On Entrepreneurs and Activists

If there’s one core message that I have wanted to convey in this blog, it is that. Not just in the sense that there is politics that takes place over technology, but also in the sense that technology is a way to do politics.
Let’s take an example from the news recently: Elon Musk has promised that Tesla will market partially autonomous vehicles in the United States as early as this summer. This is  major political moment in addition to being a technological one. As this article  points out, Musk’s plan opens up a lot of legal questions. There will be court cases about the political struggles over the legality of self-driving cars. The same thing happened during the early history of electricity: Proponents of alternating and direct current went to extraordinary measures to get support for their own system, even to the point of pushing the electric chair as a method of execution.

There will be the huge questions about labour Uber has already made substantive plans to introduce self-driving cars into its service. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and other people who are threatened by this, will also be watching this, for obvious reason, and will probably find themselves in some kind of legal or political struggle with Tesla and Uber before too long. There will be studies and counter-studies, and the question of whether or not Tesla’s cars are legal will become a referendum on the career prospects of everybody who drives a car for a living.

The account I just gave isn’t very novel. There are others who have thought of all this before me. But it focuses too much on the single question of whether or not we should have self-driving vehicles? There’s no discussion of exactly what form the self-driving vehicles might take. That, it is assumed, is the business of engineers and other people working in large and impenetrable technology companies, who are ultimately accountable to capital. If you make this assumption, then it seems pretty obvious that self-driving cars will take a form, and be implemented in a way, that is most useful for private capital intersts, and most destructive for workers.

What if, however, this was not the case? What if activists had just as much involvement in the development of technology as capitalists did, and could influence the actual form of new technologies to be more conducive to social, economic, and environmental justice? It would certainly change the discussion around self-driving cars. Rather than simply making it a yes-or-no debate, we might ask what degree of autonomy is acceptable. We might ask questions about who should own and control the self-driving units: Individual drivers, or scummy companies like Uber. We might ask what kinds of ethics your self-driving car should implement on your behalf. We don’t have these conversations right now because we assume that those who develop our technologies will always and only pay attention to the needs of their investors to turn a profit.

Here’s the thing, though: Any company pushing a new kind of technology is already a bit like an activist group. No new technology fits into society perfectly, and often the people whose interests are aligned with that new technology have reason to try and make changes to laws, or social practices, or infrastructures in order to be successful. That’s why car lobbyists re-defined the street as a place for cars during the 1920s. It’s why Tesla has had to fight a bunch of legal battles, not just over self-driving cars, but over its business model. The first railroads could not be built without a revolution in British property law which allowed the government to force landowners to accept the fact that trains would be running across their land.

This provides an opportunity for cooperation. Entrepreneurs pushing new technologies could use activists as allies, because activists can help them make the changes they need in order to better embed their technology into society. In return, the activists can make some demands about the form the technology will take, and the way it will be implemented.

So here’s my proposal: Let’s have activist groups get involved with entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs get involved with activist groups. For example, a coalition of environmentalists and labour unions could offer their support to Tesla in the upcoming fight over self-driving cars, but only if the cars are a) sustainable, and designed to be used in a way that minimizes vehicle-miles travelled; and b) licensed to companies that give a fair deal to cab drivers. This could be important for new start-ups, which are often desperate for publicity and support. If, say, Greenpeace started endorsing kickstarters for new technologies that promise to reduce our carbon footprints, it would be very good both for the people developing those technologies, and for Greenpeace’s goal.

There’s a lot of vagueness in the model I’ve proposed. That’s intentional. I don’t run any activist groups, and there are people who are better qualified than me to turn this vague idea into a specific program. Either way, though, it’s better than how we do the politics of technology right now. Currently, when we see a new technology on the horizon whose implications we don’t like the best response we can muster is a resounding ‘no’. Unfortunately, that is only effective if anybody cares what we think. Often, they do not. Automation, to take the most frightening example, will be a big deal in the next few decades. No amount of protest is going to make the robots go away. It’s much better, then, to try and direct technological change, and *manage* form the robots, and other new technologies will take. To do that, we need to see technology not just as something that politics acts on, but as an act of politics in and of itself; just one part of the same tool-kit that is currently limited to petitions, marches, and the odd city council meeting.

Challenging our High-Carbon Narratives

It has become trendy among climate activists to focus their efforts on the production, rather than just the consumption, of fossil fuels. This has a pretty solid rationale: If we take oil out of the ground, then somebody is going to burn it. If we want to save the global climate, then we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The implications of this are radical, but hard to deny: Most major fossil fuel extraction projects have to be phased out, and we should absolutely not be initiating any new ones such as fracking or drilling in the Arctic. This is not an idle proposition, either; it has motivated a worldwide divestment campaign, as well as some very brave protesters taking on the fossil fuel industry wherever they try to frack some shale gas, dig up some bitumen, or build a new pipeline. These people deserve your support.

We can’t afford to completely forget about fossil fuel consumption, however. Consumption and extraction are very closely linked. Just as somebody is going to find a use for all that surplus oil we’re digging up; if we don’t address high rates of fossil fuel consumption then we can also expect a massive backlash from people who are still dependent on fossil fuels to threaten our progress at keeping oil in the ground. We need both approaches.

Beyond its immediate usefulness, the “leave the oil in the ground” also contains a broader philosophical and strategic implication that we should consider; namely that on any environmental issue, we should resist the temptation to focus on proximate causes, such as people heating their homes, and make sure to take account of the root causes, such as fossil fuel production and the lack of renewable home-heating infrastructure. There are social, economic, and political drivers for every environmentally destructive practice from littering on city streets to nuclear weapons testing. The actual act that harms the environment is often merely the last step in a chain of events that was set in motion in some disparate time and place. Often it would be better to tackle the first link in the chain, rather than the last one.

