Marc [Thiele] emailed me a few weeks ago to ask if I thought my talk would be appropriate to close the conference.
"Marc," I told him, "my talk is perfect for closing the conference! The first half is this incredibly dark rant about how the Internet is alienating and inhuman, how it's turning us all into
“But in the second half, I'll turn it around and present my vision of an alternative future. I'll get the audience fired up like a proper American motivational speaker. After the big finish, we'll burst out of the conference hall into the streets of
, hoist the black flag, and
change the world
Marc said that sounded fine.
As I was preparing this talk, however, I found it getting longer and longer. In the interests of time, I'm afraid I'm only going to be able to present the first half of it today.
I'd like to start with an analogy. In the 1950's, the United States tried a collective social experiment. What would happen if every family had a car? Eisenhower
had been very impressed with the German Autobahn
network during the war. When he was elected President, he pushed for the creation of the Interstate Highway System, a massive network of fast roads that would connect every population center in the country.
Over the next 35 years, America built 75,000 kilometers of interstate highways
. The Interstate made it possible to build things no one had imagined before. Like McDonald's
! With a nationwide distribution network, you could have a nationwide, standardized restaurant chain. The Interstate also gave us the shopping mall. This is a picture of an early mall from 1957
, when the concept was new enough that people still made an effort at architecture. You can see a sad little tower in the middle there.
Postwar car culture also gave us the landscape we call suburbia
. To early adopters, the suburbs were a magical place. You could work in the city while your spouse and children enjoyed clean living in the fresh country air. Instead of a crowded city apartment, you lived in a stand-alone house of your own, complete with a little piece of land. The suburbs seemed to combine the best of town and country.
And best of all, you had that car
! The car gave you total freedom.
As time went on, we learned about the drawbacks of car culture. The wide-open spaces that first attracted people to the suburbs were soon filled with cookie-cutter buildings
. Our commercial spaces became windowless islands in a sea of parking lots
We discovered gridlock
, smog, and the frustrations of trying to walk in a landscape not designed for people. When everyone has a car, it means you can't get anywhere without one. Instead of freeing you, the car becomes a cage.
The people who built the cars and the roads didn't intend for this to happen. Perhaps they didn't feel they had a say in the matter. Maybe the economic interests promoting car culture were too strong. Maybe they thought this was the inevitable price of progress.
Or maybe they lacked an alternative vision for what a world with cars could look like.
All of us are early adopters of another idea- that everyone should always be online
. Those of us in this room have benefitted enormously from this idea. We're at this conference because we've built our careers around it.
But enough time has passed that we're starting to see the shape of the online world to come. It doesn't look appealing at all. At times it looks downright scary