(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 396: Tech Won’t Save Transportation
This week we’re joined by author Paris Marx to talk about their book Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation. We talk about Technologists and the stories they tell themselves, Ursula K Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory, and Uber’s impact on labor laws.
Below is a full unedited transcript of the episode:
Jeff Wood (1m 23s):
Paris Marx. Welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Paris Marx (1m 48s):
Thanks so much for having me very excited to chat with you.
Jeff Wood (1m 51s):
Well, thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about
Paris Marx (1m 54s):
Yourself? Sure. My name is Paris Marx, as you’ve just said, I’m the host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. Another podcast. If you’re interested in tech issues where we, you know, take a critical look at the tech industry, also the author of road to nowhere, what Silicon valley gets wrong about the future of transportation. And I write a lot about the tech industry, climate change, some other topics for a whole load of different publications.
Jeff Wood (2m 17s):
So how did you first start getting interested in cities and in, in kind of thinking about cities and especially about this connection between technology and, and what’s going on in cities as well?
Paris Marx (2m 26s):
Yeah, it’s a good question. You know, I started writing about these issues back around 2015, 2016, and, and I was interested in what was going on in cities. I was writing a lot about San Francisco about Uber, about these kind of topics. And I would say part of that came from, you know, just developing a more critical perspective on technology over the course of a number of years. But also during that period, I was doing a lot of traveling, taking a break from my bachelor’s degree was doing the not uncommon thing, I guess, of, you know, doing a bit of travel before going back to school and whatnot, a bit of a late gap year, I guess. And, you know, just thinking about I come from a place that’s very car-centric car oriented. The transit system is not very good.
Paris Marx (3m 8s):
And just seeing how different cities were operating, how things worked in different ways, in different places, getting to actually use efficient transit systems for the first time, really in my life and seeing how different that was. And then, you know, reflecting on that when I, when I got back and got back to a, a car oriented place, once again, and in that moment, of course, as those things were happening, there were also the conversations around Uber were escalating in that moment. And some of these other tech companies and smart cities were certainly a big topic in that, in that period. And so then I think kind of bringing together those interests in cities, along with that interest in transportation in that moment naturally led me into thinking a bit more and writing a bit more about these issues.
Paris Marx (3m 52s):
And then I later pursued a master’s degree looking at what Silicon valley, you know, has been proposing for transportation.
Jeff Wood (3m 58s):
What’s changed since you first started thinking about it. And, and now, I mean, there’s obviously there’s a lot, been a lot of technology changes, but what’s been kind of the, the biggest change you’ve seen since you started thinking about these issues.
Paris Marx (4m 8s):
Yeah, it’s a good question. I think the biggest thing would be the change in perspective, I think on these technologies, like certainly in that moment in the mid 2010s and, and a bit earlier, I think we were still in a moment, certainly there were, you know, kind of dissenting views on some of these technologies. There was some criticism of Uber, but I think we were still at this place where there was a lot of excitement for what these technologies could offer us in cities and what benefits they could bring. And I think certainly in the years that followed that in 2000 16, 17, 18 in particular, there was a real turn against some of these technologies and a realization that a lot of the promises that were made about them in the beginning, maybe weren’t actually realized that in some cases they actually made problems that we were dealing with worse rather than making them better.
Jeff Wood (4m 55s):
It’s so interesting because it feels like, and, and just from reading the book, it feels like there’s a, an initial kind of excitement, some cheerleading. And then, you know, we get to this point where there’s a backlash, a tech lash as it were, but this isn’t new. I mean, this is something that had happened over a hundred years ago as well. And it seems like something that continues to happen and we tend not to learn from our history.
Paris Marx (5m 16s):
Yeah, that’s, that’s unfortunate, I think, but you can certainly see those patterns repeating. Right. And, and that’s part of the reason why in the book, I did want to go back and look at the history of Automobility and, and dig into what has happened over the past hundred years, rather than just the past decade and a half. Right? Because taking that longer view, seeing the rollout of the automobile, but also the proposal of things like self-driving cars and electric vehicles and how taxi regulations have evolved over time. You really see how there are a lot of promises made in different periods, and they’re not always followed through one, or there are technological promises that are presented to people and they’re not realized, and then they come back a few decades later.
Paris Marx (5m 59s):
And so I think that there’s a bit of a cycle going on here where you seem to be in the midst of yet another cycle and we can see what’ll actually come out of it or, and what promises will be lost again and might come back again in a few decades time. But yeah, I think the history is really important to informing that. And just looking beyond say the past decade or two, and really seeing that there’s a much longer history here and that what we’ve been presented over that past couple decades is really shaped by what has happened before that as
Jeff Wood (6m 28s):
Well. It’s interesting too, cuz the folks that you talk about in the book, these founders, the technologists, they tend to weave these fantastic tales about how their technology can change the future. But we’ve had these tales before, like you mentioned. I mean the one that stands out to me that I, I hadn’t known, I mean, I understand a lot of the history of the, of the streetcar and all those things, but I hadn’t thought about the G’s necessarily the Los Angeles jitneys and so Travis Callicks kind of way back machine on his own to the Jitney is a different story than the actual story. And so, you know, the tales that they weave are are interesting too.