It gets a bit more complicated than that, because fossil-fuel extraction is not the only thing thing that sets in motion a chain of events leading to fossil-fuel combustion. Another one, which I want to address here, is our narratives of consumption. Think about the last major purchase you bought. Were your reasons for making that purchase completely rational? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not a Vulcan, then the answer is probably ‘no’. Our lifestyle choices are, at least on some level, performative. We do things, spend money, and, yes, emit carbon, because doing so allows us to align ourselves with certain cultural story-lines. One of my favourite examples of this is travel. If you’ve any kind of overseas backpacking holiday, then I would wager that you did so at least partly because you bought into story-line that says that such travel experiences will change your life. Unfortunately, they also emit massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

I don’t mean to shame anybody with this post. The fact that we base our life choices on cultural narratives is perfectly okay, and is probably a fundamental part of how culture and society works. My point here is a more positive one: The fact that these narratives can be a major driver of carbon emissions gives climate activists an in. Because these stories are always at least a little bit arbitrary. Particular narrative exist for a reason, of course-each one is probably a complex combination of historical and psychological factors, but there is more than one potentially compelling cultural story-line about any given thing. In other words: Our high-carbon narratives, like fossil fuel extraction, are just one of the many root-causes that we can tackle.

At this point, I have to turn to British Comedian David Mitchell’s rant about climate change:

The basic point of Mitchell’s rant is that we should stop pretending that climate mitigation will be fun, because we will never be able to compete with people like Jeremy Clarkson if that is our strategy. But I’m not so sure. To take one of Mitchell’s examples, who says driving a 4×4 to the North Pole while drinking gin is actually that much fun? To me, it sounds cold, dangerous, hangover-inducing, and mostly monotonous once you’ve been doing it for a day or so. Of course, very few of us actually drunk-drive large vehicles to the planet’s polar regions. But we can similarly re-frame the discussion around more everyday driving. Our myths about driving tell us that it is the ultimate freedom, because it allows us to go wherever we want completely autonomously.

I don’t deny that there are some specific cases in which driving fits this description. Despite my frequent anti-motorist killjoying, I am in fact familiar of the sense of freedom and fun that comes with a good road-trip with friends. But that’s a tiny subset of the driving that people do. Lots of things about driving are the opposite of freedom. Drivers are saddled with the responsibility to find parking spots and feed the meter, to fret over the price of gas at the nearby station versus the one in the next town over, and to ensure they remain sober enough to get themselves home safely and legally. As a non-car-driver, by comparsion, I am perfectly free to jump on a train to the other end of the country whenever I want. Once I have arrived, I can step right off the train into a city centre with no need to look for parking, and I can go to the pub without worrying about whether I will get a DUI on the way home. I enjoy a similar freedom in local travel: My bicycle can be locked up almost anywhere, and can be safely left there overnight if I decide to take the bus home instead. So while you can tell a story in which driving is something that gives you the freedom to go where you please on your own schedule; you can tell a different one in which driving imposes a whole set of extra responsibilities on you that severely restrict how you can live your everyday life.

The choice between the two narratives I just presented is somewhat arbitrary. There is no scientific experiment or logical argument that could actually determine whether cars embody freedom. Furthermore, the freedom I experience as a non-driver is contingent on having public transit options and cycle infrastructure available to me. The point I want to make, though, that there is a cultural battle here that climate activists should be fighting. It is, thankfully, already being fought in a few places. And not just in terms of transportation, either. Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, in particular, is doing a great job dismantling some of the myths driving consumption, and replacing them with a very appealing narrative about frugality and a life of leisure and autonomy. We should do more of this. We should be challenging the adventure narratives that make people carbon-intensive holidays to other continents, the personal fulfilment narratives that make people buy a bunch of useless and environmentally-destructive stuff, and the health and fitness narratives that make people feel like they have to eat meat every single day of the week. Because ultimately, asking people to live more sustainably while continuing to perpetuate myths of conspicuous consumption is about as sensible as digging up a bunch of fossil fuels and asking people not to burn them.

Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

A passage in Naomi Klein’s new climate manfesto, entitled This Changes Everything, stood out to me:

The southeastern [Indian] state of Andhra Pradesh has been the site of several iconic struggles, like one in the village of Kakarapalli, surrounded by rice patties and coconut groves, where local residents can be seen staffing a semipermanent checkpoint under a baobab tree at the entrance to town. The encampment chokes off the only road leading to a half-built power plant where construction was halted amidst protests in 2011. In nearby Sompeta, another power plant proposal was stopped by a breakthrough alliance of urban middle-class professionals and subsistence farmers and fishers who united to protect the nearby wetlands

Richard Branson tossed a globe around at a climate change-related press event. Naomi Klein argues that this image is illustrative of the fundamental political problems of climate change: We think we’re in charge of the Earth.

If you’re a bleeding-heart lefty like me, then that quote probably makes you very happy. After all, it ticks all the boxes: Pastoralism, nonviolent direct action, organized peasants, and a vaguely anarchist makeshift checkpoint set up under a tree. This, and other passages in This Changes Everything make climate activism seem like the culmination of all that the left has been working towards for decades. That, in fact, is precisely Klein’s argument: Climate change might be terrifying, but we can solve the problem with the same movements and policies that, by a convenient coincidence, fit exactly with the movements and policies that Klein already supports.

In case you haven’t detected it yet, I should say at this point that I’m somewhat skeptical of this thesis.

It’s not that Klein is wrong. Not exactly. Her argument can be broken down into two premises: Firstly, that climate change cannot be addressed without also changing the neoliberal economic order which prevails around the world today; and secondly, that existing left-wing movements already provide a template for how to create a low-carbon society. Klein’s argument in favour of the first proposition is entirely convincing. One chapter points out how international agreements to deal with climate change constantly run up against the free trade agenda. Another demonstrates how “green billionaires” such as Richard Branson are basically useless: at the end of the day, capitalism being what it is, they have to prioritize their investors over the climate. The first half of the book has a radical premise, but it is extremely well-supported by a unique synthesis of recent environmental history.

But once Klein is finished tearing down old systems, she devotes about a third of the book to building up an alternative. And this is where the problems emerge: Klein abandons the critical approach she applies to the prevailing right-wing order, giving the left-wing largely sympathetic treatment where the climate is concerned. Rather than taking up the difficult soul-searching that will be required to adopt even left-wing movements to the challenge of climate, Klein instead simply presents a series of tropes that have been staples of the left-wing echo chamber for decades. This approach isn’t always off the mark; it’s unsurprising that those who have been fighting against neoliberalism for three decades will have at least some of the answers when it comes to averting the harm it does to the climate. And Klein does indeed point to some promising movements for change. Her account of the role of indigenous movements in stopping pipelines and fracking is particularly compelling, particularly as she draws links between these and other kinds of on-the-ground resistance efforts.

