Reclaiming our cities: on Paris Marx’s Road to Nowhere

When we talk about the influence of Silicon Valley, we often imagine how the design culture and business models influence our communities and identities in online spaces. In Paris Marx’s new book, Road to Nowhere, it becomes plain that the influence of tech industry is not confined to cyberspace, but reaches into our lived environment in insidious and powerful ways.

Road to Nowhere spends time tracing the history of the automobile and how it has shaped our urban landscape. Like fish in water, at times we can struggle to see objectively just how influential this piece of technology—or, more accurately, the industry that created it—has been in our daily lives. The ways cities are built, how people work and socialise, and where children play have all been fundamentally influenced by the dominance of the automobile.  The automotive industry, and later the tech industry, have been appeased, forgiven and encouraged to be involved in shaping our modern urban geography in pursuit of profit. These industries lack the capacity (and inclination) to focus on human flourishing, and have actively skirted accountability for design decisions. Through this book, the social structures that have shaped our lived environment are not just rendered visible, they become hard to unsee. Road to Nowhere pulls the mind of the reader towards the myriad of possibilities that come into view if we think of our world without the car.

Marx’s argument is well-worn philosophically, but it gains a new relevance in this particular iteration. ‘Technology alone cannot resolve the inequities of the existing transport system,’ he writes, ‘especially when the visions in question are constrained by the elite perspectives of the people dreaming them up.’ Relying on technological solutionism to address the decay of our urban spaces and sense of community, according to Marx, is akin to administering poison as a cure. Tech companies are not intervening in our urban environments altruistically, but rather self-interestedly, ‘to remake communities to serve their need for profit and control.’ This recalls one of Melvin Kranzberg’s less famous laws of technology: that invention is the mother of necessity. Tech bros such as the repeatedly ridiculed Elon Musk endlessly propose vanity projects and overcomplicated solutions to transportation and mobility problems, ignoring the actual needs of people and social history—let alone basic foundational work from experts in the field. Their hubris is breath-taking, and would almost be amusing were it not for the fact that the future of the planet turns on our response to these challenges.

Road to Nowhere is engaging in general, but it is particularly noteworthy for the analysis of self-driving vehicles and Uber’s pursuit of this amorphous technology. It’s easy to criticise Silicon Valley culture for failures that arise from its ideological thinking and lack of diversity (both intellectually and in terms of representation), but there is another aspect of this story that is rarely given the attention it deserves: fancy tech products, from facial recognition algorithms to autonomous Teslas, do not emerge from nowhere. They are developed and trained by real people and their material labour. Road to Nowhere takes a close look at this aspect, particularly the job of drivers recruited by Uber to train the technology for self-driving cars. When a pedestrian was killed by one such vehicle, Uber was quick to blame the driver who was supposed to be training the tech, and Marx spends a decent amount of time diving into what went wrong. It’s telling how quickly the basic facts were obscured by the company, including in the public narrative.

There is a growing body of work that looks at the material conditions of technology development, and this book is a welcome addition. Plenty of tech criticism engages with the philosophical and intellectual quandaries posed by the digital age, but too few thinkers explore about these questions with a materialist lens. Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI and Sarah T Roberts’ analysis of content moderation performed by workers in the global South are some examples. It’s critical work, because without it, it is too easy to assume that the tech industry is powered by well-paid coders and engineers. The reality is that material inputs, including human labour, remain stubbornly essential to the task of building new tech. Acknowledging this reality brings worker exploitation into the frame, as well as organisational potential.

Things move so fast and break so quickly it can be hard to remember all the excesses of the tech industry: micro-mobility companies come and go, billions are spent and lost, and does anyone remember Uber Air? Road to Nowhere is a useful compendium not just of the follies of Silicon Valley in respect of transportation, but also the price we pay when these costs are socialised. There are ways to arrest this trend, including through the work of government but also at the grassroots. Marx references the ‘organised public’ that is working to address this, from transit advocates, to climate activists and resident community organisations. The task now is to tell more of these stories about how this can be and is being done.


Image: Denys Nevozhai

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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