Paris Marx (6m 60s):
Absolutely. You know, I think when we think about Silicon valley, one of the things that stands out to me is how they think about history and how they position history and the way that they tell their own history. Right? There’s a real desire to present a particular narrative to the public about the industry itself and about the technologies that they are presenting to the world, right? A narrative that really serves them a narrative that focuses on the entrepreneur that focuses on the market that focuses on the role that technology plays in, you know, fomenting changes in society, really downplays. Other social forces really downplays the role of the government and the state in these sorts of things. And so, you know, when Travis Callick starts to talk about the jitneys, it’s so interesting, right?
Paris Marx (7m 43s):
Because he’s presenting this story in a way that particularly suits Uber, right? That provides a historical precedent for Uber. So we can say, oh, you know, this is not a completely new thing. We can see how it fits into the past. And we could’ve had this better future, but we can have it today because the way he tells the story is very much like there was this moment in the early 19 hundreds as the automobile was emerging, there were these services that emerged to challenge the dominance of the streetcar companies, right? Because they had this control over the street and you know, these people started their own little services. They were, they were able to get around, but then they were crushed by the power of these street car companies and by the power of the government, right.
Paris Marx (8m 25s):
You know, fitting into these libertarian narratives that are really focused around Uber. But then when you go back and actually look at what was happening in that moment, people were starting these services because there was an economic downturn and they needed a way to make some money. Right? And in many cases, these services didn’t actually make very much money, which is something that is very resonant with the story of Uber. But they also, by taking passengers away from the street, cars started to have some negative effects. Certainly there were crashes, more people died because of these cars. They were, you know, going pretty fast. They were speeding on the roads, but the street cars also had agreements with the city, right. They had contracts with the city. And so they needed to pay a certain amount in tax.
Paris Marx (9m 5s):
In many cases, they needed to ensure that the road was paved. Sometimes that street lighting was provided. There were things written into the contract that they had to provide. They provided a material benefit, right. And so then when you see passengers start to go away and go toward these jitneys, that puts the streetcar at risk. And it also puts these benefits that come from the streetcar at risk. So it’s only natural that the government step in and say, okay, we need to regulate these new services. We need to ensure that they’re paying tax, that they’re providing some benefits. And because they were so just on the line, right. Not really making any money, they couldn’t hold up. And, and they went away, which I think is only natural. And then later we get real taxi services and, and proper taxi regulations to come in there.
Paris Marx (9m 47s):
But it shows how, you know, you’re not crushing these things because they’re challenging a dominant power or something like that. But rather there’s a recognition that they’re not providing the social benefits that they should be providing in many ways they’re creating harms. And so if they’re not able to survive, they’re just going to go out of existence. And, and just to close this point, you know, Travis Callick says in telling the story that it was an opportunity for a different future, right? Had they not been wiped out the future of mobility? Would’ve been one of shared auto mobility rather than personal ownership, but that doesn’t really fit with the story that he’s telling. Because if, as he’s telling it, there was all this power from the streetcar monopoly and they crushed the jitneys.
Paris Marx (10m 26s):
Then you’d imagine that we’d still be taking street cars everywhere now, but that’s not the case because you know, there were larger forces at play here.
Jeff Wood (10m 34s):
It also kind of benefits the, at the time NA auto industry and the peripherals, right. The oil companies and all that. And so it’s interesting to see that the, those same themes also translate to today as well with people like Elon Musk, who is not my favorite person to talk about obviously, but there’s an undertone of trying to wipe out everything in, in the, in its, in its wake on its way to selling on its way to selling Teslas.
Paris Marx (10m 57s):
Absolutely. You know, I think it’s so interesting to go back to that period where the automobile is emerging and to kind of compare it to today, right? Because we get these narratives from the tech companies and especially these ones who are involved in transportation, that they are disrupting the status quo, right. That they’re disruptors, that they’re really changing things. But I think when you actually look at the effect that they’re having, it’s often just to put digital technologies or other new technologies in the existing system, but not actually to change anything very fundamental. Whereas when we go back to the emergence of the automobile, there’s this new technology, and there’s a major kind of social and economic and, you know, kind of structural transformation that takes place because of that technology.
Paris Marx (11m 40s):
And when we look at why that occurs, it’s not because the automobile emerges and it’s just natural that it takes over the street, that it changes the social norms that exist, that it pushes everyone else off of the street. But rather there is a really kind of strong and powerful lobby group, the auto makers, their suppliers, the oil companies, you know, construction companies and other interests that are going to benefit from Automobility that are behind this product that lobby the government in order to change regulations in order to put in place subsidies in order to really alter the way that transportation works and the way that communities are built to enforce car dependence on the public.
Paris Marx (12m 21s):
Really. And so it’s not simply because a technology exists that it kind of takes over and changes the landscape and, and quote unquote disrupts things. But rather because there are particular interests behind it and that they are able to get the government to act in their favor, to change the way that we all live in a way that’s going to allow them to make profits. And so now when we look at what’s happening today, Elon Musk is pushing particular ideas. And I would say that, you know, one of his impacts is really to halt an attempt for us to move away from the automobile, right from the dominance of the automobile. Every time that there are opportunities for us to move away from, or anytime there are opportunities for us to invest in transit, to invest in cycling, things like that.
