_MG_4504, US-101 North of Google


In the film Repo Man, Tracy Walter's character opines: "The more you drive, the less intelligent you are," a line I've glibly repeated ever since hearing it.

That line has always felt true, and the central kernel of it is this: intelligence doesn't really enter into it. No matter how intelligent, no matter how fit, no matter how wealthy, no matter how experienced, no matter how good you could be, you simply won't be. Michael Schumacher has essentially no advantage whatsoever in commuting when compared, say, to a semi-paralysed 87-year-old illiterate who forgot to bring her glasses. A $400K Mercedes has no operational advantage over a rattling secondhand Kia in over in 95% of real traffic. They will all arrive at the same time: late.

Short of hiring a driver (or a helicopter pilot), there's little to be done about it. At least one can try to use the time that highway commuting wastes, as I do with podcasted lectures and the like, but you need to do it at the expense of both reduced safety (attention distracted by learning) and reduced learning (attention distracted by a non-signaling white pickup suddenly veering left through the three lanes in front of you). No wonder idiots like Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk can dominate radio: their listeners are strapped and buckled into their chairs, and intelligent consideration is a freeway hazard. It's a motorized version of the Ludovico technique.

Year after year Moore's Law accelerates the information superhighway by a sizable margin; year after year we have quicker computers and related circuits to drive our businesses and media, yet every year the nearly-straight slice of Highway 101 between the offices of Intel and Oracle gets slower, more choked, more dangerous. It's astounding to think how many people willingly burn an hour or two of every day having to deal with mortal terror -- not in an abstract way, but dealing with traffic jams and seeing the ambulances on a regular basis.

It's a perpetual puzzle to me. Cars kill us on the street, they choke us, isolate us, they cloak the planet in hot carbon, drown our cities, and yet we still obsess over them. News reports on global warming run side-by-side with "most popular story" links on "top cars of 2009." The rack of car magazines at Borders is even larger than that for fashion rags.

Repo Man was right -- and worse, the more each of us drives, the less intelligent we all are, collectively. In simple economic terms this is a gigantic drag on the social and financial state of the world. Why, exactly, are so people many willing to toss themselves into debt for the latest hulking SUV, and governments & industry so timid about even suggesting alternatives?

March 19, 2009



The Open Conspiracy


Comments on "_MG_4504, US-101 North of Google"

March 24, 2009 12:38 AM

You conflate two separate issues: car as transportation and conspicuous consumption. I feel your position is absurd on the first point: the more I drive, the more intelligent I am.

I have driven through 20 or 30 states in the last three years, making photographs and breathing the air far away from metropolitan areas in in a way that would be impossible with any other form of transportation. It has given me a deeper appreciation of this country and provided an amazing amount of time to reflect on it. Travel by plane or train is like watching a video on fast-forward, horribly impoverished at best. Only travel by car offers such intense freedom.

That said, when I visited by San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I flew and did not use a car at all other than taking a taxi from airport. The trip pales in experiential content to the trip I did last summer, driving from Minneapolis to Seattle and then down to Los Angeles, including a stretch of 101. I took my time, staying where I wanted as long as I wanted, spending six weeks before returning to the Twin Cities. Commuting around town is by definition mostly mindless and an excellent argument for mass transit alternatives. The open road, the source of most of the "car lust" you describe, is another matter entirely.

I did all this driving in a small Mazda 3, not a Hummer. I don't feel irresponsible or stupid in the least. I feel enriched. I'm sorry you don't get it.

Kevin Bjorke
March 28, 2009 02:28 PM

Open-road driving is far from typical. Last weekend I drove my Mini from SF to Tahoe & back -- ten hours of blizzard mountain driving. I've driven coast-to-coast multiple times and taken the "no road more than two lanes" routes to do it.

For 99% of all driving, this is a completely different experience.


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