When civic institutions seem unable to act decisively to address deepening crises—war, inequality, climate—many turn to technology as a potential solution. The title of Paris Marx’s weekly podcast, Tech Won’t Save Us, gives us a hint about their approach to those kinds of hopes.
Marx recently released their first book, Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, which brings unflinching scrutiny to the hype around electric vehicles, ride-hailing apps, self-driving cars, delivery bots and more. Marx cuts through the demonstrably false promises of proposal after proposal, deflating the hype.
Book and podcast both aim to reestablish a collective capacity for critically evaluating technologies. And on that basis, restore our ability to chart a future that we’d actually want to live in.
Breach Publisher Dru Oja Jay spoke to the author and host this week about how the book’s analysis lands in the Canadian context, the choices we face when it comes to the future of transportation, and the mythological power of technology.
What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
In Canada, Liberals have promised billions in subsidies to transition the country to electric vehicles, and mainstream environmental groups are also pushing to electrify our massive fleet of personal automobiles. What do you see as the most immediate problems with these policies as a pathway to a liveable planet?
My concern with what the Liberals are doing is that the focus is still largely on automobiles. They should be doing much more to encourage people to get rid of their vehicles altogether, whether they’re electric or internal combustion, because really, if we’re going to think about a sustainable transportation system, the key is not just to replace internal combustion engines with battery power in the personal automobile.
When we think about Canada, resource extraction is a key part of our economy. As a result of that, I think we’re seeing a big push for electrification. Canada is such a large mining power—75 per cent of mining companies are headquartered in Canada. I think there’s a lot of desire among these mining companies for a future where individuals own electric cars because there’ll be a much higher demand for their product.
The International Energy Agency estimates that if we go down this path of focusing on electric vehicles as the way that we solve this problem, then demand for lithium will increase by up to 4,200 per cent. And minerals like cobalt and nickel will see demand increases of over 2,000 per cent. Those are huge increases. And saying ‘we are mining these minerals so that they can help the green transition,’ has the effect of greenwashing the mining industry, which is this terribly extractive and destructive industry, not just within Canada but around the world.
We see politicians like Justin Trudeau or Doug Ford, or the Quebec premier championing these mining projects as key to the green transition, when actually there are a lot of problems with the idea of a green transition that they are putting forward.
In terms of the impacts of mining, I’m wondering if you can get a little more into what’s the flipside of that? What are the different kinds of pathways to development? I’m assuming that you’d want things that are a more efficient use of that mining—electric buses or light rail where you don’t have to have as much metal or lithium per person transported. Can you talk a little more about that alternative pathway?
As you say, the key is not to say that there’s not going to be any mining at all—whichever pathway we take, there will be mining. The question is, how is that mining done, and what is the quantity of mineral that will actually have to be extracted in the end in order to fuel whatever kind of transition we’re going to pursue?
The kind of electric vehicle-oriented transition is one that is incredibly energy intensive, it is the most resource intensive of the various pathways that are ahead of us. Whereas if we focus on other forms of transportation—transit, bikes or making communities that are more walkable—the resource intensiveness of those options are much less than if everyone has their own personal electric automobile.
We have to put the funding where it’s going to champion those things. The federal Liberals and provincial governments have been investing in transit infrastructure, but not nearly enough to encourage people to get out of their cars. There’s a lot more effort and focus being put into the electric automobile because it creates jobs through resource extraction. It also creates jobs in manufacturing—in southern Ontario for example.
The conversation about the resource intensiveness of that transition should take place not only within Canada, but globally, with everyone who’s going to be affected throughout the supply chain. And ensuring that the people who are doing a lot of that extraction and production have more power to ensure that they’re not just being harmed for a transition that only benefits the north.
In your book, you look at the early days of the automobile and how much we take for granted in terms of roads that are designed uniquely for automobile access, or exclude pedestrians and bikes and all these other things. You talked about how there was just an incredible amount of death caused by cars. What kinds of political choices went into creating such a car-centric society?
It’s important to go back to the early days of the automobile because we’re in this period where the automobile has been normalized—our communities are focused around it. It’s been this way for decades. The idea that we would look at transitioning our society away from cars can seem really tough to imagine.