Paris Marx (13m 8s):
Often Elon Musk emerges to say, instead of transit, how about we do autonomous cars and they’ll be around in a few years time, and then they don’t arrive, but we’ve got in the way of making those transit investments as happened in Nashville and some other places, or he says, okay, we’re not gonna do transit, but let’s do boring company. Let’s do these tunnels that are going to solve traffic congestion. So we don’t need subways. You know, we’ll just have tunnels for cars instead, or, oh, okay. The government in California is going to invest in high speed rail. Instead, here’s a Hyperloop that we should do instead because high speed rail is old technology. And so every single time he comes in to try to disrupt these attempts, to provide people alternatives to the car.
Paris Marx (13m 49s):
Meanwhile, he’s an automaker. Who’s selling this idea that the electric car is all that we need to solve the problems of the automobile’s contribution to climate change. When I think it’s a bit bigger than that
Jeff Wood (14m 1s):
Over the last few days, you posted a tweet about Elon, Musk’s blatant, basically ad admission that he was trying to kill HighSpeed rail in one of his, to his biographer. And there’s been a big response on Twitter. I’m curious what you think about that. You originally tweeted about this in 2019, even, maybe before that. And so I, I kind of went back and I saw where, where it originally came from. Cause I wanted to read the text, but it it’s, it’s interesting to see kind of the, the blow up of, of that one admission after these articles from, I think it was Gizmoto and also your time article talking about this admission. And it’s interesting how how’s, what’s been the response to that kind of understanding.
Paris Marx (14m 38s):
Yeah. It’s really fascinating to me because this is an admission that was made in a book that was published in 2015 and then obviously reissued, I think in 2017, you know, cuz it was obviously a very, very popular book, the, the first real biography of Elon Musk and it was a very founding kind of portrayal of him, I I would say. And so yeah, I tweeted about it in 2019. In that moment. It also got a bit of attention, but not anything near the attention that it’s received now in 2022. And you know, I think that there are probably a few things to think about it, but I think the biggest one is probably that it illustrates how the mood has really shifted about Elon Musk over that period.
Paris Marx (15m 22s):
Like there have always been, since the Hyperloop was announced in 2013, people saying that this is a joke that it’s not real, that it’s vaporware basically right. People who recognize that it was about trying to disrupt California high speed rail. And certainly the admission is made or is published in 2015. He probably told that to his biographer before that. But in that moment, Elon Musk still had a much stronger hold I think on the public’s imagination and was still revered in a way that he is not today. Right. I think that, especially in the past few years, we’ve seen a real shift in how the public sees Islam Musk. Certainly there are a lot of people who still see him positively. He still has a very kind of dedicated cult following.
Paris Marx (16m 6s):
But I think that there’s a lot of other people who are really turning on him and seeing him more as the kind of hostile belligerent billionaire that he is, who is having a lot of negative impacts and who is possibly leading us astray in many ways. Certainly I would argue that. And I think that the fact this is blowing up now really illustrates the degree to which a lot more people feel that way. And a lot of people are really fed up with ELAM Musk, but even more than that, these billionaires and the power that they hold in our societies to shape our societies. And I think that this example, you know, we can, we can question the degree to which it actually worked to put California high speed rail off the track.
Paris Marx (16m 47s):
I think that there are plenty of problems with that project, you know, that, that stem from many different places. But yeah, I think people are a bit fed up with, with ELAM Musk and with the idea that billionaires can wield so much power over our society and over us,
Jeff Wood (17m 0s):
What was the initial kind of thinking to, to put together the book? I mean, like you you’ve, you’ve had all these ideas I’m sure. And you’ve started thinking about them and then wanted to probably have them coalescent to a, a single narrative. I’m curious, like what was the, the impetus for thinking about that initial single narrative?
Paris Marx (17m 18s):
Yeah. So, you know, as I said, I’ve been writing about these issues for 5, 6, 7 years, whatever it is now. And I started a master’s in 2018 to, because I wanted to dig into this further, I wanted to understand it further, do a bit more research on it, right? So I did a master’s in urban geography, looking at what the tech industry has proposed for the future of transportation and whether those ideas would actually benefit the public would actually solve the problems that we need to solve in the transportation system as a result of our over-reliance on automobiles. Right? And so once I finished my masters in 2020, people had already mentioned to me that I should consider turning it into a book.
Paris Marx (17m 59s):
And there have been books on these topics before, but often those books focused on a particular company, right? Like ed Neer, Myer’s book ludicrous, which is fantastic and looks at Tesla, Mike Isaac, super pumped, which looks at Uber. These are really great books, right? And there are, there are many others who that really dig into these companies, but I didn’t feel that there was one that really kind of stepped back and took a broader look at the space and like, you know, the ideas more broadly that they were putting forward to offer a more, I guess, complete critique of their ideas for the future of transportation. And so I had a lot of respect for Verso. I read a lot of their books. Some of my friends were published there. So they connected me with Leo Hollis.
Paris Marx (18m 40s):
Who’s my editor at Verso. And they were immediately really interested in the book. And so yeah, I decided to move forward with it.
Jeff Wood (18m 47s):
It’s interesting to think about kind of the, the process for putting, putting these books together and, and you know, the amount of work that you have to do, the amount of reading that you have to do, it feels like there’s probably books that you read. You didn’t like, that you were frustrated with, that you had to anyways, because you were putting together trying to be comprehensive about your research.
Paris Marx (19m 5s):
Yeah. The Elon Musk biography was definitely one of those. And if people do check out the, the tweet that I did in 2019, that was part of a thread that I made while I was reading through the book. And it’s very apparent that I did not enjoy that book.