But even in this case, she seems to have half-forgotten about climate change. In many of the cases she cites, the resistance is primarily motivated by concern about the local effects of the fossil fuel industries: Water tables poisoned by fracking, mountaintops destroyed by coal mining, and coastlines threatened by oil tankers. These are very real and pressing concerns, and we should support people fighting back against these harmful effects of the fossil fuel industry. But Klein leaves a very important question unanswered: If these impacts on the local environment are somehow mitigated, then can we still count on this kind of local resistance purely for the sake of the climate? If fracking is made healthier, coal mining is made less destructive, and fossil fuel transportation by ship and pipeline is made safer, then can we expect these movements to stick around purely for the sake of the climate? Perhaps there is an argument to be made that we can, but Klein doesn’t make it.

Another problem is that while Klein spends a good deal of her book excoriating the established environmental movement for its collaboration with industry, she falls hook, line and sinker for some of the cultural baggage that has been holding environmentalists back. Environmentalism, she argues, should be low-tech, democratic, and rooted in the need to protect local ecosystems. Klein makes an absurd comparison between view of conservation inspired by images like Earthrise and the Pale Blue Dot, and the image of Richard Branson holding up a big inflatable globe, as if he’s “in charge” (a favourite term of Klein’s) of the entire planet. If your environmentalism is inspired by an enterprise as technocratic of the space program, Klein argues, then you’re doing it wrong. Much better to fight to protect the lower-case earth: the ground beneath your feet. Klein’s stretched comparison between her own fertility struggles and the struggles of the planet to bring forth life reaffirm this view when she heavily implies that the naturopath she visited was far more effective in helping her become pregnant than the more traditional fertility doctors she had previously tried.

Klein’s fertility treatment is her own business, of course. But when combined with her thoughts about the Pale Blue Dot, it becomes clear that Klein’s book is based firmly in 1970s environmentalism, which was at its heart a reaction to industrial technocracy. This led to a deep distrust of scientists and engineers in favour of a personal, even spiritual engagement with nature. And forty-four years after the first Earth Day, Klein is pushing the same basic narrative, in which science and technology are primarily part of the problem rather than the solution. I bet you can guess what Klein thinks of nuclear power.

The thing is that nothing is that simple. Yes, technology has been poisoning the planet on a large-scale since the nineteenth century, and scientists and engineers have often done more harm than good. But this is not the 1970s, and many of the scientists now sounding the alarm about the climate are part of the kind of large, bureaucratic scientific institution that makes hippy environmentalism so uncomfortable. The engineers developing wind turbines, electric cars, and new kinds of bike infrastructure are also often very establishment figures, many of whom probably lack any kind of spiritual connection to nature. But we need all hands on deck to address the climate crisis. Yes, we need to challenge the prevailing economic order as well as our own rates of consumption. But we also need to leverage every single sustainable alternative we can get our hands on, regardless of whether it is centralized, local, high-tech, low-tech, socialistic, or capitalist. Because the climate doesn’t care about our political and economic preferences.

I don’t really mind if environmentalists prefer to see the planet as a space-ship, a goddess, a super-organism, or even a resource to be exploited, so long as that worldview is mobilized into a willingness to fight. But Klein’s distrust of scientific diagnoses and technological solutions is dangerous. The planet may well need its equivalent of naturopathic doctors who are capable of looking at it holistically and proposing low-tech solutions that take advantage of existing environmental processes. And it certainly needs dedicated activists ready to put their bodies on the line in the fight against fossil fuel companies. But the Earth also needs something more like traditional medicine: lab-coated scientists who use satellites, computer algorithms, and advanced chemistry to diagnose its problems, as well as ambitious engineers who can prescribe high-tech solutions. We need all of the above.

Anybody who has read more than a few posts in this blog can tell that I’m pretty left-wing. And that means that, naturally, I think that left-wing thought is a better approximation of reality than right-wing thought, including the centre-right consensus of the current economic paradigm. But it’s hubristic to think that any political ideology, which is an imperfect product of political alliances and historical contingencies, provides the perfect analysis of or solution to climate change, which is bigger than any political debate. Klein is probably right that right-wing ideology is inseparable from the practices that are causing climate change. But just because we on the left are more sympathetic to the problem, it doesn’t mean that we, too, won’t have to make political sacrifices. Real action on the climate demands that we seriously reconsider our positions on things like gentrification and technocracy. We need to fit our concern for the oppressed into the harsh facts of climate change, and find ways to help them that don’t make the problem worse. This difficult task is what Klein misses in her book.

Stop being cynical about technology!

Google Project Wing Drone Delivery 1

Google’s Project Wing. From weburbanist.com.

I’m going to start this post with a simple premise: Any sustainable future we ever manage to achieve will look, to our eyes, like science fiction.

That probably sounds like a pretty straightforward thesis. It’s nearly a cliche now to point out that our present-day society, with smartphones and electric cars and an international space station would look a lot like science fiction to anybody living in the 1880s, or even the 1980s. And anybody who has done any serious thinking about sustainability knows that we will have to make some further massive changes in order to attain it.  It follows that a future society; especially one in which we have solved such a fundamental problem as sustainability, will look bizarre and futuristic to us. But whether or not they accept this in princple, people often seem to have trouble applying it to the case of specific proposed technologies. Case in point: the vision of Drone Delivery.

I wrote about PrimeAir, one possible manifestation of drone delivery, a while ago, when the project was first announced a bit less than a year ago. Back then, I argued that the plan was somewhat plausible, with some definite sustainability benefits. I still hold that view. But today I want to use PrimeAir and other proposed systems like it to make a more general point. The kneejerk mockery and more sober dismissals to which PrimeAir was subjected were often based largely on the fact that PrimeAir looked like something out of a science fiction novel. We don’t live in a science fiction novel, so how could this idea possibly have any viability? Prominent (and slightly obnoxious) youtube atheist Thunderf00t’s dismissal of Solar Roadways falls into a similar trap: He points out the astronomical cost of making enough LEDs to supply all the solar road panels, while utterly failing to conisder that the promise of such a technology might make people find ways to dramatically reduce the price of LEDs.

