If automated vehicles lead to more miles driven, does this mean cars will continue to dominate American society?

A new analysis suggests drivers who have vehicles that drive themselves put more miles on the road:

In a 2020 paper, Hardman interviewed 35 people who owned Teslas with Autopilot, and he found that most thought the feature made driving less terrible. “The perception by drivers is that it takes away a large portion of the task of driving, so they feel more relaxed, less tired, less stressed,” Hardman says. “It lowers the cognitive burden of driving.”

In new research released this month, Hardman and postdoctoral researcher Debapriya Chakraborty suggest that making driving less terrible leads to a natural conclusion: more driving. Using data from a survey of 630 Tesla owners, with and without Autopilot, the researchers found that motorists with partial automation drive on average 4,888 more miles per year than similar owners without the feature. The analysis accounted for income and commute, along with the type of community the car owners live in.

Extrapolate that result to the wider population, and it may be that partially automated vehicles are already influencing how people travel, live, consume resources, and affect the climate. For governments, which have to anticipate future infrastructure demands, understanding those changes are critical. Shifting commute patterns could affect public transportation budgets and road maintenance schedules. More miles traveled means infrastructure gets more of a pounding. If electric vehicles are doing the traveling, governments still haven’t quite figured out how to charge them for it. And though electric vehicles like Teslas rely on cleaner energy than those guzzling gas, the electricity still has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is not always a renewable source. A country made up of increasingly sprawling communities, where people blithely travel hundreds of miles via autonomous or sort-of-autonomous vehicles to get to work or play, isn’t an efficient or sustainable one.

The new research suggests that partial automation could have upsides too. The bulk of the extra thousands of miles that Autopilot drivers traveled each year happened on long weekend trips, Hardman and Chakraborty found. Prior to Autopilot, those drivers might have opted to fly, which would have generated more greenhouse gas emissions. In the end, their decision to stick to the road was likely the more climate-friendly choice.

As noted here, there are a lot of possible consequences. I would add a big question asked for decades in the United States: would this continue the dominance of cars in American society? Much critique in the postwar era emerged around planning cities and suburbs around cars as opposed to around people and community needs. All the driving and the infrastructure for it helped give rise to white flight, fast food, big box stores, and even more sprawl within metropolitan regions. Efforts to limit car use have done little to reduce reliance on personal vehicles. Do self-driving cars make cars even more prevalent in American society?

Going further, would electric powered autonomous vehicles mean even more miles driven? If gasoline is out of the equation and the electricity (and car batteries) can be produced with fewer emissions, Americans might feel even more free to drive, commute, and travel.

If a major concern in society is driving itself, no matter how enjoyable it may be, new kinds of vehicles may not be welcome.

Reconsidering social media and Internet use after an online-filled COVID-19

The Internet and social media were critical tools for many during COVID-19 with uses ranging from connecting with family and friends to work to activism to going to school. As COVID-19 winds down, does this mean we should reconsider how much time we spend with these technologies? Here is one conclusion:

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

Two years ago, I was deleting and undeleting my Instagram account, begging every expert I could find to tell me exactly how to live healthily with the internet in my pocket. In 2021, to do the same would seem a little silly. Netflix’s subscriber growth may be slowing, and Tinder videochats may soon fall out of favor, but it’s hard to imagine that a Great Offlining is really in the cards. Instead, we could be heading for a Great Rebalancing, where we reconfigure how we do our work and how we organize our time on the internet. We’ve grown more aware of how we rely on one another—online as well as off—and of the tools we have or could build for responding to a crisis. The biggest tech companies’ accrual of power remains one of the most serious problems of my lifetime, but I no longer talk about the internet itself as if it were an external and malignant force, now that I’ve lived in such intimate contact with it for so long.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind about everything I’ve just said, but sometimes you just need to time-stamp the moment. Going back through my essays from 2019, I was struck by how easily I had misremembered what the cultural conversation was about back then. Jenny Odell never argued that people should go offline completely. Rather, she told me that deleting your apps or throwing your phone in the ocean would represent a failure to recognize that “we actually really need something like social media.” The desire to go online is human, and “there’s nothing wrong with that part.” We just have to keep reminding ourselves why we’re doing it.