Jeff Wood (19m 23s):
Think at the end you were like, I’m done with this.
Paris Marx (19m 26s):
Yeah, yeah. I was like one star, like, this is terrible. Don’t read it yourself. Something like that. There’s certainly a lot of things that I’ve read over those years that were annoying and that I, I didn’t like, but at the same time, I think that those things also help to inform a real understanding of these people in these companies and, and what is actually going on in the space, right? Like if you’re only reading other criticisms and other critiques, then that’s not a good way to fully understand what they are proposing. Right. So I’ve certainly listened to a ton of interviews with Elon Musk as well, watched a ton of presentations that he’s given same with people like Travis Kalanick or, you know, Jeff Bezos or the whole lot of them.
Paris Marx (20m 7s):
Right. Because, you know, you kind of do need to see it come from the horse’s mouth at the end of the day, to actually understand what they’re saying and, and what they’re trying to do. And then, you know, to develop a, a critique around that, certainly by reading what other people are proposing, but also other theories and things to, to inform what has been happening. And I would say also understanding the history has been important to that too, to seeing what has happened in the past and how that informs what is happening today.
Jeff Wood (20m 32s):
I’m sure you’ve been talked to a number of people for interviews and things like that for the book so far, what’s something that people haven’t asked you that, that you, you wish you could talk about more.
Paris Marx (20m 41s):
I feel like one of the parts of the book that I’ve, I’ve really enjoyed doing a lot of interviews on the book and, and seeing what people people ask me, right. A lot of people seem to be really fascinated by the history of Automobility that I’d lay out in the book, certainly inspired by the work of people like Peter Norton and many other, you know, academics and, and historians of the city and, and transportation. And certainly that’s something that I think listeners of this podcast are already quite familiar with. Right. But I guess for a lot of the people in tech who I’m talking to, that’s not a history that they’re is knowledgeable about. And so that’s been really fascinating. I would say one of the aspects of the book that maybe people haven’t asked me as much about. And I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the book is I believe it’s chapter nine when I dig into a bit of like the science fictional stuff and, and the work of Ursula Kayla Gwen, because I think that that is so helpful to reframing how we approach these things and how we approach these technologies and these ideas for society because, you know, Ursula, Kayla, Gwen is this just fantastic science fiction author who I think really has a power in her fiction of having us look at the world in a different way, by using fiction in this way that that enables us to do it right.
Paris Marx (21m 54s):
Especially a book like the dispossessed, which is one of my favorites, which looks into which kind of contrasts these two societies, one like anarchist society against the capitalist society and has like a member of the anarchist society go visit the other and kind of see it through his eyes. And it is just so fascinating. But one of the ways that that is, is important to transportation is that LA Gwen was also quite critical of the car in her writing. She wrote a, a short story, a a, a young adult book about a teenager who doesn’t like the car. And I think that there’s a lot of, kind of, it’s interesting to see that in the 1970s, which is also a moment when there, there’s a bit of a questioning of this dominance of the car, because the oil shocks are in that period.
Paris Marx (22m 37s):
And there’s a, there’s a focus in, on energy and how we get energy and, you know, whether these things make sense. And certainly there’s a doubling down on the automobile and, and suburbia after the 1970s, but there’s a, in that moment, there’s kind of an opportunity to rethink it, but she also writes a lot about science fiction and about the way that we think about history, especially when we’re thinking about say great man narratives and how we, how we think about history progresses and what actually pushes history forward and also, you know, technology and the role that technology plays in society and how we tend to, when we talk about technology. And I think we can see this with the tech industry as well. We frame technology in a very particular way, right? We don’t think about the more mundane things that we’re used to, to be technology.
Paris Marx (23m 20s):
Rather, the word technology in, in our case today is often meant to mean digital technologies and AI and, and things like that. Right. And so there’s a particular framing that I think serves the industry and serves what they want us to think of as technology and as progress. But I think that her work actually really allows us to, to challenge that and think about it in a different way. And so that was one of my favorite kind of pieces of the book that I, I don’t think people have picked up on as much. There
Jeff Wood (23m 45s):
Were two, there were two of the quotes that you pulled from her. I think that were really interesting. One was the, the boy who was not in the cars and his dad gave him a car and he was like, I, I don’t want this, but I don’t know how to say no. And I think that that kind of typifies the overall kind of, I want, I wanna say the zeitgeist of, of, of living in north America. Yeah. Where, you know, and I, I had this too, where, when I was 16, I, I got to drive my, my, my dad’s car and I appreciated it because getting around, otherwise in, in the suburbs, even though it was very bikeable, which I’ll probably cover on a future podcast, but, you know, was something that it was kind of a ride of passage. And so, but it it’s, it’s something that’s, that’s expected.
Jeff Wood (24m 24s):
That’s part of societal, not indoctrination per se, maybe it is indoctrination, but just kind of like that, that push. And then the other one was the idea of, like, I think you mentioned the great men theories and, and, you know, the, the idea of the NA sack as something that is imp just as important to civilization as these men. And one of the things that I’ve been doing is going through Louis Mumford’s book, the city in history. And if you go back early enough in, in, in kind of the governance structures of society and, and history, you have these tribal structures where a group of people will decide on the, the importance of what’s best for the culture and what’s best for society. And then at some point it gets to this kind of war monger society, where some individual will be, become the leader and, you know, kind of rule over people like a cult, etcetera.
