End of the road for driving?

There has just been a dramatic drop in the number of young people with driving licences, largely due to Covid. But could this be a good thing in terms of climate change?

Cognitive Surplus
Clay Shirky’s incisive book Cognitive Surplus showed that, despite great progress in the 20thC, most children and adults were staring at a TV for most of their lives - 20 hours a week, totalling one trillion hours per annum. This 50-year aberration made us less happy, pushing us more towards material satisfaction than social satisfaction. Year on year we spent more time in this “vast wasteland” in this unbalanced medium of passive consumption, that immobilizes even moderately attentive users, freezing them on chairs and couches”. It became a medium of ‘social surrogacy’ replacing time spent with family and friends with imaginary friends.

Cognitive effort
Shirky then posed a fascinating question. What if even some of that cognitive effort and time were put to better use? Shirky’s cardinal argument is that this passive ‘cognitive surplus’, squandered on passive consumption, could be bountiful. For example, one year of US TV watching is the equivalent of 2000 Wikipedias. In practice, the internet has allowed us to ‘make and share’, with sharing being the driver. We produce rather than just consume and, I’m with Shirky when he says that “the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act”. It’s Shirky’s belief that “It’s in our nature to interact – we enjoy it.”Being part of the web is being part of a global network and the numbers matter. More is better as we can harness this global cognitive surplus to create a new future that is less passive. It is a matter not of using it up but using it constructively through broad experimentation. He compares the web with the print and telephone revolution, in that it results not in a monoculture but increased and unpredictable forms of communication arguing for “as much chaos as we can stand".

TV is dying
Shirky has been right, TV among the young has been falling year on year for the last ten years, as they drift towards the highly participatory culture of the web, through second screens, social media, games, streamed media and smartphones. This cultural shift is well underway and irreversible. They have abandoned passive watching for reading, writing, photography, video and sharing in social environments. But there’s another 21st C phenomenon that. like TV, gets us to stare at it for hours on end – the road.

Car deaths
Around 33,000 people will die this year in car accidents, in the US alone. In India
it’s an astonishing 290,000 and China tops the league with nearly 300,000 deaths per annum. The total is approaching 1.5 million deaths a year. Stopping this carnage is reason enough for self-driving cars. But that is not my target. My target is time.

The average American will drive a car for 4.3 years. In that time, they cover enough distance to go to the moon and back 3 times. The self driving car, at first hybrids that allow you to do other things while on the motorway or predictable journeys, will free up tons of cognitive time for commuters and people who spend many long hours on the road. This will evolve within the 20th C into truly autonomous cars that drive themselves. Every major car company in the world knows that this is coming and models, such as the Tesla and Nissan Leaf are commercially available. Google and other tech companies are also providing the AI, especially machine intelligence, to make this happen.

Young people not driving
Isn’t it interesting that, according to the University of Michigan, the number of US 17 year olds with a driving licence fell from 69% in 1983 to 50% in 2011. In the UK the numbers of young people applying for licences 17-24 has been falling steadily since 2009, from 788,246 in 2007 to 628,243 in 2014. Among the several explanations for this, is the rise of the internet. The explosion of communication has lessened the need for physical contact. Indeed, driving prevents you from being in the flow, as you can’t be online (legally) when you drive. Young people also choose to spend their money on small, electronic shiny devices, like smartphones, rather than large, hugely expensive, shiny, mechanical cars, which they may see as environmentally unsound. On top of this costs have soared, especially for fuel and insanely priced insurance.

This caught my attention, as I’ve never driven a car in my life and never will. Don’t get me wrong it’s been more happenstance than moral stance. I’m not on some moral high horse here, just never got round to it, as I was too busy doing other stuff. I never really saw the point of staring at a road for hours on end, when I could be doing things I really wanted to do. Besides, I’ve largely lived in cities, like Edinburgh, London and Brighton, where cars are almost redundant.

I’ve never really been stuck, in terms of getting anywhere, with just two exceptions; when I was a student on an isolated campus University in New Hampshire, in the US, and when I worked in Los Angeles. Other than that, my familiarity with and love of public transport, has got me to some pretty obscure places around the world.

Mobile learner
I’m a mobile learner. In fact, I’d say that of all the learning experiences in my life, m-learning has been the most productive. How so? Learning is a habit and I’ve habitually learnt on the move, largely in what Marc Auge calls ‘non-places’ – trains, planes, automobiles, buses, hotels, airports, stations; non-spaces, in transit to somewhere else. I’m never without a book, magazine, mobile device and most importantly, laptop for learning. M-learning has become my dominant form of informal learning.

Learning time
By luck this has literally given me years of time to read and learn in the isolated and comfortable surroundings of buses, trains and planes. I actually look forward to travel, as I know I’ll be able to read and think, even write in peace. Being locked away, uninterrupted in a comfortable environment is exactly what I need in terms of attention and reflection. I calculate that over the last 40 years of not driving, I’ve given myself about 20 days a year study time, totaling 800 days, so I’ve had well over two years of continuous learning.

If you redefine m-learning, as learning on the move, and get away from the idea that it’s just content delivered via mobiles, it becomes an important part of the learning landscape. The death of the car may allow us to lead more productive lives, freeing us from the slavery of staring at a road for years, while turning a wheel. I get the idea that driving is a pleasure in itself but I’d like people to have the choice. 

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