I think it is always a good idea to ask this question about many things with which we spend this time: how important is this to me? Is my time use what I want or did I just fall into this pattern? For better or worse, sometimes it takes a drastic change or crisis to ask this question. It is one thing to use a computer for work or browse social media, another to be on Zoom for hours because you cannot be in the office or go to school. If COVID-19 offers people the opportunity to step back and think again about what they want to do with their time, that would be good.

And I would hope that many would say they do not need social media or the Internet as much as they did in the past year. There are many worthwhile things to do, ranging from movement and exercise, reading, pursuing a non-work project or hobby, playing a game, interacting with the people around you, among other options.

More broadly, it is relatively easy to slip into particular time patterns during the day that may or may not be desired. The average American watches 4+ hours of television a day; is that planned and/or desired or does it just happen? Do people take the time they want to eat or not? Is work more time-consuming that people want? If you add up all of these hours across days, weeks, months, and years, it can be shocking to see how much is spent on certain activities. If people have priorities in what they want to do in life, it should be evident in their time use.

(On the other hand, I do not think it is that useful to micromanage your time to the level some have. I recently read about someone famous who scheduled their day in five minute increments in order to make sure things got done. There is a level of attention and time needed to do this that I would not find worthwhile.)

Touring the most expensive American homes on YouTube

There is an appetite for seeing the homes of the rich and famous. See the popularity of showing these homes on YouTube:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Mr. Yilmazer, 31, isn’t a wealthy buyer, nor is he currently a real-estate agent. Rather, he is one of a handful of real-estate YouTubers, amateur video hosts and producers, who are bringing regular people, via their laptops or cellphones, inside the mansions of the megarich. With more than 820,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, Mr. Yilmazer’s videos rack up millions of views and inspire tens of thousands of comments…

In some ways, real-estate YouTubers like Mr. Yilmazer are providing today’s answer to the MTV Cribs phenomenon of the early 2000s, offering the masses a rare glimpse at how the 0.1% really live. But rather than getting a peak through the eyes of a movie star or a suave celebrity real-estate agent, like on shows such as Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” they’re seeing these houses through the eyes of a regular guy just like them…

Mr. Yilmazer said he is bringing in between $50,000 and $100,000 a month in revenue from his YouTube channel in ad revenue alone, putting him on track to bring in more than $1 million this year if the growth of his channel continues at its current pace. Those are just the revenues provided by YouTube for allowing their automated ads to stream on the channel without any effort from Mr. Yilmazer’s own small team. On top of that, he and his team can make money from dedicated sponsorships—Mr. Yilmazer will personally feature a particular company’s brand in his videos for a fee that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars—and the money real-estate agents offer him to feature their listings on his channel. He said he often won’t charge if a property is particularly spectacular and will drive viewership to his channel. If a property is less impressive, he charges a fee, which typically runs into the five figures…

Still, not everyone is sold on letting YouTubers have free rein in their properties, since some agents believe that prospective buyers would prefer that their future homes not be splashed all over the internet.

It is the Internet, expensive real estate, and making money all in one. What could more American than that in 2021?

The money angle is very interesting to consider. The owner of the big expensive home could benefit from more exposure (though the article notes that not all big home owners think the YouTube views benefits them). YouTube gets original content that plenty of viewers want and they can monetize the content through advertising. The presenter can develop a brand and bring in a good income. Does anyone lose here?

One potential downside: how Americans view homes. If people consistently see large luxurious homes on television, as sociologist Juliet Schor argues in The Overspent American, or on social media, does this ratchet up their expectations about what they should be able to acquire? The biggest homes are out of the reach of almost everyone yet some of the individual pieces or features might find their way to a more attainable range.

