Why Is It So Hard for Us to Change Course?

Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, two co-founders of the Center for Humane Technology, insist that they are not adamantly opposed to all new technologies. Instead, they claim, we as a society have developed (and/or submitted to) uses of new technologies that make it difficult for all of us to live meaningful lives. Why, they ask, should we assume that our initial ways to implement new tools are the only or even the best way in which these tools can be implemented? I think that’s a very good question. Why is it so hard for us to change course?

In some cases, particular technologies and larger technological infrastructure have developed to the point that it’s very difficult and/or expensive to change course. Such difficulties present challenges on the individual level and on the systemic level. Over the past century or so – at least since World War II – transportation systems and other life infrastructures in much of the United States have become extremely car-centric. Some of us are now convinced that this development was a mistake in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, and we hope that others will come to this conclusion sooner rather than later. We gave up our car four years ago when we moved downtown, and now enjoy living in a neighborhood that allows us to walk or bicycle pretty much any where we need to go. And if we want to go farther, there’s a subway system (faltering, but still usually better than nothing), bus lines (not always convenient, but usually better than nothing), and commuter rail (not always dependable but usually better than nothing). As those “usually, better than nothing” phrases indicate, there are challenges to the individual. There are times when we feel somewhat hampered in what we want to do, and even the occasional moment when we wish that we still had a car.

The challenges are worse on the systemic level – so much of our lives is complicated, not only by the heavy reliance on the automobile, but also by the assumption that everyone necessarily relies on the automobile. See the recent book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, by Henry Grabar. Or if you’re not up to that, look at almost any suburban or extra-urban neighborhood, which are set up so that getting anywhere safely requires that one get in a car.

The point here is that deciding that we need to change course requires not only somehow stepping out of the cultural framework imposed by the physical infrastructure but also finding the resources to undo so much of that infrastructure.

And that has me thinking that the financial cost of making these changes isn’t the biggest challenge we face. We also need to find ways to step outside our current structures to see the possibility that we might do things differently.

Jane Jacob’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been sitting on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve been wanting to read it for longer than that. I finally read it this year, and she helps me to see so many ways in which our neighborhood’s have been misshaped, in part (but not only) by our reliance on the automobile. Writing in the 1960s, she admitted even then that it would be costly to change, and that we wouldn’t be changing anything overnight. But she suggested some very concrete strategies that would help us if we decide to make that change. She managed somehow to step outside her little neighborhood and the surrounding community in a way that allowed her to see just how it functioned, and how it and other neighborhoods might function differently.

Much of what Jacob said is echoed in the current call for 15-minute cities. Of course, even suggesting such a thing is seen by many as radically controversial, and many will find reason to protest. And those who protest will find many others there with them. Changing course on these things is unsettling.

I, for one, think it’s long past time for us to change course here.