other articles where they have an opinion page or somebody writing something, and you have to go down to the bottom. And I think it’s the hill today was one that I saw today where you have to go down to the bottom and read the fine print about where this person is employed, right. And it’s might be the American enterprise Institute or wherever else, but you have to kind of look and see. And so you have to like make sure that you read not just the headline and not just the person who’s on the, you know, the masthead.

Jeff Wood (38m 17s):
You have to read down to the bottom to see where it is, which is really frustrating for me, as somebody has to go through so much information to have to check a couple of other things.

Peter Norton (38m 24s):
Well, they’re smart to conceal it. And in fighting traffic, my first book, I was shocked to find this going on in a massive scale a hundred years ago, where modem was busy, putting up free wire services for newspapers to run, what appeared to be legitimate stories that they had written for them and newspapers only too happy to take the free content.

Jeff Wood (38m 47s):
Going back to that war analogy you discussed, how much do you think Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex was about industry in general or even the coming kind of motor DM itself.

Peter Norton (38m 58s):
That was a truly astonishing speech. So you’re talking about the speech he delivered three days before leaving the white house in 1961. And this man was a Republican five star general and two term president. And here he is on television warning Americans, that there’s a grave threat to our democracy in the form of a military industrial complex. It’s a startling thing for such a person to say, it’s the kind of honesty we can expect in somebody who’s retiring from public life completely in a matter of three days where real candor is more possible than ever before.

Peter Norton (39m 43s):
And I think Eisenhower was diagnosing not just the relationship between the military contractors and the defense department and the United States Congress. He was, I think also implicitly warning us about the complexes of industries involved at that time in a paving America. We know from a meeting from the minutes of a meeting that was held in the white house a few months before he left office, that he was angry, like truly angry at the degree of destruction in American cities that the interstate highways had caused.

Peter Norton (40m 27s):
And of course, he’s typically credited with those, but Eisenhower as a president like Eisenhower, the general was known as a delegator and as a delegator, he didn’t pay close attention to the details. So whether he meant explicitly to include the road builders and the automakers and so on in that indictment, we don’t know, we do know that as early as 1970, even the wall street journal was calling the industries involved in paving America, the highway industrial complex.

Jeff Wood (41m 5s):
Yeah. It’s just such an interesting kind of time period. And especially since so much was happening in cities to tear down central cities, to put through roads. I mean, you have a lot of those freeways that were put in at the objection of many people who are living in there and only, you know, up until the sixties and seventies, when it finally kind of stopped and it’s never really stopped. I mean, there was an article in Los Angeles times the other day, you know, discussing about how many homes are still taken by freeway expansion. So it’s not, it’s not something that ended in the sixties and seventies. It just ended on a massive scale, even though, you know, people might still argue that it’s still massive. It’s just not as massive as it was before. Right. Then my last question is about the future of Domino’s themselves and the kind of opposing viewpoint of someone like Walt Disney and what he wanted to actually do with Epcot versus what actually happened because he passed away before it could be realized.

Jeff Wood (41m 56s):
I’m wondering if Disney’s ideas and Victor Gruden’s ideas. If they came to pass, would we have actually had a credible alternative to the future Alma’s and the Autonorama

Peter Norton (42m 8s):
I’m going to start answering that question just by talking about those words, a little bit of Futurama and autonomy around that, because I’ve found that those typically need some explanation. So no general motors invented the term Futurama in the 1930s as a fusion of future and dire aroma as a term for a depiction of a future in which people would have to buy general motors products to get to it a very attractive future. Typically 20 years later than the time of the particular show, there was future Rama, one exhibit at the New York world’s fair of 1939 general motors did it again in 1964 Futurama too.

Peter Norton (42m 53s):
In the book I call the smart highways Bonanza of the 1990s Futurama three, because in effect that’s what it was, although it was never called that. And the book claims were now in and have been in Futurama for, and because that’s about autonomous vehicles, I’ve called it. Autonorama now to your question, both Walt Disney and Victor Gruin proposed ideas for car-free city centers, but they were also quite car dependent city centers in the, in the sense that to get to them, they both made their peace with people having to get to those cities in a car.

Peter Norton (43m 35s):
Victor Gruin really invented this suburban shopping mall. As we know it as the place, that’s got a 360 degree surround of vast parking lots, but when you go inside, everybody’s walking and there might be a fountain and benches and plants even. And so it’s a kind of a, a walkability that is paradoxically car dependent. And Walt Disney had a very similar vision. And in fact, well, Disney was directly influenced by Victor Gruden’s vision and Walt Disney thought he would make it a reality in a kind of dream city that he conjured up in the early sixties, which was going to be called Epcot experimental prototype city of tomorrow.

Peter Norton (44m 26s):
And it’s a shadow of its former self in the form of the Epcot center at Walt Disney world. Now both of these visions were deeply flawed and that’s not just me speaking. Victor grew in himself later decided that this was a cop-out to surrender to car dependency that to that degree. And I don’t think either vision Gruden’s or Disney’s is really fundamentally different from car dependency. You know, in a way it reminds me of what we had to offer people in car dependent suburbs, which is when you’re home, you have this wonderful front yard and backyard, and you have quiet, you have songbirds and squirrels and trees, but to make all that work, you’ve got to have a car that can get you to the supermarket and get you to the office and in effect Gruden’s, and Disney’s visions of the city of the future was kind of a escalated or amplified version of that where car dependency remains essential.

Peter Norton (45m 36s):
And so I think the real model that had a possibility of being a departure from car dependency, wasn’t theirs so much as what we might’ve had with an ordinary evolution from say the city of a hundred years ago, which had plenty of problems. It was typically too dense. American cities were extremely dense, typically a hundred years ago and, you know, devoid of trees and not enough parks and, and so on, but an evolution from that could have given us a more sustainable city because those cities were walking cities, they were electric streetcar cities.

Peter Norton (46m 16s):
They were bike-able cities. They were cities where affordable housing was kind of built into the mix because of the fact that the housing wasn’t crowded out by single family residence zoning the way it has been. And that has the effect of driving up everybody’s housing prices. So I guess that’s a long way of saying no, I don’t think their visions had much of a possibility there.

Jeff Wood (46m 44s):
Well, so the book is Autonorama and The Illusory Promise of High Tech Driving, where can folks find the book if they want to get a copy?

Peter Norton (46m 52s):
Well, it’s available at all the usual online bookstores, and I suspected in a number of brick and mortar bookstores as well. And if it’s not at your favorite one, I’m sure they’ll order it from island press. Of course you can buy it directly from Ireland, depressed to

Jeff Wood (47m 9s):
Awesome. Well, Peter, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate it. Thank you for putting together such a great book and a good conversation.

Peter Norton (47m 16s):
Jeffrey I’ve really enjoyed the conversation and thank you for the wonderful work you do.

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


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