People using localized social media for an edge in searching for homes

Scroll through local Facebook or Nextdoor groups and there is a more common request these days: does anyone know of an upcoming listing for a 4 bedroom home in a desirable neighborhood? Or, perhaps a three bedroom townhome or house for rent at a reasonable price?

Photo by Omkar Patyane on Pexels.com

It is hard to know how many good leads are generated by such posts. They often ask for DMs. Generating more competition for such housing is probably not the goal – though landlords or sellers might be interested in drumming up more interest (also evidenced by pictures of homes soon to be on the market). The more direct interaction cuts out some of the middle actors.

Judging by the posts I have seen, the housing needs seem to be present. Even with economic instability during COVID-19, homes in desirable neighborhoods and communities have held their value or increased in value. The housing supply is limited. At least a few people have looked to move out of cities to quiet suburbs. Stories of bidding wars abound. Finding places at reasonable rents is hard.

I could imagine some broader partnerships between the socials and real estate websites. Imagine a special Zillow add-in to your Twitter feed or a Realtor.com bonus for Instagram. All of the real estate websites are competing and so are the social media platforms; which one can truly integrate real estate into their daily feeds beyond the posts of individual users? Say you are looking for a home with particulars and the social media plug-in can alert you to matches and you can get an exclusive bidding window; potential buyers could feel they get an in and realtors might like the added competition among buyers ready to spend.

All of this might matter less if there is more housing supply in the future. Yet, if real estate is truly so lucrative because there is only so much land in the first place, why wouldn’t it permeate even social media.

Love and mass transit in 2021

Combine online dating and a love for mass transit and what do you get?

Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

As a single person wandering through the world, it can be difficult to find someone who loves all the right things: parks, subways, bike lanes, human-scale buildings, high-density housing, debates over the ideal length of a city block. Even on a dating app, you can’t always tell from a profile who might be thinking, behind their smile, I hate cars.

But if this is exactly the sort of partner—or friend or fling—you’re looking for, there is a solution: Join the wildly popular Facebook meme group and leftist community NUMTOTs (“New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens,” which isn’t really just for teens) and request access to its private spin-off group, NUMTinder. With about 8,000 members living mostly in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, NUMTinder is a makeshift dating environment for those who consider liking public transportation to be a core part of their personality, or those for whom a lack of interest in urban planning is a deal breaker. Almost everyone in the group posts at least one selfie with a bike or a subway entrance, to demonstrate their commitment to the lifestyle, and when a new member introduces herself, it’s not uncommon for her to brag about the fact that she doesn’t have a driver’s license. (A second spin-off group, called NUMThots, is for sharing the spiciest seminudes that Facebook’s content moderation will allow. But transit-themed!)

The primary advantage to online dating is that it expands a person’s options beyond geography and their immediate social network to a much broader pool of people who can be filtered by particular traits. In this case, limit the pool to people who care about mass transit and those with that interest can search for partners.

While this may seem strange to the general public, is it really any different than numerous other likes people care about? Just as a comparison, plenty of people like cars or specific cars. At races, car events, clubs, and more, people with these interests could come together. Or, take people who regularly watch trains. Through different communities, these people could meet up and interact. The primary difference is that more Americans might like cars than mass transit.

A final thought: I imagine this group might be more useful in and around cities with a lot of mass transit. Of course, it could also be helpful in other places where few people even think about mass transit because it is not as present.

Does social media make your life better?

It is a simple question. It may not have an easy answer.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

As I teach undergraduate students ages 18-22, the topic of social media comes up. It may be during a class break when many go to their smartphones. It may be during conversations about social interaction or the media or technology. It may be in discussing my research in this area. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, these students would be right in the iGeneration that grew up with iPhones and smartphones. They are often immersed in social media.

