by Lukas Kubina (MVMENT)
“I believe in horses. The automobile is just a temporary phenomenon” infamously said Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1900. Things turned out quite differently. The car has shaped over a century and had become the symbol of progress. The standard factory model passenger car has empowered the adult individual to participate in the age of acceleration. Is it time to switch horses again?
Rolling up the windows in a drive-in cinema to smoke a hot-box spliff, cruising to a solitary parking lot with your partner or producing the perfect mix-tape for a road-trip, these examples might be trivial but their inscribed relevance had been vast: the car was the symbol of great freedom, rebellion, identification and personal submission of distance. The aforementioned cultural techniques seem to be threatened with extinction. In dense areas, Western teenagers already prefer their parents credit card details for the Uber account over of a driving license and a car. Overall, millennials don’t seem to be interested in owning their own motorized status symbol. In the West, the automotive emotionality is cooling down and paradigms are shifting. Access beats ownership.
„Respirable dust, traffic jams, parking, noise pollution and hardly any space for pedestrians and cyclists: the consequences of mass motorisation are omnipresent. The car-centric city is a long-time outrun leitmotif of the 60ies and 70ies, but we are suffering the results of its realisation more than ever. (Weert & Knie, 2017).“ Car-friendly policies have subjugated the urban space and reduced its habitation quality. Darwinism is dominating the metropolitan reality. Pedestrian are marginalised on pavements. Cyclists risk their lives. Motorists are using public streets for private purposes. They are noisy predators who claim space. As if it was a natural law. It’s a weird natural law. While urbanisation is driving the skyrocketing real estate market and social tensions are growing, the average car sits around 94 per cent of the time. Pricy panel sheets on precious public property.
Will we look back with horror at these dark times? Back then, when humans surrendered to the car in the urban habitat? When they suicidally drove themselves? When they frequently lost their temper in congestion and sympathised with Michael Douglas in Falling Down? Accident statistics speak for themselves. An optimistic attitude towards artificial intelligence even more so. Self-driving cars are ready to roll from the assembly line. The promise that a further level of mechanisation will free us from the machines sounds counter-intuitive at first. However, if you analyse automatization in terms of ethics, public space and lost time, deeply humanising effects and utopian hope can be detected.
“Reality is an AIDS-riddled whore.” Roberto Bolaño
Traffic regulations à la social contract
Artificial Intelligence can extinct epidemic plagues and win chess games. But what happens, when machines take ethically complicated decisions? Who should determine the value system of AI software, define and code the moral standards? The MIT Media Lab and Berkman Center have launched an initiative to explore these implications with the means of the “wagon-problem” model. The driverless variation says that a programmer decides how the autonomous car should behave in uncontrolled situations in various specifications. Should it run over five pedestrians? Or turn around the steering wheel and kill only one motorist? Or even its own passenger? The game-theoretic model extrapolates a moral question of principle: Do we harm one person on purpose in order to minimise gross damage? The utilitarian principle would indicate, that the vehicle should minimise damage. Always. But who would buy a vehicle that would kill its own passengers under certain circumstances?
“If we reason that we want happiness for others, not for ourselves, then we ought justly to be suspected of failing to recognize human nature for what it is and of wishing to turn men into machines.” ― Wilhelm von Humboldt
The individual is reluctant to sacrifice itself for the good of the social contract. The results of the moral machine document that. But what if you would configure software to treat all human beings radically equal and to solve the moral hazard problem? For instance, software that would put us behind John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance. In this fictional situation, the individual votes for a future social order without knowing his position in it. In this theoretical framing, people maximise the minimum to be on the safe side. Ignorance impedes someone to leave an edge on the common good. If traffic regulations would be designed analogue, you end up coding an altruistic utopia.
Recommendations by the German Ethical Commission (June, 2017) show how difficult the road will be (June, 2017): “In inevitable accident situations, the qualification of personal traits (age, gender, physical or mental health), is strictly prohibited. A set-off of victims is prohibited.” Until deus steps out of the machina, there will be a quite a few fiery discussions taking place. In the meanwhile, one can get all thrilled about one foreseeable side-effect however: the vehicular homicide, a fashionable terror concept since Nizza, will only be possible, if these barbarian cretins knew how to hack the software. If that happens, shit gets real dark.
