Between 1978-1995 in America, a terrorist known as the Unabomber - whose name, coined by the FBI, derived from his first sets of targets (Universities and Airlines Bomber) - would post explosives to seemingly unconnected locales. When the victims opened the package, the explosives would detonate. Expertly crafted, they left no traces of evidence, and the disparate targets led the FBI to conclude they were most likely random. At best, they mustered up some narrative that he was a disgruntled former airline mechanic, using the tools of the trade to get back at the employer that abandoned him. Soon, though, the new recruit profiler James R. FItzgerald pushed a different interpretation: the targets did in fact share a commonality - institutions working at the pinnacle of machinery and scientific development - from which he inferred the bombings symbolic purpose. And soon after this rough profile, in 1995, the Unabomber posted his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future, to the Washington Post and the New York Times, demanding that it be published lest he continue his attacks.

Ted Kacyinski, as the Unabomber was soon revealed to be, believed that the advance of modernity coincided with a shrivelling of individual liberty. Kacynzinski was no doubt a madman: he did not care who his bombings killed, and his writings expressed narcisstic scorn for the everyday person. He was a deeply intelligent, but deeply scarred individual, harbouring a hatred borne of trauma, loneliness, and anomie. This being said, he was also, in some way, correct. This critique of technology would not be that out of place in the writings of Frankfurt School theorists like Herbert Marcuse, whose One-Dimensional Man (1964) became the unofficial bible for much of the New Left, drawn to its thesis of the way a ‘totally administered society’ has extinguished autonomy, dulled our critical faculties, and fully incorporated our desires through mass culture. This also being said, Kacynski was coming at this issue from a quite reactionary place: unlike Marcuse, whose Hegelian-Marxist inheritance led him to hold out hope for an emancipatory society in which technology was subordinate to human needs, an emancipatory society that was in some sense already possible given the vast increases in productivity achieved, Kacynski wanted to scrap it all and return to some apparent anarcho-primitivist utopia. The problem herein was not capitalist society and a particular form of social domination, but society itself. Despite this, parts of his argument do have merit. And there is one specific part of Kacynski’s manifesto that I wish to focus on here, one about cars.

Cars, he argued, began as augmentations of our freedom; they allowed us to travel great distances, with great speed, expanding our capacities for mobility. But in due course, they have turned on us: now one can’t go anywhere without encountering cars, their infrastructure has choked cities of any spontaneity or walkability, and their exhaust fumes kill hundreds of thousands yearly. Once the paragon of technological advancement, they have revealed themselves to be clunky, dirty, inefficient. In the UK, transport is the ‘largest sectoral source of carbon’; in London, their average speed is 7 miles an hour; and, in a remarkable fact that seems to hold throughout the world, ‘privately owned cars are in use for just 4% of the time, spending the other 96% of their time parked’ [1]. This is not to mention their effect on the built environment. Cities, rather than being designed around quality of life, are designed around vehicles. Of course, this arrangement doesn’t even seem to work for the cars either - congestion always seems to reappear, taking up all the space given to it, halting movement to a slow trickle - but it denies us spaces of sociality and experimentation, clean air and collectivity. Nonetheless, to challenge the tyranny of cars seems impossible: an essential feature of modern life, they are too deeply inscribed into our ways of living to dislodge.

Marxists might call this phenomena ‘reification’: technologies which ultimately come from us, depend on us, turn over and against us, their real material infrastructures exerting a force that undercuts human agency. Kacyniski’s solution would be a total regression: cars - and all the other assemblages which define modernity - would be abolished; primitive agriculture and hunter-gathering would return. 

But this is no solution. It is, apart from anything else, a recipe for genocidal human destruction (how might we shrink civilization so rapidly otherwise?). The alternative lies loosely in Marcuse’s path, where we subordinate technology to our ends, rather than the other way around. Something like this is visible in Barcelona’s ‘Superblock’ model: the cities grid layout enables municipal planners, in conjunction with locals through a participatory process, to divert traffic around the outside of a Superblock, comprised of four smaller ones, converting the streets within into ‘community spaces’ for greenery, games, dinner parties and other public functions determined by the neighbourhood [2]. Having visited Barcelona, I can attest to the sense of joy these little reclamations generate: just having beautifully designed multi-purpose public spaces - where no money has to change hands to get access, and no vehicles pollute the air next to you - is a far cry from the privatised garden squares that fragment public life in Britain. Traffic has dropped significantly; quality of life has increased; and the project continues to expand. It demonstrates how innovative, democratic, public thinking can carve out alternative modernities, one’s freed from dominance by exchange and their technological sedimentations. 

This link between cars and capitalism is important. They are a privatisation of our transport system par excellence, siloising us, reinforcing a sense of individualism and consumerism. In conjunction with suburban sprawl and the death of the great modernist public housing estates, they reconfigure public space as one of atomisation. Moreover, their infrastructure comes at significant ecological cost. As aforementioned, they suck up a significant portion of our remaining carbon budget. But this cannot be solved by merely an electrification of the existing fleet. The energy cost of producing that many individual vehicles, not to mention the vast amounts of mineral extraction necessary, would deplete resources rapidly [3]. If we are serious about meeting decarbonisation targets, then we must embrace the chance to restructure local and national transport systems toward socio-ecological ends. 

Decommodified - that is, not for profit - and electrified trains, trams, and buses can seize back material infrastructure from the private sector and ensure the working classes don’t need to be ripped off to get to their jobs; a publicly owned fleet of electric vehicles can substitute for those times when cars are more practical, a far more efficient alternative than letting them gather dust in driveways; and e-bikes and e-scooters can jet alongside their more traditional forms in cycle highways and newly pedestrianised areas. This type of universal, multimodal, publicly-owned, socially, and environmentally beneficial transport system is the future, a use of technological that truly aligns with our collective interests; cars, just like the oil on which they were based, should be left in the 20th century. 

[1] L. Murray, ‘Away with All Cars (Redux)’, CommonWealth (2019), accessed: https://www.common-wealth.co.uk/reports/away-with-all-cars-redux

[2] eds. A. Fitz et al., Critical Care: Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet, MIT Press (2019), p.177

[3] see O.Balch, ‘The Curse of ‘White Oil’: Electric Vehicles Dirty Secret’, The Guardian (2020)

1 comment

  • Thanks for bringing democratic socialist ideals to the fore. I’ve been waiting too long for these obvious intelligent approaches to be taken up, but yet, we wait and capitalism seems to hold so much power. I think projects like public future, with the support of social media giants of parkour like Storror may hold the keys to the revolution we need. The reach and popularity may increase awareness and decrease apathy. One can only hope and continue to act according to one’s beliefs.

    Thanks again to Trey for his contribution and to Drew and Jas for their clever film. What a great find this site is. From parkour to political parkour. Reclaim public space. It’s a great fight.


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