Jeff Wood (25m 14s):
And that changes, you know, civilization in society for, from a different perspective. And so it’s interesting to see that history and how her kind of discussion of that changes your mental thinking about it when you start to look at that frame differently.
Paris Marx (25m 27s):
Absolutely. You know, LAUA comes from a family of anthropologists, right. And anthropologists who worked with indigenous groups in California. And that really influenced a lot of her thinking on a lot of these issues. Like, you know, you can see a lot of her work and her science fiction as kind of anthropological science fiction, right. The way that she thinks about social structures and societies. And, and that really comes out in that piece. You’re talking about where she talks about the carrier bag theory of, of history, right? This idea that the way that we think about history right now is like the men with their bows and arrows and their, their Spears, and, you know, kind of the action that is needed in order to move society forward.
Paris Marx (26m 11s):
When actually, if we think about what is really essential to a healthy society, it’s the carrier bag and the gathering activities and, and things like that. And so she also kind of uses that to talk about technology, because it’s something that she’s obviously thinking a lot about as a science fiction writer, you know, thinking about the future and things like that, and how, you know, the, the technologies that, especially in, in her time were really promoted. Were these really kind of high tech, you know, high investment technologies, things like nuclear energy, for example, would’ve been really on her, her radar at the time. You know, I think we could certainly look at the automobile as one of those, whereas, you know, technologies like the bicycle that is more mundane or things like that are kind of put to the side and not even considered technologies on their own.
Paris Marx (26m 58s):
And so, you know, when you bring that in, when you take a wider view of technology and the role of technology and what technology does to society, you know, when you look at the technology in the same light as these other, or sorry, when you look at the bicycle and the same light as these other technologies, how does that change the way that you think about society? How do you think about, you know, how we might build society? And I would say another piece of that is certainly to think about the economic interests around these various technologies. And I think that’s really, that’s really key as well, right? What drives our adoption is things that are going to make money or, or, you know, enhance particular kinds of control rather than always, what’s going to be the best for us as a public and, you know, improve the, the lives that we have
Jeff Wood (27m 40s):
And that great man narrative kind of gets to another part of the book where you kind of discuss the people who are these heads of the tech industry who are making, you know, the VCs and all these people who basically are trying to, you know, make something that benefits them, but not necessarily society generally. So I, I think, you know, you mentioned a number of times is Jared Walker’s elite projection discussion, which was one of his, one of his best Bo blog posts, I think, but thinking about Elon Musk, for example, like Haven being stuck in traffic. And so he decides that he wants to bury himself under the 4 0 5 freeway so he can get to work faster. And then this becomes a solution for everybody.
Paris Marx (28m 15s):
Yeah. I think you see it time and time again. Right. And I think that Jared Walker’s kind of description of it is so spot on these people who are have, who have their own experience of things. And then just assume that everyone else’s experience is going to reflect theirs or, or what works for them is going to work for everybody else. And, you know, we see it repeated time and time again, whether it’s in transportation or whether it’s in these other technologies that are being proposed for people. So we look at a company like Uber that was, you know, supposed to reduced traffic congestion and make it easier for people to get around, be complimentary to transit and all these other supposed benefits. When really it was an idea that was dreamed up by Travis Callick and, and his buddies in order to make it easier for them to access a taxi.
Paris Marx (29m 0s):
And then a number of years down the line when academics are really able to look into it, to do some independent research on it, they find that actually, you know, it made traffic worse. It mainly served people who were young earning above average incomes in cities who were college educated, not the people who are most in need of, you know, better transportation, better mobility services. The climate contribution was worse. It pulled people from transit. It was not really beneficial to our cities and all while doing that, it, it engaged in an attack on the rights of workers and has even rewritten labor legislation in a way that is not only harmful for Uber drivers and taxi drivers, but likely people in other industries, as well as this, you know, extends out. And Elon Musk is another perfect example of this.
Paris Marx (29m 43s):
It’s what he thinks is going to be best for society. And then kind of pushing that on the rest of us, even when they’re really narrow-minded ideas for how transportation should work. And in many cases, if you ask pretty much any expert in transportation, they would tell you that the things he’s dreaming up are in many cases, absolutely ridiculous. The Hyperloop, the boring company, all these things like that. And so this is really damaging. And I think it gets to something that we were talking about before, how the role of Elon Musk is really to stifle these attempts, to move away from our reliance on automobiles and to give people alternatives, right? To give people something else, another way to get around, because that doesn’t work for Elon Musk.
Paris Marx (30m 23s):
It’s not something that he personally desires. You know, he calls transit inconvenient. He says that there could be a serial killer on the bus or the subway with you. And so it’s not surprising that someone like that is going to oppose efforts to improve transit, but then why are we allowing him to have such influence over transportation policy? When we know that he’s not an expert on transportation in any way. And so these really naive ideas then shape the policy conversation in, in a really harmful
Jeff Wood (30m 51s):
Way. I think that’s a really important point because it feels like a lot of these folks and sometimes it’s good to be from the outside, right. To, to take a, a critical look from the outside of, of something that maybe is, seems a little bit insular, but all these non transportation planners, which is, is fine, but there’s something that you say in the book, which is basically, they don’t take time to understand the real issues before they start kind of popping off their ideas. And, and the, one of the biggest ones that I’m reminded of that kind of just faded and disappeared, because it didn’t really work was when, why Combinator was like, we’re just gonna build a new city in the, in the desert somewhere, and it’s gonna be the best city ever. And we’re hiring people to think about it and all this stuff. And then you never hear from them again. But at the time they took kind of this mastery of cities as if they were the only people that could solve the problem as if city planners and everybody else hadn’t been thinking about this for hundreds of years.