The public sphere
If we neither own cars nor drive them, what consequences will this have for our mobility? Our relationship to space? And our interaction in space? The industry parleys about the third space. The sketch of a well-known representative talks volumes. Basically, you will sleep and work in the car. The third space absorbs first (home) and second (work). No more lousy business hotels, no more flight mode. A Berlin friend showed it to us during the Munich Oktoberfest.
Since he couldn’t find his hotel anymore, he surrendered and booked a shared car in which he spent the night. Once he woke up, he knew how to navigate again and drove back to his hotel. Probably illegal on various levels. But that’s not the point. Soon, cars will drive us around the block to send us to sleep. Like in a stroller.
"I couldn’t sleep unless I was in a moving car, so my mom had to drive me around. All my memories of my mother are in motion, in her 60s Mustang driving through Beach Cities in California." Doug Aitken
Besides construction, traffic is the main cause for noise pollution. Heart attack fatally. As soon as a truck delivers stage design elements for Volkstheater, the motorist in front of my window honks frenetically. Personally, I can’t wait to see these schmocks disappear and wind up disabled in traffic. Connected, autonomous car will swarm through the cities intelligently instead of clogging them. The last acoustic signals will be precisely tailored to the demand – weather, situation, time, surrounding, acoustic landscape, direction, etc. – and infused into a new symphony of the city. The same car will emit a different sound at busy 4pm in Rom than at a quiet 2am in Berlin Spandau. Sonic Movement, a research project and art installation, which suggested to seize the opportunity and to discontinue the wacky science-fiction sounds or the noise of fuel engines imitated by electric cars, will hopefully turn real.
"This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are" Plato
Nothing has changed the city as much as the car. In this tradition, that’s exactly what could happen again. The urban landscape could be reconquered by the human beings who have become the wild animals in a mechanized world. Psychopaths will no longer control horse power, parking lots will turn into outside terraces, parking garages will be inhabited by residents and the street lighting will finally be oriented towards the poetic idea, that we, the people, can watch the stars at night again.
“When I was done traveling, I returned convinced of one thing: we're nothing.” Roberto Bolaño
A new flaneur
What does the automated world mean anthropologically? Unemployed lawyers and tax counsellors? Sure. But what does it mean for the human mankind? In the most bizarre way, machines could liberate us from the idea of striving to be like and imitating them? Does automatization bear the opportunity for a deep re-humanization?
Since the dawn of the digital era, no human soul is getting lost. Motorist drift on Sunday drives at the most. The governesses of modernism admonish to do not waste time. This single-mindedness is blind to the psycho-geographical outlines of the city, the permanent currents and fixed-points, that radiate strong incentives, to enter some zones and others not (Guy Debord).
"All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts, bearing all the prestige of their legends." Gilles Ivain
Our world is in a permanent state of great nervousness. Autonomous mobility could help to perceive the instant moments in between again. It’s simple. Who doesn’t have to focus on the road, is a passenger, he can gaze out of the windows and suck in the street-life in all facets. He is released from the modernist thought to actively conquer distance. Instead, the route can seduce him with all its pleasures. Transit turns into an information sphere. The driver can move his vision through the front shield from traffic and shift it towards the 360 degrees panorama of a world in motion. An iconic turn. My colleague Fernando Ocaña has been in the passenger seat for several weeks to capture moments in Mexico City street-life for the MVMENT installation at Villa Stuck, August 4th, 2017. In this floating position, there’s so much more to the picture that usually meets the eye.
If the city was a theatre, the self-driving car was the loge. If the city was a living museum, the self-driving car was the museum guide. And the stereo-system the audio-guide. Imagine a ride through Manhattan, listening to an adapted composition by Philip Glass, or a ride through Mexico City while the stereo is reading out lyrics by Roberto Bolaño or Octavia Paz, depending on your preferences. We are more available, stressed and accelerated than ever. Paradoxically it is (autonomous) mobility that permits to combine the pursuit of goals with time. Time which is used for stimulation, reflection and drifting. The wanderer can “travel like the balloons” (Baudelaire), observe and rediscover the urban life. The new flaneur sees the lights of the city.
MVMENT is a collective of artists and creatives that explore the impact of transportation on individuals, societies, their cultural expressions and vice versa. In alliance with their video performance at Villa Stuck (August 4th, 8 pm CET), this article coexists as an exhibition catalogue, too, presenting a few thoughts and findings that they have encountered in the cultural ripples of mobility in general - and their work in Mexico City in particular.