Since I last wrote about it, the idea of drone delivery looks just a little bit more plausible. Google has recently been testing fixed-wing delivery drones by making deliveries to cattle farmers in the Australian outback, and parcel delivery giant DHL is now using a quad-copter to make actual deliveries to the North Sea island of Juist. So actual drone deliveries are now being made. True, these experimental projects are mainly being conducted in rural areas, and only in a purely experimental context. But the basic premise has been proven. And if it’s only viable in rural areas, so what? That just means it’s great news for people who live in rural areas. Drone delivery isn’t guaranteed to become a reality yet. It could, for example, suffer from the Hindenburg Effect if one of these drones has a bad crash in the next few years. But it is certainly within the realm of future possibility.

The history of technology shows that people are not very good at accurately assessing what is within the realm of future possibility. Newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, routinely predicted that the horse would continue to have an important economic role in the future. Sure, they conceded, cars might be useful for a few things. But they’re next to useless on country roads, they can’t pull a plow, and you can’t ride them into battle. So the horse is here to stay. These writers failed to predict that country roads would get paved, that tractors would be invented, and that cavalry would be made obsolete by machine guns. And therein lies the problem: The future is a complicated thing. Millions of things will change between now and even ten years from now, making new things possible and old things obsolete. To rule out something like drone delivery, you’d have to account for all of them. And that’s something you simply can’t do.

I maintain that there is a way to get around this limitation, although it is a very inexact science. My research suggests that you can assess the plausibility of a new technology by asking a few simple questions about it. I’ll list them below.

1. Is it physically possible? Does it work? If it doesn’t, then it’s obviously a non-starter. For some things such as a space elevator, the answer to this question is uncertain. For others, like cold fusion, it’s a definite no. But for drone delivery, we have to say yes. Drones have proven to be within the realm of physical possibility.

2. Can it attain cultural legitimacy? Cultural legitimacy refers to the general perception that a new technology, or a new way of doing things, is acceptable according to cultural standards. That means that it has to be perceived as safe, generally beneficial, respectable,  and not too threatening to the things people value. Nuclear power plants have struggled with cultural legitimacy. The segue failed on the respectability point. Delivery drones could reasonably tick this box, but only if they deal with the concerns about surveillance and the displacement of human workers.

3. Is there a viable niche? Virtually no technology arrives on the market in a sufficiently refined state that it can compete directly with the dominant way of doing things. New technologies are “hopeful monstrosities“, and to move beyond the laboratory, they usually need some specific, narrow application that they’re really good at. The people working on a radical new technology can use this niche as a place to refine their technology, and gradually make it more effective, efficient, and attractive, eventually allowing it to take over larger markets. Solar panels, for example, found a useful niche in space. And drone delivery might have one in delivering to remote places such as the Australian Outback and the Island of Juist

4. Does it have sufficient practical advantages that it could compete? Even once a new technology has matured within a niche, there has to be a good reason for people to make the switch to a new way of doing things. In simple terms, that means that it has to be better than the alternative. Cars were able to supplant horses in part because they are faster. To be viable, drone delivery will have to be either more convenient, or cheaper than human delivery. Or both.

5. What would be necessary to accommodate it? New technologies need new infrastructures, new regulations, new financial arrangements, and new cultures. Not all of these things have to fall in place right away. But in order for something to go from a mere technology to a system, it will eventually have to start changing society around itself. The accommodation of commercial flight, for example, required an airport system, a whole new regulatory apparatus, and for people to be willing to incorporate flight into their daily lives. Drone delivery would need new kinds of warehousing, new aviation laws, and probably new ways of picking up packages as they arrive at your house. The question is, how likely are these changes to occur?

6. Who, or what, stands in its way? And how powerful are they? Some people don’t want the world to change. Every new way of doing things is going to come up against vested interests, and these vested interests need to be assessed before you can declare a new technology plausible. Napster, for example, failed, because the powerful recording industry objected. In the case of drone delivery, we can expect delivery companies, labour unions, and conventional retail stores to kick up a fuss. Can Amazon or Google win a political battle against them?

This post isn’t really about drone delivery. Your answers to the above questions might be different than mine, and that’s fine. You might also suggest a slightly different list of questions. But ultimately, this kind of framework is what we need to be able to assess new technologies effectively. Assessing future technologies based on present-day capabilities and parameters, or simply looking at a futuristic-looking proposal and saying “That looks stupid. Never gonna happen”, is not a very sound way of considering future change. Nor is it a very effective way of encouraging sustainability. If we don’t make at least a few big technological bets, then we will almost certainly destroy the planet. We need to be critical, but not cynical: We need enough enthusiasm that we can endorse promising technological visions, and help them become reality. We need to be willing to risk the embarrassment of being wrong about the promise new innovations. Change always seems impossible, until it happens.

Why e-bikes make me nervous

A few years ago, while riding my bike along the Don Valley cycle paths (a gorgeous urban cycle route that any cyclist in the area should check out), I was, to my confusion, passed by a man who couldn’t have been younger than 60 riding a rickety old bicycle without even pedalling that hard! Furious at this affront to my honour as a cyclist, I gave chase. Keeping pace with him for a few minutes was just about all I could manage. Frustrated and confused, I eventually noticed the high-tech looking plastic box sitting on the frame of the man’s bike. I had been racing with somebody who had the extra benefit of an electric motor. This was my first encounter with the increasingly popular phenomenon of the e-bike.

In principle, e-bikes are a fantastic development. Cycling is an excellent means of alternative transport: It is sometimes faster than cars, it is certainly healthier and more sustainable, and switching to cycling might even make you happier. But cycling does involve a certain amount of privilege. To use a bicycle as a useful way of getting around, you have to be reasonably able-bodied and fit, and you have to live in a city where the distances and grades are manageable. E-bikes eliminate some of these requirements; allowing people to use bicycles who may not otherwise be physically capable of doing so. And even if the argument can be made that e-bikes are not, strictly speaking, active transport, their status as very light-weight electric vehicles means that their contribution to climate change will be minuscule, even compared to that of an electric car.

