4 min read

Building the world around tools

What does it mean to design our world around cars? What does it mean to design our world around computers?

As cars have slipped into the mundane the culture around them has fractured in two: car enthusiasts, and people just trying to get through their day.

Enthusiasts see cars as more than tools. Engine sound isn’t a necessary byproduct of combustion, but a sound to be celebrated and preserved. Chassis design isn’t a step towards maximizing market value or aerodynamics, but its own art.

Regular people are just trying to get to work. They’re trying to make sure they can carry their mountain bike, or fit their kids’ soccer team inside. They’re trying to avoid being consumed by dread as they sit in traffic on their daily commute.

The lines between these two groups were blurrier in the past, and they’ve drifted further and further apart over the last 60 years.

I used to live near Owen Parkway in Madison. It’s technically a park, but more accurately it’s a “pleasure drive”. Pleasure drives were paths originally used for pleasurable rides on horse drawn carriages. As car culture emerged to replace horse-drawn carriages, they morphed into pleasurable roads to drive cars on.

Nowadays, the park is beautiful, but feels slightly out of place. The beautiful winding road remains, but there are no sidewalks. There are somewhat unkempt walking paths going along the road, but the prime real estate is granted to cars.

Though not originally conceived around cars, the park nevertheless adopts a stance of being built around the car. The only description of the park in local paper’s article about its 100th anniversary is as a “make-out spot” rather than noting anything about the park's beauty or value.

The idea of going for a nice drive through a park seems, just, weird, in 2023. Cars are mostly for work, and the concept of spending more time in them has become more and more onerous over the years.

Drive-in movie theaters are another relic of the growing rift between enthusiasts and everyone else. In an era of broad car enthusiasm, of course you’d want to watch a movie in your car! Now the prospect of spending more time in your metal commute box is more obviously unpalatable. Drive-in theaters eke out an existence as a sort of “isn’t this wacky” sideshow in vacation towns now.

Vacationing itself used to have a built-in element of driving. Motels sprang up around the country to accommodate vacationers centering their vacation around a driven trip. Now they’ve become a byword for “if we must” level accommodations. Driving used to be part of the vacation—now we want a vacation from driving.

Being an anti-car urbanist is an unoriginal position to hold on the internet, and to be clear I’m not anti-car. But looking at the way the world over-corrected to being built around cars perhaps offers some insight into how we may be building around computers too much.

What does it mean for the world to be built around computers? What are the computer versions of the noise, traffic, danger, and tedium presented by cars?

Is it placing frictionless digital interactions above all else? Perhaps the unintended fruit of that virtue is a $42 billion bank run over 24 hours. Maybe there’s some value in requiring people to physically stand outside a bank to withdraw all their funds.

Is it attempting to solve every problem by throwing more information at it? An ocean of data is wonderful, but also enables connecting unconnected dots with the air cover of justification and “rationality” leading to an explosion of conspiratorial thinking and distrust.

Is it remote work? The ability to work from anywhere leading to flexibility at the cost of degrading social connection. The elevation of experienced workers unintentionally pulling up the ladder on young workers who don’t yet have the skills to work at a greater distance from their peers.

Or is it treating the digital as a worthwhile destination in and of itself, as we once did with cars? See the VR industry attempting to build a digital space that we’d prefer to the real world.

A lot of the items listed above are things I hold dear. I love when computers enable things to be done more efficiently—as a software developer my career is centered around it. I love remote work—it’s been my every day for the last 6 years. But I’m also a computer enthusiast, and it’s hard not to feel that my experience with computers is slowly drifting from that of non-enthusiasts, the same way car culture has drifted from the mainstream the last 60 years.

This post on the Madison subreddit shows the original 1955 highway plan for Madison.

Most of these did not get built, and that’s a good thing.

When we’re driving we all want to get where we’re going faster. But at some point you have to ask “what destination are we getting faster to?” If the highways outlined in this map got built, yes we’d be able to get around faster, but there’d be vastly fewer places we’d want to actually go.

And I think it’s worth asking these same questions with computers. We can amp up the information, the speed, the lack of friction. But those are all means to an end. At their logical conclusion life will be a slick frictionless tube of birth zipping towards death.

Because at the end of the day it’s hard to not get wrapped up in the allure of efficiency, speed, and data. They give us so much material wealth, just as cars did at the start of the 20th century. But over time the gap between enthusiasts and everyone else will grow. And for everyone else the question will remain: where are we rushing to? And will we have anywhere left to go that’s worth going to.