If you look at the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was very marginal. It didn’t even become common until after the 1910s, and it only really took off after the Second World War. Before that, the streets looked very different: they were a shared space where there were people walking, people taking bicycles, there were people on the street cars, there were people in horse-drawn carriages.
But then when the automobile entered, it really disrupted the norms of the street. I describe in the book how people would ring bells in fire halls and in the churches when people would die on the streets, to bring attention to that. There were big demonstrations, like funeral parades going through the streets to say, ‘look, people are dying, pay attention to this.’ There were propaganda campaigns where the car was called the ‘modern Moloch.’
This was a new thing. It was intrusive, it didn’t fit with how things worked before. And it was completely justified to push back. But obviously, there was an industry that was growing around the automobile. So it really became a fight between the residents of communities that were being affected by the roll-out of the automobile—it would have mainly been higher income people who would have had an automobile—and this growing industry that wanted to ensure that the automobile and sales of the automobile expanded.
And that required changing those norms and changing the physical construction of the streets as well, to make way for the automobile and push everyone else off of it. Which is what we have today. Our streets are mainly for cars, and everyone else has to be on the sidewalk. And you shouldn’t walk in the street unless you’re at a crosswalk or something.
So you get this lobby of pro-auto groups—which obviously includes the auto companies, the oil companies, the suppliers to the auto companies, and over time, construction interests and developers who benefit from building out roads, highways, and suburban communities. And even labour groups support this because of unionized jobs in manufacturing and construction.
They couldn’t effect this change on their own. They made sure the government worked with them to facilitate this transition to a transportation system centered around the automobile. A key part of that in Canada was building out the highway system, particularly the Trans Canada Highway System after WWII. You have the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Association Corporation ensuring it’s possible for people to get mortgages so that they can buy these suburban homes. Incentives were part of a big push to expand the suburbs. Canada is very much a suburban nation now, and that was a transition that happened over the course of many decades. The automobile was normalized, and alternatives to the automobile in many cases were removed.
You talk about societies that managed to roll back the car-centric design. Can you describe some of those examples?
There are a lot of people who look at Amsterdam, or various cities in Europe, and say ‘yeah, they get around on bikes, but that’s because that’s in Europe, things work differently.’
But the thing that leaves out is that actually, after World War Two, they made a big push to transform themselves into cities for the automobile. They razed a lot of buildings to make room for parking lots and bigger streets. They had big incentives to get people into cars, removing a lot of public spaces and things like that. As happened earlier in the U.S., it went against the norms, and it caused an increase of deaths.
What I’ve noticed in reading about these histories, is that in places like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, the 1970s proved to be a significant turning point. It wasn’t just because the deaths reached a certain point where people couldn’t take it anymore. There were also the oil shocks. The price of fueling up a car increased, and that gave the activists who wanted to push back against the automobile the chance to say ‘look, this doesn’t work, we need to do more to incentivize these other ways to get around, it’s better for our communities, it uses less energy.’
During the pandemic, we saw an extension of that in some European cities as well. Paris, for example—which has been slowly kind of chipping away at the dominance of the automobile for two decades—did a really significant transformation. And they say that cycling over there has significantly increased over that period.
I think there were 1,700 automobile fatalities in 2020 in Canada, and 8,000 serious injuries. It just strikes me that if anything else was causing that much death and serious injury, there would be a lot of political will to change it.
You talk about a unique feature of cars being that you get to go faster than everybody else—at least theoretically. And it seems like this idea of personal freedom, to choose your speed, to chart your own course, is a huge part of the enduring cultural entrenchment of cars.
The social philosopher André Gorz said about the car: ‘for the first time, class differences were to be extended to speed and to the means of transportation.’ He describes how the automobile gives us this bourgeois mentality, really kind of makes us believe in this idea of individualism, and that the car is like empowering us as individuals. Even as it places all of these restrictions on us.