The problem, however, emerges with the fact that very few technologies remain static. E-bikes are a relatively new development, and like most other new technologies, we can expect them to change considerably as they become more popular, and as the people who make them have more money to pay engineers and inventors to improve them. E-bikes currently exist as a kind of bricolage combination of cell phone batteries and bicycle technology, but they will evolve. And what they evolve into may force us to rethink what actually constitutes a bicycle.

Notice how it still has pedals.

This has, in fact, already happened in the case of motorcycles. A brief glance at wikipedia demonstrates that motorcycles are about as old as cars. These early motorcycles were literally motor-cycles: cycles with motors on them. Attach a motor and an extra stabilizing wheel to a penny-farthing, and voila! You’ve got a motorized vehicle. Motorcycles thus have a completely separate genaeology from that of the car, which was initially conceived as a horseless carriage. If you are at all familiar with e-bikes, then this should start to sound familiar.

1910 FN

A 1910 Fabrique Nationale motorcycle.

To make a long history short, motorcycles continued to look like bicycles for some time, and as bicycles became more sophisticated, so too did motorcycles. Gradually, the pedals disappeared, to be replaced with a stronger engine which in turn required a sturdier frame. Motorcycles began to diverge from their pedal-powered cousins. By the 1930s, motorcycles had taken on a distinct form of their own, with almost all signs of their pedal-powered history expunged in favour of more power, speed, and durability. And these, in turn, gave rise to the high-speed crotch-rockets that can often be seen in flagrant violation of speed limits today.

A 1920 Indian Powerplus.

A 1930 “Squariel” motorcycle. By now, almost all signs of its bicycle ancestry are gone.

This is a very crude history, mostly culled from wikipedia, so you shouldn’t take it as authoritative. My expertise is cars, trains and (occasional) aircraft; not motorcycles. But you only have to look at the pictures to see the clear trend: The metaphor of biological evolution is actually a very good one to describe the development of motorcycles and many other technologies besides: A mutation (innovation) caused one small population (motor bicycles) to diverge from a parent species (pedal-powered bicycles), at which point it was subjected to a different set of selection pressures (a different user base), and gradually diverged to become something completely different.

As with biological evolution, the question of when a new species actually emerged is a purely subjective one-a crucial consideration when we consider the future of e-bikes. At this stage, there is no reason why e-bikes should not be allowed in the bike paths and bike lanes that make cycling a safe and enjoyable means of transport for so many people. We could justifably be accused of ableism or age discrimination if we did not allow them to use these spaces. But e-bikes, like motorcycles before them, will almost certainly evolve into something distinct from bicycles. They could become faster and dangerous for the slower cyclists around them. But at their point their riders may not take kindly to being pushed off of the bike paths they have become accustomed to using. Indeed, e-bike technology will likely evolve based on the assumption that they will be used in these spaces. The possible outcome could be that what was once bike paths will become a kind of second-tier road, dominated by electric motorcycles on which pedal cyclists will be, once again marginalized.

This might not happen. Technological development is impossible to predict. But we do need to acknowledge that, one way or another, the technologies we use today will change into something else. And as they do so, the social practices and political structures that have built up around them might not change with them, or at least might not change in a way that resolves the problems caused by changing technology. Laws and habits are much harder to modify than bicycle frames. That means that when we think about how to integrate e-bikes and other new technologies into our society, we need to consider not only how they are, but also how they will be.

The Ukrainian Crisis and Climate Change

The recent crisis in Ukraine is going to make these shale gas resources very tempting. If we’re not careful, that will mean more fracking and a lot more carbon emissions. Image from Kyivpost.

This is meant to be a technology blog, but, as I’ve argued previously, technology does not exist in a vacuum. It both influences and is influenced by society, politics, economics, culture, and the environment. And so, in order to properly introduce this post, I’m going to have to do a little bit of amateur speculation about geopolitics. Bear with me.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last few weeks, you will have noticed that things are a little bit tense in Ukraine. Honestly it looks pretty dire. Crimea is, for all intents and purposes, now part of Russia, and it seems like Vladimir Putin has his eye on the Donetsk region as well. The “Pro-Russian Militias” operating in Eastern Ukraine almost certainly include at least a few Russian soldiers sent to stir up exactly the kind of unrest we’re seeing now. And Moscow’s recent warnings issued to Kiev seem to be little more than flimsy pretext to invade another part of Ukraine, ostensibly in order to protect the welfare of Russians living there.

I think, however, that this will turn out a little bit differently than things turned out in Crimea. President Obama’s apparent impotence in the face of Putin’s aggression has been a pretty big embarrassment for him, and when Putin makes another move there will considerable pressure on Obama to act. Similar public pressure could assert itself in other Western countries. My own prime minister Stephen Harper seems particularly keen to get involved in the crisis.

I don’t mean to say that we are on the verge of World War 3. Western powers are probably not willing to risk starting a nuclear war over Ukraine. (Sorry, Ukraine). But I do think that we could see some very severe economic sanctions being imposed on Russia. And Russia will retaliate with the most potent economic weapon they have available: Their energy resources. Ukraine and much of Europe are highly dependent on Russian gas to heat their homes, which gives Putin a pretty important strategic advantage.

This would not be the first time that energy resources have been used as a diplomatic weapon, of course. It was OPEC’s decision to use “the oil weapon” that led to the energy crisis of 1973, which was a major transitional moment in how the world thinks about both transportation and energy use. But it might not turn out that way this time. Joe Biden recently toured Ukraine, and engaged in a little bit of “Shale gas missionary work“, and the crisis is also giving a boost to the US domestic fracking industry: two Congressional bills have been introduced in an effort to speed up the approval of new fracking projects on the grounds that this will enhance US national security by reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. A Republican sponsor of the bill argued that “opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies”.

Outside the United States, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been promoting British fracking, pointing out that “Some countries are almost 100 percent reliant on Russian gas, so I think it is something of a wake-up call”. And in Canada, the Conservative Government has been promoting Tar Sands oil to counter Russia. Rather than causing us to rethink our energy consumption habits, as the 1973 crisis did, the crisis in Ukraine could cause the Western World to double down on unconventional fossil fuels.

