I began this blog in January of this year, with the intent that I would post regularly, weekly in fact. Having done so since then, with the exception of few holiday hiatuses—and about to begin another one today—I will resume posting in the New Year, but on a more intermittent basis. Intermittent better reflects life I think, on Galiano and elsewhere. There may be a pattern to our behaviour, and repeated seasons to life’s larger arc, but the flow of our daily lives is an irregular one, interrupted by surprises, nice and otherwise. Intermittent is a better fit.
I drove a car just as soon as I was legally able to. Couldn’t wait. A learner’s permit was obtainable in Alberta at age 14 back then, so within days of my 14th birthday I was happily out on the road, behind the wheel of a freedom machine. I owned my first car, a light blue Volkswagon Fastback, by the time I was 18.
My own son, who is now 24, has never owned a car, and professes no interest in doing so. It was my suggestion, not his, that he obtain a driver’s license, since I believed, perhaps naively, that it enhanced his chances for gainful employment. My son’s cousin, same age, similarly has no interest in driving. His friend Mendel, a year younger, has never bothered with the driver’s license.
They all own mobile devices of course, and if they ever had to choose between a car and a smart phone it would not be a difficult choice, and the auto industry would not be the beneficiary.
Times change. And yet, more than ever, Canada is a suburban, car-dependent nation. Two-thirds of us live in suburban neighbourhoods and three-quarters of us still drive to work, most of the time alone. Vancouver, where I spend most of my time, now has the worst traffic congestion in all of North America, this year finally overtaking perennial frontrunner Los Angeles.
If ever a technology is in need of a revolution it has to be cars. As uber venture capitalist (and Netscape co-founder) Marc Andreeson has been pointing out of late, most cars sit idle most of the time, like 90% of the time. And the actual figure for occupancy on car trips is 1.2 persons per journey.
Car co-ops, and car-sharing companies like Zip Car of Car2Go point the way. Many people have begun sharing, rather than owning a car. But if you take the numbers mentioned above and add in the coming phenomenon of the Google robot car, the potential transportation picture becomes truly intriguing.
Driverless cars are now legal on public roads in Nevada, California and Florida. Since 2011, there have been two collisions involving Google’s robot cars. In one incident, the car was under human control at the time; in the other the robotic car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light. We might assume that a human was driving the car that rear-ended the robot.
What if no one owned a car? What if you could simply order up a driverless car ride on your smart phone any time, anywhere? Your robot car would arrive at your door, it might stop to pick someone else up en route, but it would then drop you off at the entranceway to wherever it is you’re wishing to go to. You would pay a fee for this service of course, but it would be minor in comparison to what you now pay if you own and regularly drive a car.
And of course the need for cars would nosedive, because these robotic cars would be in use nearly all of the time, say 90% of the time. Car numbers would plummet, meaning traffic congestion would be a thing of the past. And it keeps going: garages, driveways, parking lots would begin to disappear. Our urban landscape, which has essentially been designed to accommodate cars, would begin to transform. A lot more green space would become available.
And I haven’t even mentioned the reduction in carbon pollution that would ensue with the reduction in cars, carbon pollution being a problem which just may threaten the stability of civilization in the coming years.
Cars have been with us for about 100 years now. Our relationship with them over that period has at times been tender, at times belligerent, at times top-down, sun-in-your face, wind-in-your-hair fabulous, at times utterly savage. For those people who love cars, who fuss over them, restore them, take them out for careful drives only on sunny Sunday afternoons; I hope those people keep their cars, as an expensive hobby. For the rest of us, those of us who use cars simply to get from A to B, for whom cars are just a form of convenient transport, the days when we need to own a car are disappearing. For my money, the sooner the better.
I first joined Amnesty International back in the early 80s. I still have a thickish file containing carbon copies of the letters I wrote and sent back then, thwacked out over the hum of my portable electric typewriter. Despite my efforts to keep them informed, A.I. didn’t do a particularly good job of tracking me as I moved about from place to place in the following years, but, nevertheless, on and off, I’ve been sending protest messages under their aegis for some 30 years now.
But these days it’s a whole lot easier. These days I receive an email from them, outlining another outrage by an oppressive government somewhere, and I’m asked to simply ‘sign’ a petition. They have my details on hand already, so all I need do is click to the petition page and click one more time. Done.
It’s called ‘clicktivism,’ and, quite rightly, its comparative value is questionable. In the 2011 book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Siva Vaidhyanathan took this somewhat indirect swipe at the practice: “… instead of organizing, lobbying and campaigning… we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action. Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.”
Writing in The Guardian a year earlier, Micah White made a much more direct attack: “In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.” White points out that clicktivism is largely activism co-opted by the techniques of online marketing. The greater the emphasis on click-rates, bloated petition numbers and other marketing metrics, the cheaper the value of the message, according to White, resulting in “a race to the bottom of political engagement.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that organizations like Amnesty pass their contact lists to other like organizations, presumably for compensation, without soliciting consent. I did sign on with Avaaz, but I’ve never asked to receive emails from SumOfUs, Care2 Action Alerts, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Plan Canada, the Council of Canadians, All Out, Change.org or Care Canada, but I do. I will readily admit that many of those emails go unopened.
It’s a difficult phenomenon to come to terms with ethically. These organizations are undoubtedly staffed by well-meaning people who genuinely believe they are making a difference. And I’m sure that sometimes they do. Yet there is also no doubt that the greatly facilitated process that clicktivism represents degrades more on-the-ground forms of political protest, and allows people like myself to make essentially meaningless contributions to worthy causes. ‘Facilitate’ may be the operative word here, as in facile, meaning, according to Merriam Webster, “too simple; not showing enough thought or effort.”
December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950. Last year Amnesty International organized the sending of more than 1.8 million messages to governments everywhere on that date, asking them to respect the rights of people and communities under threat of persecution. To their credit, in addition to urging their members to send messages, Amnesty is encouraging its members to organize or attend an event in their community or workplace on December 10. They have targeted seven different cases of human rights abuse from around the globe for action. These include Dr. Ten Aung, who was given a 17-year jail sentence in Myanmar last year after attempting to keep the peace between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohinyga Muslims; Ihar Tsikhanyuk, who has faced threats, intimidation and beatings in Belarus for attempting to register a group in support of LGBTI rights, and Badia East, from Nigeria, who, along with many of her neighbours, was left destitute and without compensation after authorities destroyed her home last February.
The problem with my problem with clicktivism is that it pales in comparison to the problems faced by these brave people on a daily basis. And like so many other new processes made possible by digital technology, the change represented by online activism is not about to reverse itself. We keep our eyes forward, think critically, and do what we can. I’ll try to write a letter on December 10.