Paris Marx (31m 40s):
Yeah. And, and that comes up time and time again, right? Like these proposals for new cities for better cities. And because we have these technologies, because we have this knowledge from the tech industry, we’re going to be able to make something that is so much better, right? Like certainly there’s the, there’s the idea of this city in the desert. There’ve been other proposals for similar ones. Bill gates was going to build a smart city of his own. You see existing proposals down in El Salvador. You know, they wanna build a city centered around Bitcoin or, you know, their dictator certainly wants to, there have been proposals for these kind of smart cities all over the world. New cities is what they’re often called, where countries around the world say that they’re going to build a new city that is going to be focused around technology or some other particular sector.
Paris Marx (32m 24s):
And try to use that as a way to attract foreign capital to, to the country. In many cases, these cities are complete failures, never get anywhere, or if they do, they’re highly exclusive, they’re very expensive. They don’t actually benefit the broader public. Right. And, you know, we can even look at Google, right? They tried to take over a piece of Toronto until they were forced out by the public because they said, you’re not actually thinking about our actual needs in building this city. You’re thinking about what’s gonna work best for you as Google. And you’re trying to stick your technologies in one part of the city and then spread them across the rest of the city. And that doesn’t work for us. And, you know, in Toronto, they were successful enforcing Google out. And I think that that is a positive thing.
Paris Marx (33m 5s):
And so I think we always need to be kind of on guard and thinking about what the effect of these companies and these technologies are going to be because often what works best for a company’s business model doesn’t work necessarily work best for those of us who are going to be subjected to it down the line.
Jeff Wood (33m 20s):
How much of this is a larger discussion about individualism versus collectivism?
Paris Marx (33m 24s):
Yeah, that’s certainly, you know, a big point of the book, right? One of the things that I draw on is how a lot of these ideas that drive the way that we think about technology now do really come out of these individual ideas, whether it’s around the counter culture in the 1970s and how that influences the ideas of Silicon valley, but also how that’s found in neoliberal ideas in the 1980s and how they kind of get woven together to form a kind of ideology of the valley, right? There’s, there’s a strong libertarianism in Silicon valley. That’s very focused on the individual and empowering the individual. And that’s very hostile to government and state, you know, state power, I guess, in a sense, right? And I think that that has really served us poorly.
Paris Marx (34m 5s):
If we think about what we have seen from the tech industry over the past several decades, there has been this real focus, especially among some of like the more optimistic folks in the tech industry, people who are promoting these narratives back in the nineties and the eighties that technology was going to empower the individual was going to liberate the individual and that it was going to be a counterforce to the government, which was this kind of oppressive power. Right? And this was certainly pulling from neoliberal ideas in, in the eighties where the idea was we needed small government to get government out of our lives and things like that. And I think that served us poorly because it has, it did not then take the critical stance that was necessary toward corporations and corporate power.
Paris Marx (34m 48s):
And so instead, what we saw was this real desire to keep the state out of regulation of technology or the internet, or what have you. And that enabled the kind of growth of the tech industry as we have it today. And the monopolistic issues that we’re dealing with now where these business models were basically able to run a mock were treated as though they were inherently positive because technology is associated with progress. And now couple decades down the line, we’re having to clean up the mess that was created as a result. And I think that we’re recognizing that actually there does need to be a role for government in there, and that we do need to think about the collective impact of these things, right. And that actually dealing with many of these problems that we’re facing and, you know, bringing it back to transportation does require thinking more collectively, not just about each one of us as an individual driving our individual automobile, but if we’re actually going to deal with problems like traffic or the deaths that are caused by our reliance on automobiles, or even the climate impact of the transportation system, that’s going to require a greater investment in collective solutions.
Paris Marx (35m 51s):
And then investment does ultimately have to come from the state and from our governments in order to make public transit actually work for people.
Jeff Wood (35m 58s):
One of the arguments we make in the book is that reformers and advocates like chain Jacobs and Ralph Nader didn’t go far enough to achieve their goals. What do you think they missed by just kind of scratching the surface of the automobile and not kind of pushing further, maybe like some of the other countries like the Netherlands did after the oil crisis?
Paris Marx (36m 14s):
Yeah. I, I was a bit hesitant to actually put that in the book because I was worried that people might see it in like a negative sense or the wrong sense. Right. Because I do think that they did really positive things right. In, in fighting against highways in trying to ensure that vehicles were safer, but ultimately, you know, they didn’t take on the commercial power of these industries. Right. And so while vehicles were made safer and while some segments of highway were defeated, ultimately the system kept expanding through the eighties and the nineties and the two thousands. Right. And the, the reliance on the automobile deepened in a really harmful way. And so I think today, we can certainly look back at those struggles that they waged and learn from them, because I think that there’s a lot that we can learn from them and that we need to learn from them in order to take on, you know, the problems in our transportation system and the interest that have ensured that those problems persist.