So much of that has been reinforced over so many decades—car advertising, the way that cars are reported on. Let’s remember, from the very early days of the automobile, there was a close relationship between the automakers and the media, because the auto makers spent so much money on advertising, right? So naturally, the media wanted to present them in a positive light, and even today we see these commercials for cars driving on these empty roads, and it’s like, “yeah, but that road was closed so you can get those shots.”
For most people, the experience is being stuck in traffic. That promise is kind of lost when the automobile becomes a mass product that everybody else has. That’s a transformation that happened in the early days of the automobile, where it goes from this luxury product that benefits a particular elite, to a mass market product, to a necessity for life in a society.
And it is quite expensive. The Canadian Automobile Association estimates that the annual cost of owning a car in Canada is around $7,000, once you add up maintenance, insurance, depreciation, gas, parking and everything else.
And if you think of the incomes that many Canadians are earning—that’s a significant chunk of income, particularly when you have to pay for housing on top of it. So you can see how this is certainly beneficial to a lot of capitalists—automakers, oil companies, gas stations—but we should be thinking more about whether this really benefits us as a society.
Is there a corresponding concept of freedom that could fuel the uptake of transit alternatives?
You can certainly frame alternatives to the car as a form of freedom. This myth that the automobile is freedom locks us into all these dependencies with all of these kinds of capitalists who are taking their own pieces of our wages, just so we can get around.
So taking away that cost from people and providing transit as a service. You can have your public transit pass—maybe we can even fight for free transit—and you can have your bike. It might cost you a few hundred bucks, or if it’s an e-bike, $1,000 up front to get it. But let’s be real, it’s gonna last you like a decade.
Enhancing our freedom of mobility, lowering costs, promoting community because you can actually see one another, health benefits—yeah, I think that there are many reasons for us to see this as a desirable thing to push forward. It’s something that we should have more of in our society.
You talk a lot about the ‘California ideology,’ a mix of faith in markets, technology and individual freedom that fuels Silicon Valley’s expansion. Is Canada adopting the California ideology? Is there a Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal ideology?
So what’s called the California ideology really started to emerge around the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s one part of the counterculture that’s all about personal and individual enlightenment—the psychedelic experiences that come out of that, but they’re not really into the political part. They see a means to achieve change through having these individual realizations through psychedelic and other experiences.
There’s a linkage of that to personal technologies. The idea is that a personal computer—or other small-scale technologies—are going to empower the individual in a way that a mainframe computer, for example, empowered the corporate hierarchy. They’re pushing back against that.
And then in the 1980s you have Thatcher, Reagan and the emergence of neoliberalism. These ideas kind of merge with that neoliberal capitalism. So faith in personal technologies and how they’re going to empower the individual fuses with the idea that we just need markets and entrepreneurialism to drive society forward.
As the tech industry grows, there’s this real desire to replicate the Silicon Valley model in other cities and countries. We have seen that happen in Canada, as well, with the desire to create tech hubs in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, and even in smaller cities. I hear people talking about that here in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
One of the problems that we have in Canada right now, actually, is that a lot of our thinking around technology is still influenced by a lot of those ideas.
When we see tech criticism in Canada, there’s still a lot of that kind of libertarian bent to what we hear about technology and the role that tech plays. In the United States, they’ve moved on a little bit more and there is more of a critical orientation toward these technologies; we haven’t taken that step to the same degree, and I think that’s a problem.
It seems like there’s almost this exaggerated version of tech libertarianism in the Canadian scene. But it seems that if there’s anything good about the Canadian state, it’s that it has actually been able to curb some of the excesses of capitalism—whether that’s through Medicare, or things like the Wheat Board or the CRTC—finding ways to harness technology and use it for a broader conception of the public good, rather than pure profit motive. It seems like there’s an opportunity to salvage something there and have a different take on technology.
A lot of our discourse about technology in Canada is very much cribbing off of what came out of the United States. Without recognizing that Canada has a different history, or has approached things in a different way.
If you look at the approach to telecommunications in Canada, we have a different experience. We have public telcos on the prairies, we have public broadcasting with the CBC.
A lot of those distinct aspects of Canadian history and the Canadian economy are often left out of these discussions of antitrust or tech regulation. They are actually important and can be quite instructive for how we look at the future and how we approach technology.