This is very dangerous. Even if you ignore the fairly well-substantiated claims that fracking pollutes groundwater, the methane emissions from fracking sites alone are extremely dangerous for the climate. And some brief calculation reveals that if all 482 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the United States alone are fracked and burned, somewhere around 25.5 million tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere. That gas needs to stay in the ground. There are, however, few things that can motivate for major technological change like geopolitical crises, and so it seems distressingly likely that the events in Ukraine could wind up locking in a whole lot more carbon emissions at precisely the time when we need to be promoting renewables.

Is there an alternative to this? I don’t know. Environmentalists don’t much chance of being heard in the discussions over Ukraine, which will undoubtedly be framed as serious discussions for serious people. (Serious people generally don’t care about the climate). But perhaps there is an opportunity to use this crisis for good. I don’t know what Ukrainian or European renewable resources look like, or whether they could be developed quickly enough to reduce dependence on Russian gas. Nor do I know if there’s much possibility-either technological or political-for the expansion of nuclear power or hydroelectricity to meet the demand. But environmentalists with a better eye for energy geopolitics than I have should be thinking very seriously about these things.

Geopolitics has always had a relationship to technological development, because it provides one of the most potent ways of disrupting existing socio-technical regimes. It was the First World War, for example, that really made the motor vehicle a force to contend with, while the Second World War made intercontinental air travel possible. Since the basic task of the environmentalist is to disrupt existing socio-technical regimes in ways that are favourable for the planet, we should learn to use these crises to our advantage. We should try and counter the narratives coming out of Ukraine that call on us to abandon our drive to sustainability so that we can thwart the new Red Menace, and instead argue that this is precisely the opportunity we need to make a real commitment to carbon neutral energy. Maybe if we manage to do this for once, a global political crisis can be used for some good.


On Google Buses, Gentrification, and Sustainability

This protest is a flashpoint that indicating a major tension between social justice and environmental sustainability.

A week ago, protesters appeared outside the home of Anthony Levandowski; a Google engineer who has been a prominent figure in their self-driving car project. The protesters’ manifesto, which mentions issues ranging from the NSA and the Military-Industrial complex to gentrification, is clear on the protesters’ radical goals: “All of Google’s employees should be prevented from getting to work. All surveillance infrastructure should be destroyed. No luxury condos should be built. No one should be displaced”. After picketing Levandowski’s house for a while, they moved on to briefly blockade a bus full of commuting Google employees.

These protesters might be amateurish (The Examiner was unable to find any media contacts) and unreasonable, but we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand: there are a lot of substantive issues on which we can criticize Google. In particular, the protesters bring up an interesting and very difficult point when they discuss gentrification, which has been a major local controversy in the Bay Area, exacerbated by the presence of Google and other high-tech firms nearby. These local clashes in San Francisco are, I think, a microcosm of a much larger relationship between sustainability, technological change, and gentrification that I don’t think is receiving nearly the critical attention it deserves. I’m going to try and briefly outline that tension in this post.

The blockade of the Google Bus that took place a week ago was not the first protest against the cushy, wi-fi equipped buses that tech companies use to shuttle workers between their suburban campuses and downtown. Frankly, I think we should be amazed and encouraged that such a thing exists. The fact that there is a large class of middle-class workers in a major American city that have been persuaded to commute into the suburbs by bus implies that there might be some hope for a more sustainable transportation future. In that sense, it’s rather unfortunate that such a development is meeting with opposition from the left, who should be supporting more sustainable transportation.

On the other hand, however, the protesters have a point. The buses have been driven in a highly inconsiderate manner: idling at public bus stops, blocking in city buses. Obviously this has to change: no private company has any right to disrupt public transport infrastructure for its own convenience. But surely it’s possible to curb these abuses without throwing the sustainable transportation baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, the city has introduced legislation to do just that. But judging from the manifesto linked above, the grievances about the buses go far beyond traffic snarls and link up to bigger concerns about the gentrification of downtown neighbourhoods by wealthy tech employees.

The problem with this line of argument is that it ignores the fact that the present distribution of people between cities and suburbs is the product of, and dependent on, an unsustainable and unjust transportation system based around the ownership of private cars. This system, if allowed to continue, will eventually contribute to massive global environmental destruction and human suffering. Some evidence suggests that it is already doing so. While the ideal of the suburbs existed before the invention of the car, it was private cars that first allowed its large-scale realisation for the middle class. The resulting flight of the privileged away from downtowns has been a major force in the shaping of urban spaces which continued to be inhabited by underprivileged and oppressed classes that the fleeing suburbanites left behind.

Cars are therefore closely wedded to the spatial fabric of every city in the developed world; not just in terms of layout and infrastructure, but also in terms of the human makeup of both urban and communities. And here we run into a problem. Because if we reduce our dependence on cars (as we should), then that spatial fabric is going to change again. And that is going to mean that people get displaced. To put it more bluntly: If we want to wean ourselves off our current horrendously unsustainable transportation sysem, then we are going to have to accept some level of gentrification.

Please don’t mistake me for thinking this is a good thing. Gentrification sucks. I’m too privileged to really understand what it means to be pushed out by gentrification, but a little bit of reading makes it clear that it is a process which causes a great deal of suffering. While that suffering should give us pause, however, it is not sufficient reason for us to abandon the project of re-densifying our urban environments. Road transportation accounts for a full 10% of global carbon emissions, and I don’t think that the farmer in Bangladesh who faces having her land flooded by the ocean will be very sympathetic when we tell her that we wanted to reduce our contribution to climate change, but we were uncomfortable with rich people moving back into cities.

The solution to this tension, I think, lies in an explicit recognition of the disruption that will go along with a transition to more sustainable economic and technological systems. If we recognize this, then we can take action, preferably led by inner-city residents, to cushion the blow. Hopefully then we can re-densify human environments while avoiding haphazard and destructive gentrification. I can’t  offer much in the way of policy suggestions to solve this tension, as I am neither a member of a marginalized urban community nor an urban planner. Undoubtedly such people are already doing much better work on the problem than I could.