Paris Marx (37m 8s):
But, you know, for example, Ralph Nader has been speaking out recently about autonomous driving technologies and about Tesla’s full self drive technology in particular. He came out the other day saying that the, the regulator should recall it. And I think that that’s a really positive intervention, but I think that when we think about what we need to do to take on the car in the future, it does need to go beyond ensuring that the car is safer, right. We actually need to take on the car itself and it’s dominant place in society. And as you’re saying, I think that we can look to some of those examples from Europe, for, you know, ways that might work in order to do that because they were more successful in the 1970s in taking on at that moment, what was the beginnings of a transformation in order to entrench the car, particularly in places like the Netherlands and Copenhagen in pushing back against the deaths that were being caused by the car, but also how it was transforming communities, how it was expensive, how it didn’t fit with what they were used to.
Paris Marx (38m 8s):
And they were able to achieve a transportation policy that was more focused around bicycles. And that’s not to say that they don’t have cars in the Netherlands. They, they certainly do. They have suburbs as well, but not to the same kind of degree. And they have more cycling infrastructure so that, you know, people can actually get around in other ways, especially in, you know, cities and, and things like that. The other point I would make on that front is just to say that we are in this period right now, where we do have the opportunity to seize those things, to try to make these changes, right? We’re not only in this moment where the climate crisis is increasingly apparent, and we know that we need to do something in order to reduce our emissions.
Paris Marx (38m 49s):
And part of that has to do with the transportation system because it’s such a huge contributor to emissions. And so I think electric cars are not enough in that sense. And what we really need to do is ensure that we’re getting as many people out of cars as possible. And so that needs to be a key focus, but we’re also in this moment where gas prices are really high and where deaths caused by automobiles, where road deaths are soaring in the United States. And so there are many different kind of things that can be seized on in order to try to make this argument against the car and for greater investment in public transit and also cycling infrastructure like dedicated lanes, street space, parking facilities, so that people won’t feel that their bike is gonna get stolen if they park it somewhere to actually encourage the shift away from the automobile that I think is really necessary
Jeff Wood (39m 36s):
In your solutions. At the end of the book, you talk about Paris and thinking not just about like regulations, cuz you’re not a fan of, of things like congestion pricing, for example, but actually changing the landscape so that it makes it harder for cars overall. I think that’s an interesting perspective. I’m wondering if you can kind of expand on that.
Paris Marx (39m 52s):
Absolutely. So I see congestion pricing as kind of a, a market mechanism, right. A market oriented solution to the problem. And I don’t think that that actually gets to the root of the problem, which is, you know, the distribution of space in the city and how we prioritize our investment. And so I think that, you know, you can see in some cities where congestion pricing has worked, I think you can look at other cities where it hasn’t been so effective and often in the places where it has been effective. It’s been combined with more structural measures in order to change the distribution of street space. But then you can look at other cities like Paris or Oslo where these measures were taken without congestion pricing and they had similar successful results.
Paris Marx (40m 33s):
And so I would prefer more of an approach that focuses on the distribution of space in the streets. So that actually takes space away from cars. And that gives more space to transit or to cycling or to pedestrians. And what have you to encourage those shifts? Because one of the things that we know from transportation is that as much as Elon Musk would say it doesn’t exist, induced demand is a real thing. And so if we do start to make those kind of material changes to the way that the city is constructed, I think you do start to encourage other ways of getting around. Whereas I think that the congestion pricing approach and the pricing approach in particular can sometimes hurt or hit, you know, the people who can least afford to pay more.
Paris Marx (41m 16s):
And we can see reactions against those sorts of things with like the, the Chile Joan protest in France, a number of years ago. And I think we can see them increasingly there’s growing pushback to automotive policies and things like that in the UK as well. And, and to pricing mechanisms here in Canada, we can see opposition to, to carbon pricing for example. And I don’t think that carbon pricing is inherently a very effective means of actually producing climate action. And I, so I think ultimately what we need is stronger action by our governments to actually make these things happen, instead of hoping that by tweaking some pricing that the market will do these things on their own. And I really don’t think we have time to wait
Jeff Wood (41m 56s):
For that. You spoke earlier about kind of corporate power versus government power. And, and when I was reading a book and then got to towards the end, I was thinking to myself, in terms of Uber, what’s been more damaging, has it been the, the labor problems that have been more damaging or the transportation problems? And I guess it’s not really, you know, it’s not really pitting them against each other necessarily, but I’m wondering which one has, is gonna have the most long term impact because maybe the transportation will kind of get fixed eventually as Uber and Lyft disappear or fold back into a taxi like organization. Whereas the labor stuff seems to be more impactful overall.
Paris Marx (42m 32s):
Yeah. I, I think we’re already starting to see that former point already happen. You know, the move back into a more taxi like structure. We can see Uber making deals with taxi companies in New York city, in San Francisco, in Italy, for example, in order to bring taxis onto the app and think that there are problems there as well, especially if Uber is the one that now sets the rules for how taxis work. But I do think that the longer term impacts are absolutely the labor effects, right? Especially in the places where Uber is successfully rewriting labor law, like in California in order to carve out a third category of worker and we’ve already seen other businesses seek to reclassify their workers along those lines.