You’re not just a critic of car culture and Silicon Valley, but you’re also a critic of technology broadly, you have a podcast called Tech Won’t Save us, which is an incredible resource. One thread that’s clear through the whole book is that technology has a mythical quality, where all you have to say is ‘new technology’ and people lose their critical faculties to a certain extent. What makes it possible for Elon Musk to get up and say ‘look, new technology!’ And then that somehow diverts budgets from high speed rail plans or public transit. What is it that gives new technology that power over the public imagination?
If we look at the way we tend to think about it, technology is basically assumed to be synonymous with progress, right? That is reinforced by the narrative that we have of the 20th century—we’re making all these developments, and as a result, our living conditions are getting better and so on.
I’m not going to deny that things like medications and electricity were really important to ensuring that we can live longer and better lives. But that doesn’t mean that every single technology that is put out into the world is immediately making the world a better place. And that is kind of the disconnect—so often, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley, they can say whatever they want.
They can even take something that’s really not a technology, like Uber, which is really just a taxi cab service. But instead of making a call to a dispatcher, you’re pressing a button on an app, And like, oh, that’s new technology, so that’s progress. As a result, they’re able to destroy the working conditions of drivers, completely destroy taxi regulations that were set up to minimize the negative externalities, for cities, for drivers, even for the passengers. All of that gets thrown out the window, because there’s this promise of innovation or progress.
Certainly technology can deliver progress. But we just assume that just because there’s a new technology, or just because a company promises something, that is a benefit to us when that is not always clear.
To deliver progress, we need technology linked with politics, or else we’re just going to have technology wielded against us in a way that benefits corporations and powerful actors at the expense of everyone else. That’s what we are increasingly seeing, and more and more people are waking up to it.
Uber created this very smooth customer experience, mostly by burning through giant piles of investor money: you tap on your phone, and this car shows up and you get in. But what I found fascinating was how they would take that experience, and then through the app mobilize app users as advocates for undermining regulation at the municipal level, or even at the state level. In California, you had a mobilization or conversion of all these app users into political agents on behalf of this giant corporation. I’m curious if you see any lessons there, in terms of trying to get folks into public transit? Are there lessons that could be learned there?
The Uber example is so illustrative—you have all of these promises about how Uber is going to make traffic better and improve transportation in cities for underserved people, and reduce car ownership, reduce emissions from transit—and then a few years later, we see that, actually, they made traffic worse. They didn’t do anything to car ownership. The people they benefited were mainly young college-educated people in urban areas earning above-average incomes. Basically, your average tech worker is the kind of person who’s tending to benefit from these things, not everyone else.
Now, after so many years, after Uber has succeeded in that deregulation and attacking workers, we’re seeing that the prices are going up, that the service is not as convenient anymore because they’ve run through the possible workforce that they have. And people are fed up with the company because it pays so poorly, and people are even going back to taxis. As a result, now, Uber is trying to get taxis to come on to its app. And so you would hail a taxi from the Uber app—after, you know, completely destroying the industry and remaking it to serve itself.
So Uber did use the app in order to turn people out to fight against various regulations that were going to go against it, as you described. There’s possibly something in that, but we’ve seen a lot of experiments with digital organizing that haven’t turned out as expected. So I feel a bit wary of that as a model.
What Uber benefited from was having all these people reliant on its service. When they flooded the regulators, politicians assumed that people were really mad. Then I guess the question is, how do you lock enough people into an app so that you can use them in that way? And I think that maybe goes a bit against what we’d be trying to do.
Well, public transit has millions of person-hours of captive audience in some ways. There seems to be an unspoken rule that governments aren’t allowed to get people to advocate for things—which is, of course, nonsense. They’re allowed to get people to advocate for wars, but they’re not allowed to get people to advocate for public transit.
