Enough with the autonomous crap

Issue 138

Hey urbanists,

I know I started a new podcast last month, but I have more news this week: I started another weekly newsletter called Horizons with Passage, a Canadian left-wing publication, that will be imagining better futures that serve workers instead of billionaires. You can sign up and read the first issue on getting a better post-pandemic deal for workers, which is a starting point before broadening out to more radical visions.

Back to this newsletter, I unleashed my anger over the autonomous distractions that tech publications continue to uncritically present as a realistic addition to our streets, and some other great reads below it.

I hope you’re doing well!

Paris Marx

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I can’t tell you how fed up I am with hearing about all the autonomous crap that tech companies want to fill our streets and sidewalks with, even as the evidence this stuff never actually works out as they claim continues to grow.

This week, Uber announced it was laying off another 3,000 people and closing 45 offices around the world. As part of the announcement, it ditched its plans for self-driving scooters (which anyone in their right minds could always see was never going anywhere) and closed the office in San Francsico housing its self-driving vehicles team. It hasn’t officially said the autonomous project is canceled, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go now that it’s no longer needed to maintain the narrative of future tech bullshit that justified its pre-IPO valuation.

However, that hasn’t stopped some tech writers from continuing to uncritically (and I would argue unethically) push the autonomous narrative.

A new survey out this week showed three quarters of Americans think AVs are “not ready for primetime,” while nearly half say they wouldn’t get in one. Instead of considering why that might be, the Verge repeated the industry group’s claim that the opposition “is rooted in ignorance.”

The next day, they basically published a reworded press release from a “venture” showing off the first “remote-controlled” e-scooter, never veering from the companies’ narrative. This is a business whose model that is already failing, but now we’re expected to believe a future where their disposable product has even more tech attached and higher labor costs for teleoperators is realistic? Give me a break.

Then I got into small Twitter feud with Timothy B. Lee, a writer at Ars Technica, about those stupid sidewalk delivery robots. He used one, waited 90 minutes for his order to be delivered, acknowledged “this generation of the technology is only going to be viable in fairly high-density areas,” but refused to accept they were yet another bullshit tech solution that could be more easily solved with e-bike couriers in the limited areas where robot delivery would make sense distance-wise. He kept arguing that scale would bring down cost, while refusing to recognize that the very same scale will mean crowded, inaccessible sidewalks, which people will not accept — the same way they hated dockless scooters intruding on sidewalks.

Let me be very clear: all this autonomous bullshit is pure distraction. At best, it’s years away from a workable, large-scale implementation; at worst, it’s delaying the actions we could be taking today to fix the problems technologists claim their “solutions” will solve.

Forget autonomous cars; invest in better transit, cycling infrastructure, and creating complete communities. Forget dockless, autonomous scooters; subsidize people to buy their own scooters and e-bikes — and they can damn well navigate themselves. Forget robot deliveries; pay delivery drivers a living wage, give them e-bikes, and create a publicly owned and democratically controlled delivery app.

Critical urbanism

Car use decreases in US cities with bikeshare systems. Another US real estate crash could be on the horizon. How the ‘entrepreneurial city’ privileged wealth and the aesthetics of white transplants. An urban-planning system formed the basis of South Korea’s virus-tracking efforts. Can we learn from the People’s Houses and Parks of early twentieth-century Sweden?

Tech dystopia

Food delivery makes no sense, as pizza company was able to buy its own $24 pizza for $16 and pocket the profits. Facebook was fined $9 million in Canada over “false or misleading representations” about users’ privacy. India is using the pandemic and its COVID-19 health app to further crack down on Muslims. Amazon delivery driver fired for asking about COVID-19.

Tech Won’t Save Us: You’ll really like my chat with law professor Veena Dubal if you hate Uber as much as I do. She talks about the harms caused by misclassification, particularly during the pandemic, and why the organizing by gig workers is so inspiring. I also talked to “Lurking” author Joanne McNeil about how our experience online has changed from 1990 to today, and how the pandemic might change it again.

Climate crisis

Global daily emissions dropped 17% at the peak of lockdown, while annual emissions will drop between 4% to 7%. Spain unveiled a new climate plan that seems good on stopping fossil fuel projects, but not good enough on phasing out fossil-fuel powered transportation. US national parks are seeing unprecedented wildlife activity without cars or humans getting in the way. Maximum snowfall in non-alpine areas of North America has been decreasing by 46 billion tonnes per decade since 1980.

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