But if you look at the bigger picture, it’s important to recognize this as an example of a major trap for progressives when it comes to issues of sustainability. Transitioning to a sustainable economy will  mean massive disruptions to the social, technological, economic, and political status quo, these disruptions will inconvenience people, not all of whom will be oil magantes. It is regrettable but inevitable that some marginalized communities will be caught up in the changes that we need to make. We need to listen to these people and act on their requests, but we also can’t block a transition to sustainability on their account alone. Otherwise we risk letting local injustices take precedence over global ones.

The Feasibility of Amazon Prime Air

Amazon prime air is in the media crosshairs.

About a week ago, Amazon announced plans to begin using drones to deliver packages within thirty minutes of ordering. They have released an ad that depicts a skateboard tool ordered via smartphone being packed into a box clipped onto the bottom of an eight-rotored flying robot, and flown over picturesque countryside to its recipient. All within 30 minutes.

It’s a neat idea, but most serious news outlets are understandably skeptical about the proposal. Reactions have ranged from mockery, to sober dismissal. This Slate article sums up the latter reaction pretty well:

Today’s drones are good at gathering information. Bigger drones are better at this than smaller ones. And only large, expensive drones flown by the U.S. government, are currently any good at delivering physical objects.

If thousands of drones are to fly around delivering packages across cities, they must become orders of magnitude more reliable than they are. Otherwise some will crash every day, and Bezos will have to hire an army of people to drive around, pick up the fallen drones, deliver the packages, and refurbish the drones. To satisfy the FAA, drones makers (and would-be operators) must prove that they are able to avoid airplanes, helicopters, and one another and to handle sudden changes in the weather.

On its surface, the Slate article makes a lot of good points. Current socio-technical regimes around both commercial flight and package delivery are not conducive to flying delivery drones. PrimeAir is incommensurable with current technology, policy and regulations. There are also infrastructural concerns, as shipping warehouses are not configured to launch aircraft, and very few people have miniature helicopter landing pads on their front lawns. Drone delivery in crowded cities where most people live in apartment buildings is a whole other concern. So a lot has to change before PrimeAir is feasible, meaning that we won’t be seeing it for at least a few years to come. 

But the Slate article and others like it make the elementary mistake of failing to consider how technology, regulations, and infrastructure can change. This is a classic mistake the media makes when it encounters new technology: At the turn of the century, cars were seen by many as expensive, unsafe toys that would never have any serious role in transportation. Yet cars had become indispensable in many places by the 1960s. There’s no reason to think that delivery drones could not have the same dramatic gain in feasibility and credibility. So let’s consider the various problems to look at just how insurmountable they are:

Firstly, technology. I’ll take Slate’s word for it when they say that small UAVs have neither the reliability nor the range to be used as Amazon proposes. But do they seriously suggest that drone technology will not improve? Making a reliable flying robot that can easily steer itself around obstacles (including other flying robots), deal with inclement weather, and not break down mid-flight to send a brand new coffee grinder crashing down onto the heads of hapless pedestrians below is a simple technical problem that has a technical solution. And there are quite a lot of people working on multi-rotor drones. If Google can make a reliable self-driving car that has to operate in a highly congested highway environment then surely Amazon can make one that can fly safely in the relatively open skies.

Secondly, policy. Slate is right to point out that the FAA will not allow Amazon’s scheme at present, but this criticism has a lot of problems. Firstly and most importantly, it only considers the US! Many other countries (including China and Canada) allow drones to be used commercially. If Amazon rolls out PrimeAir in these countries and it is successful, then it would be very hard for the FAA to retain its prohibition. And why should they? I can’t imagine that Amazon’s drones would fly at altitudes that would make them a threat to any other form of commercial air traffic. So once the technology is perfected to the point that nobody is at risk of being killed by falling broken drones, there is no reason to think that Amazon can’t use its undoubtedly considerable political muscle to push through some regulatory changes.

The last consideration is infrastructure. The infrastructural problems I mentioned above will probably make drones more expensive than trucks, at least in the short term. But Amazon seems willing to invest in these kinds of risky experiments, and there will be many consumers (myself included) who will be happy to pay a premium delivery charge for the added convenience and novelty of drone delivery. This will allow Amazon to establish a small market niche to hone the PrimeAir system. In the long-run, a worldwide rollout of PrimeAir will allow Amazon to massively downsize their human workforce*, meaning that PrimeAir will be profitable in the long run. So it’s worth their while to experiment.

I know there are a lot of reasons to criticize Amazon, but I’m rooting for PrimeAir because I see major environmental potential in it. Electric drones can eliminate a great deal of the carbon emissions created by delivery vehicles. If we can use drones and the internet to replace that system with small, electric vehicles, then that’s a good thing. If drone delivery allows internet shopping to capture more of the retail market, then that means we also reduce the environmental emissions from many stores, and we make it that much easier to live a car-free lifestyle. Those are all good things.

There’s no guarantee that PrimeAir will succeed, of course. There are a lot of contingencies involved, and it’s entirely possible that the whole thing is just an elaborate publicity stunt. But there’s a broader point here about sustainability: We’re not going to get it by staying in our current technological paradigm. If we’re going to implement lasting change, we need to imagine radical alterations to our current system. Critical thought is an important part of this, but if it lapses into cynicism then we’re not going to get anything done.

*I know that this is problematic, and I’m going to address it in a future post.

Sustainability, Drop-in Innovation, and the Self-Driving Car


Most environmentalists might be more excited about the bicycle on the right, but Google’s self-driving car may well have more potential to enact real sustainability.

In transition studies we like to talk about what we call “drop-in innovations”. What this refers to, roughly, is a radical new technology that can be easily implemented without difficult modifications to existing social and technical structures. Smartphones are a good example of a drop innovation: The infrastructure and social practices associated with cell phones already existed, and so iPhone, Blackberry, and Android phones were easily accepted, allowing them to be the catalyst for some pretty major social and technical changes.

Existing infrastructure and social practices constitute a major stumbling block for many sustainable technology schemes, so the concept of drop-in innovations is very important in sustainability. If you want to use a new technology to change the way human society interacts with the natural world, then you will have an easier time accomplishing your goals if your new technology can be simply purchased off the shelf  without requiring any major changes as a prerequisite for its use.