Paris Marx (43m 12s):
And so Uber is still waging this campaign today in Canada, where I am, they’re still trying to get what’s called flexible work plus implemented up here. And they’re pushing on the government of Ontario in particular to do that over in the UK, there was the Supreme court ruling last year on the rights of the workers saying that they’re not independent contractors, but workers. And specifically in that ruling, the Supreme court said that they should be paid from log on to log off a minimum wage, but Uber ignored that particular aspect of the ruling because it doesn’t want to treat workers in that way. And so now they’re going to have to Sue again, to get Uber, to actually reflect that. And this is a, a war that they’re waging in other countries as well. And so I think that that is also is ultimately even if Uber is never profitable, even if it fades away in a couple of years, because it’s proven that it’s never going to be a workable business and, you know, because of higher interest rates, it can’t get the cheap money that it, that it used to.
Paris Marx (44m 8s):
Those labor impacts are going to stick around for a really long time. And I think that’s the most troubling thing there.
Jeff Wood (44m 13s):
I think that’s an interesting point that all of this money was sunken into giving people free rides and the benefit to the VCs and the people who with capital is that eventually the whole system of, of labor is changing. It’s not necessarily even the transportation issue that comes about it’s something completely different. And I think that’s fascinating that you can kind of mess with something on the right hand. And then the left hand kind of get comes around the other side and takes it.
Paris Marx (44m 39s):
Yeah. You know, one of the things that Huber Horan, who’s a longtime critic of Uber who who’s worked in transportation for decades really pointed out was that, you know, there was an effort in the 1990s to further deregulate the taxi industry by, you know, funded by the Cokes and, and really pushed by a lot of libertarian groups that was unsuccessful largely that didn’t achieve its aims. But then when Uber was making its push, it picked up a lot of that playbook that was developed in the nineties and used it for its push to deregulate the taxi industry and ultimately to take on workers’ rights. And so obviously I think that that’s going to be the, the longer term impact of that. And it’s a really harmful impact.
Paris Marx (45m 20s):
And you can see how it’s connected to larger desires of capital to change the relationship with workers. But I would also say even if Uber doesn’t work, as you’re saying, this is something that they will always have as a benefit, even if the Uber model collapses, but those investors also profited as well, even though Uber lost billions of dollars because when Uber iPod, they were able to cash out and they bought in at a really low price. Right. And so they really left kind of retail investors and some others holding the bag on that. But a lot of the early investors, both profited and have benefited from this reclassification and rewriting of labor law,
Jeff Wood (45m 58s):
What’s been the response to the book so far. Have you gotten any like feedback from folks or thinking along the lines of, you know, positive or negative towards what, what your, your thesis is?
Paris Marx (46m 9s):
I would say a lot of what I’ve heard is positive, which is like good, you know, and certainly the book does seem to be getting, you know, a lot more attention in this moment. Like I think there was attention since, since, since it launched, but I think that attention is broadening, broadening out in the past couple weeks to an even wider audience, which is fantastic to see, you know, I think that there’s a lot of interest, as I was saying, especially from the tech folks in the kind of urban historical angle to this. And I think that it also comes out in a moment when there is a desire to reassess some of these ideas around transportation and reassess Elon Musk, as a figure who is delivering us many of these ideas about transportation.
Paris Marx (46m 49s):
One kind of critical note that I’ve had about it is on my presentation of micro mobility in particular, the dockless bike and scooter services, which is something that I am critical of in the book. I, I guess the feedback that I got on it was that, you know, maybe we should accept that there are some positive things that, that the tech industry has done. Maybe I’m a bit overly critical, but I would say that, I think like on the micro mobility question and I, you know, I think this is certainly relevant to, to some of your listeners as well. I think the real problem there is not, you know, obviously bikes and scooters in cities, which is something that I really like. And I think that we can certainly have, you know, docked and shared services that can work. But the problem is really, really that many of these services had a ton of venture capital.
Paris Marx (47m 33s):
And so when they entered cities, they were not really concerned with what the communities needed and what the cities actually needed in order to enable better active mobility. And to help people move away from cars, they were concerned about their own business goals, right? And taking over and reaching as many cities as possible and, and didn’t consider the wider impacts of what they were doing. And so now we’re in a moment where those services are finding that they’ve lost the cheap money that their, their share prices are plummeting. And I think that this means that now cities in many cases have an opportunity to step back in and to say, okay, if we’re going to let these services operate, you need to actually do some consultations. You need to actually know what the community needs.
Paris Marx (48m 14s):
And if we’re going to continue to have one of these shared services in the city, it needs to actually serve our goals and our needs, not the needs of your business.
Jeff Wood (48m 24s):
The book is the road to know where, what Silicon valley gets wrong about the future of transportation, where can folks find it? If they wanna get a copy
Paris Marx (48m 31s):
Anywhere, you know, it’s available from all the major book sellers, you can certainly ask your local bookstore if they can bring it in for you. I know right now, versa books says at 20% off, if you want to get a discount from the publisher directly. Yeah. It’s all over the place.
Jeff Wood (48m 44s):
Awesome. And where can folks find you if you want to be found on the internet?
Paris Marx (48m 47s):
Yeah, they can certainly find me on Twitter where I probably tweet a bit too much under, at Paris marks. And you know, if they’re interested in more critical perspectives on the tech industry, I also host a podcast called tech. Won’t save us. That’s at tech, won’t save us on Twitter or you can find it anywhere. You know, I’m sure anywhere they find your podcast, they can also find mine
Jeff Wood (49m 7s):
Probably so. Awesome. Well, Paris, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
Paris Marx (49m 11s):
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on the show.