In two research studies (one from 2015 looking at 18-23 year olds and one from 2020 looking at 23-28 year olds), Peter Mundey and I examined how emerging adults interacted with social media. The vast majority participated. But, they also expressed reservations ranging from privacy issues to negative interactions to new demands on their. On one hand, they enjoyed maintaining connections to people and described participation as necessary to keeping up with people. On the other hand, it would be hard to not participate at all as it is connected to multiple life domains.

My sense from this data is there is not a total endorsement of social media from emerging adults. Their responses are differentt from singing the praises of the positive benefits of social media. And when I ask my students the question in the title – “does social media make your life better?” – it can provoke some thinking.

Perhaps this is a good question for many people to ask. It could be a more domain-specific question: is social media good for our national political life? Does social media encourage spiritual growth? Does social media promote learning? Or, it might be better as a larger question: does social media improve the lives of its users? This is at least a question worth pondering and then acting in response to the answer.

Searching for well-presented weather forecasts; example of Weather Underground

Finding good and well-presented weather forecasts can be difficult. What provider supplies accurate information? Use a widget, app, or website? And who puts it together best on the screen? I have settled on Weather Underground because they present data in this format when you look at the ten day forecast:

This is a lot of information in one graphic. Here is what I think it does well:

  1. The top still provides the basic information many people might seek: conditions and high and low temperatures. A quick scan of the top quickly reveals all of this information.
  2. The amount of information available each day is helpfully shown in four sets of graphs below the header information. I do not just get a high and low temperature; I can see this over an hourly chart (no need to click on hourly information). I do not just get a notice about precipitation; I can see when rain or snow will fall. I do not just get a summary of wind speed; I can see if that wind speed is consistent, when it is rising or falling, and the direction.
  3. Connected to #2, it is easy to see patterns across days. Will that rain continue into the next day? Is the temperature spike or drop going to last? The longitudinal predictions are easy to see and I can see more details than just the summary info at the top.
  4. Also connected to #2, I can see how these four different paths of data line up with each other at the same days and times.

In sum, I think Weather Underground does a great job of showing a lot of information in an easy-to-decipher format. This may be too much information for many people, especially if you want quick information for now or the next few hours. But, if you want to think about the next few days and upcoming patterns, this one graphic offers a lot.

Bambi, technology, and avoiding death

An excerpt from Sherry Turkle’s new book recalls a conversation about how technology could help us move beyond death and attachment to people:

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

What was wrong with Bambi? Every kid sees Bambi. Marvin’s response has stayed with me for half a lifetime: “Bambi indoctrinates children to think that death matters. Someday we will conquer death by merging with computers. Such attachments—Bambi’s attachment to his mother, for example—will be unimportant. People need to learn to give that stuff up.” I knew Marvin to be a loving father and husband. But in his mind, attachment would only be an impediment to progress in a world where people and machines evolved together.

Marvin Minsky died in 2016. But I’m still fighting his idea, now more than ever part of the cultural mainstream, that it is good to have devices that can wean us from our dependency on one another. For Marvin, the burdens that come with human bonds were unnecessary and inefficient because an engineering solution was on the horizon—we are ultimately going to mate with machines or evolve into machines or become one with machines.

These ideas are seductive. Of course we want technology to bring us sharper wits and a cure for Parkinson’s. We like the idea that some kind of artificial intelligence can help monitor the safety of isolated elders. And then we are caught short. There is a red line—one I have seen so many people cross. It’s the line when you don’t want children to get attached to their mortal mothers because they should be ready to bond with their eternal robot minders. It’s the line where you take your child as your experimental subject and ignore her, registering her tears as data. It’s the line you cross when one of your classmates commits suicide by jumping out a window and you joke about the laws of physics that were at work in his descent. It’s the line you cross when you know that the car you manufacture has a design flaw and a certain kind of impact will kill its passengers. You’ll have to pay damages for their lives. What is the cost of their lives in relation to that of redesigning the car? This is the kind of thinking that treats people as things. Knowing how to criticize it is becoming more pressing as social media and artificial intelligence insert themselves into every aspect of our lives, because as they do, we are turned into commodities, data that is bought and sold on the marketplace.

