There are limits to our tech-centered society

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There are limits to our tech-centered society

Adam Sieracki, Staff Columnist

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One of the interesting things about the human mind is the pace with which it adapts to different environments. One way this is done involves a process of incorporating new information into existing categories. Known in psychology as the representativeness heuristic, this pattern is an efficient, though imperfect mechanism by which we organize and make use of our surrounding reality.

One of the reasons studying history is valuable is that it expresses the realities of other people in other times, forming the basis for contextualizing one’s own thoughts. With this in mind, I find it valuable to discuss an element of history which has become a deep part of our modern environment: the automobile.

Few inventions have caused as much change in our recent history as the invention of the car. Invented hardly more than a century ago, this machine has become integral to the modern experience and the basis for sweeping changes in global industry and the human-built environment.

The impact of the automobile in our culture can hardly be demonstrated with numbers, but statistics provide a sense of the massive scale of American dependence on them. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2014 there were 816.4 cars for every thousand people in the United States. That works out to about 0.82 automobiles for every individual. This might seem like a natural, mundane feature about life in a modern market economy, but that isn’t the case. We should consider the implications of a society that blindly accepts technological progress as a positive force.

Around the world, this number stands out. According to the European Union, in 2016 the number was 469 cars for every thousand people in the UK and 468 for every thousand in all EU countries. And it’s not as if the folks in these countries aren’t able to get where they need to go; they simply use other means. Data from Statista show that 85.4 percent of Americans commuted to work via automobile, a number which, again, is higher than most developed countries around the world. As Americans, we have become heavy users of automobiles. We drive long distances, consume a lot of fossil fuels and spend a lot of our time commuting from one location to another.

Since the invention of the car in 1886, Americans have been through great changes in our physical environment. The construction of the interstate highway system after WWII fueled the growth of suburbs and the decay of many American cities. This country’s infrastructure was built around the notion that the automobile provided the security and independence desired by the middle class. In the vibrant economy that followed the war, Americans were faced with rising incomes, rising populations and rising hopes. In a country that had spent its entire history expanding into the frontier, cities sprawled out from their centers, people moved out into newly constructed communities and the automobile was at the center of it all.

History, however, would deliver a mixed review of this latest American conquest. Had the country overextended itself and forgotten how to hold its center? Had the ribbons of highways delivered Americans the dreams they desired, or did they fail to account for the long-term limits of individual satisfaction? In 2018, as we confront our lingering dependence on the automobile, many communities are still figuring out how to answer these questions.