With that in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to the self-driving car. Many will likely be skeptical of Google’s latest innovation, pointing out, for example, that we already have self-driving cars called buses. But I think this criticism misses the point. Buses are going to have a very hard time changing peoples’ travel habits because they come with a lot of social, political, financial and infrastructural baggage. The same thing goes for trains, which will require massive infrastructural investment in order to compete with cars.

The self-driving car, however, has an advantage over these other means of transportation. So long as self-driving cars are legalized (and it looks like they will be), there is nothing stopping a few pioneering travelers from buying them. These people would be able to travel with all the convenience that attracts people to cars, and they would pay no infrastructural or financial penalty for their choice.

Once self-driving cars catch on, however, there are a huge number of ways they could be made greener. They could be fitted with electric motors, for starters, but if we think beyond that, we can imagine even more exciting possibilities. Suppose, for example, that some enterprising taxi firms start running self-driving electric cars that can be called to pick up passengers using a smartphone app. Such a system would require no drivers and thus be extremely cheap to operate, and would free travelers from the hassles of parking, refueling, or maintenance. A fleet of such cars could form long trains on highways, in which they could draft off each-other and save enormous amounts of energy-something that would be highly unsafe with human drivers. They could constantly circulate, or automatically return to out-of-the-way garages, thereby freeing up a great deal of urban space otherwise used for parking.

This is all very speculative, of course. But it’s an important example of the power that a drop-in innovation can have. Radical system change is undoubtedly far more exciting than such incremental and uncertain improvements, but it’s also a lot more difficult. I’d love to see cities of the future that are criss-crossed with electric trams and cycle lanes, but there are a lot of physical, political, social, technical, and financial barriers in the way of that. The only major obstacles I can see in the way of the system of automated vehicles I have just described are driving schools and cabbies-not exactly groups who wield enormous political influence.

There seems to be a lot of optimism about the future right now. With projects such as spacex, the hyperloop, the oculus rift, and google glass, it seems like we may finally be moving towards the future that was imagined in 1990s films. Environmentalists should seize on this trend to find promising new technologies that can save the world, rather than stubbornly insisting on pre-established visions.

Techno-tales, Visions, and Sustainable Transportation

This romanticized image may be an accurate depiction of the charms of travel, but it was also created to sell plane tickets. We need to question these kinds of narratives if we’re serious about sustainability.

A few years ago, while I was working Canada Science and Technology Museum, I had a lunch-room chat with a co-worker about sustainable transportation. I argued that it is simply untenable for the personal car to remain the default means of passenger transportation. He was sympathetic to my point, but still his response was dismissive. He insisted that that would simply never happen, no matter how badly it was needed for sustainability. According to his reasoning, the majority of people could never be persuaded to part from the convenience afforded by the private automobile.

My co-worker’s argument is an excellent example of what Colin Divall (2010) calls a techno-tale. According to Divall, these are common narratives which serve to justify the adoption and continued use of certain technologies or technological systems. My co-worker was citing the techno-tale of inevitability, in which a set of technological practices is supposed to be completely unchangeable, with well-meaning engineers, policymakers and activists limited to superficial modifications to the technology and its uses. Another common techno-tale is that of progressive innovation, in which it is assumed that a major problem imposed by a particular dominant technology will be averted by some new innovation. The persistent spectre of the electric car, which is always “ten years out” is a good example of this narrative. In some cases, techno-tales can ascend to the status of techno-myths, which provide a strong sense of underlying identity to a community or individual. Various techno-myths of the automobile are prominent in a range of North-American cultures. I’m sure you can think of a few examples.

Techno-tales and techno-myths have the effect of undermining discourse aimed at systemic change. They are therefore very useful for those that have a vested interest in the dominant technological regime. If a car company is concerned that the public might stop buying cars due to concerns about sustainability or gas prices, then they can take advantage of either of the two narratives I just discussed to insulate themselves and the technological system they depend on from criticism. Divall argues that this is why historians have an important role to play in transportation policy. Techno-tales and techno-myths generally have a historical component, and by engaging with the public, historians of technology can help aid in the critical evaluation of these stories. Public history is therefore an important component for the facilitation of technological transitions.

Beyond Divall’s point, however, I think there’s another intriguing implication to hisidea of techno-tales. In an earlier post, I discussed the concept of visions in technology studies. A vision is a positive or negative narrative of the futureused by the backers of a radical niche technology in order to draw in support for it. Do a google image search for “liveable city” or “climate catastrophe” to see some good examples of the visions commonly employed to support new sustainable transportation technologies. I’m studying the role of discourse and culture in socio-technical transitions, so visions are an important concept for me, but I’ve been puzzling for some time over the opposite of a vision. If niche technologies must break through entrenched regime opposition in order to become widespread, and deploy visions as a discursive tool to help them do so, then what does the regime do in response? Techno-tales and techno-myths might provide the answer. Perhaps regime actors strategically deploy or re-deploy techno-tales through advertising, political lobbying, and other forms of promotion, when they believe they are under threat by visions of the future that would make them obsolete. Perhaps these techno-tales can evolve from the visions that were used to build support for a technological regime before it ascended to its entrenched position. The possibilities are interesting, and I’ll have to do a lot more thinking about them.

In the meantime, though, I think there is one more important implication to the idea of techno-tales. Divall concludes his article with a description of a museum exhibit he curated. This exhibit shows the development of an idea that it is desirable to travel, and shows that this idea has been intentionally created as a techno-tale to sell train and airplane tickets. It’s important to note, I think, that a version of this techno-tale has deep roots in progressive communities, who are normally very sympathetic to sustainability transitions. Travel is frequently imagined in progressive communities as a great equalizer, which can build empathy and cultural understanding with others around the world. This might be true, but we should nevertheless think critically about it. If, as Divall suggests, our discourse is full of techno-tales which encourage the continued use of dominant and potentially destructive technologies, then it falls upon us to critically examine the ways we justify our use of technologies, even if that means we can’t partake in quite so many enlightening cultural exchanges.

Further Reading

Berkhout, Frans., 2006. “Normative Expectations in Systems Innovation”. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 18: 3/4. pp. 209-211.

Divall, Colin., 2010. “Mobilizing the History of Technology”. Technology and Culture 51: 4. pp. 938-960.