At the very moment we are called to connect to the earth and be stewards of our planet, we are intensifying our connection to objects that really don’t care if humanity dies. The urgent move, I think, is in the opposite direction.

The idea of progress through technology is fairly ingrained in the American consciousness. But, is this the sort of progress people want? Death – and social interaction – comes to all people and leaning it these features in life might just lead to better lives.

At the end of this section, Turkle appeals to the environmental movement to help people back toward conversations about social interactions, empathy, and death. It would be interesting to see who from different arenas would be interested in joining a movement back toward empathy and human understanding. Numerous religious traditions? Humanities scholars? Proponents of democracy? People who own small businesses? There is a chance here to make common cause across groups that may be further apart on other polarizing issues.

Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.

Churches and a digital divide during COVID-19

COVID-19 has pushed more churches into the digital realm but there are patterns in who is operating online and in what ways:

Photo by Shelagh Murphy on Pexels.com

“The digital divide in churches reflects the digital divide in American society more generally,” says Mark Chaves, a theologian at Duke University and director of the National Congregation Study, which has surveyed religious groups in the US since 1998. Churches with less of a digital presence tend to be located in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, lower-income, and Black. Those demographic groups are also less likely to have access to broadband, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in health and economic outcomes. Those realities have factored into church outcomes too. A survey from LifeWay Research, which focuses on Christian ministries, found that white pastors were the most likely to report offerings that were higher than expected in the past year. Black pastors, by contrast, were most likely to report that the pandemic economy was impacting their churches “very negatively.” Churches often run on tight margins, and those impacts can have long-term effects: LifeWay Research found that a small percentage of churches have had to cut down on outreach, suspend Sunday School or small group programs, or lay off staff members. Black pastors were more likely to say they cut staff pay or deleted a church position…

For the faith sector, the acceleration of new technologies could lead to massive changes. Other industries, like media and retail, have been transformed as they progressively moved online; money, influence, and attention now converge in a small pool of winners, often at the expense of smaller outfits. Some believe churches might experience something similar. “You’re going to have the top 40 preachers that everyone listens to, and the regular everyday preacher is not going to be able to compete,” says William Vanderbloemen, a former pastor and founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm for churches. That’s not to say more niche markets couldn’t also emerge. “People will still show up to hear a message from a pastor who knows their specific community on a micro-contextual level. Like, here’s what happened in our zip code this week, and here’s how it relates to how we think of our God.”…

Chaves, who runs the National Congregation Study, says it’s too soon to know whether this year will have a lasting impact on worship practices, and what that impact would be. “Church attendance has been declining slowly for decades,” he says. “Will we see a shift if online participation stays ubiquitous? Or will it mean that more people are participating?” Some early research suggests that churchgoers are eager to get back to in-person services and worshipping together with their community. While smaller congregations, like First Baptist Church Reeltown, are unlikely to continue broadcasting their sermons on Facebook Live, other churches may find value in a hybrid model, where some people come into Sunday services and others watch from their computers.

One way to think about this is to consider the marketplace of American religion. Because there is no state-sponsored religion and there is the free exercise of religion, religious traditions and congregations can compete for people. In this competition, innovation and flexibility can help lead to increased market share. The Internet and social media are additional tools in this competition. Want to appeal to those using those mediums? You have to have a presence. Or, perhaps a group can seek others who eschew digital worship.

Using the Internet for church is not new. But, COVID-19 may have accelerated this market competition. Could churches compete without going online? Just as businesses suffered, how many churches might close because of COVID-19? Who can provide a compelling church service and other activities in online forms? Can you easily translate online viewership to attendance or membership measures? Could certain churches flourish in certain platforms while others utilize other options?

And what this means for religiosity in America is hard to know. In addition to church attendance figures, does this push Americans further down the path of individualistic and voluntaristic faith? Is church via Internet or social media really church in the same way without embodied action and sacred spaces?