I think I would also just note the people who are using the two services, right, and the kind of people that governments tend to listen to and care about. The users of Uber tend to be white men, often professionals—the type of people who can have more influence with governments. They also had a huge organization behind them with an endless hose of capital to flood the governments with, in order to lobby for these desired changes, or to stop changes that they didn’t want to see happen. Whereas public transit users tend to be kind of lower income racialized people who—it’s terrible to say it—governments tend to listen to last or pay less attention to. And so I think that’s also a barrier that we face in that way.
You think about Justin Trudeau, what he always says: the middle class, the middle class. All his programs are designed to benefit people earning $60,000 and up. So I think it’s a serious problem, but obviously one that has to be dealt with if we want these improvements to happen.
You talk a lot about the amount of state support that goes into the Teslas, the Ubers, the Apples of the world—public subsidies that end up in the pockets of those companies. Is there any reason why we couldn’t have—for example—a publicly owned, cooperatively managed Airbnb, or Uber, or anything else that complements public infrastructure and allows communities to regulate from the inside?
Absolutely. Even during the pandemic, we saw the Canadian government give a contract to Amazon to supply Personal Protective Equipment to various provinces. Months later, on the down low, they kind of said, ‘we realized Amazon couldn’t deliver the service that we wanted, we just assumed they could.’
The COVID alert contact tracing app was very much inspired by something that was pushed by Apple and Google, because they control the smartphones that pretty much everyone uses. The code for the app was donated by Shopify, which is considered a Canadian tech hero.
So the government has a very uncritical relationship to a lot of these big technology companies in a very worrying way. Part of why we see this difference with the government approaches of the past is the effect of neoliberalism on how we conceive of what role the government can play, the kind of services that it should provide.
We do have this different experience in Canada versus the United States, where there are some things that shouldn’t be governed by the market, or that should be somewhat protected from market forces.
We’re seeing that being eroded. There’s less and less of a commitment from our governments to these public services and to having things that aren’t just delivered and controlled by the private market. It’s much more difficult to get the government to move into these areas.
There are times when the government should be developing a technology, and then deploying it in a public way that does not need to worry about making a profit. I think transportation is one example of this, whether it is providing trip planning apps—where various modes of transit come together—that are focused on the collective transportation experience rather than how you are individually going to get the place you want to go as fast as possible. A unified transit app could provide options for lower carbon trips, provide incentives to go onto public transit or to take a bike rather than to take a car or an Uber.
I think healthcare is a big place where the government should also be looking at developing the technologies that we need. One thing I’m really worried about is how we’re seeing a kind of sly privatization on the back end, on the technology side of things. These private companies are developing technologies that we’re now basing the healthcare system on. Rather than having those technologies developed by a provincial health authority, we’re becoming dependent on the privately-owned tech, which is there to make as much money as possible from the public system. Telehealth is one of these areas, and it’s having a big impact in Alberta.
We haven’t actually thought about the long term consequences of this kind of digitization of the healthcare system and this reliance on private technologies, rather than developing our own to deliver public health care.
At the end of your book, you talk about where Silicon Valley’s vision of transportation is leading us, and there are three big directions you list: algorithmic control, no pedestrians, and gated greenwashed communities. How would you characterize the better direction? What are the characteristics for a better future?
I’m concerned about what the future looks like if we let these tech companies—and these technologies—just continue in the way that they are without thinking more critically. The key question is what kind of future do we actually want?
What we see now is the continued extension of these trends—cementing inequality through technology, separating people, limiting access, forcing us to be reliant on the types of forms of transportation that benefit the tech companies.
But then if we are thinking about what a better future looks like, I think it is thinking more seriously about the types of communities that we build, the type of transportation system that we build, and you know, what the ultimate goals are of those things. Tech companies constantly promise that their new technology is going to solve all of these legitimate transportation problems, right? The traffic that we’re stuck in, the lack of access to transportation that many people face, the high cost of transportation for some people.
And then the technology doesn’t fix them; that often even makes them worse because they don’t deal with the inherent politics of why things are that way.
First of all, there needs to be the recognition that the state has a key role to play, in the same way that the state made it possible for our communities and our transportation system to be reoriented around the automobile.
So then, there does need to be a serious commitment to public transit, public transportation, and that means that communities need to be properly served. That could mean metro systems, buses—whatever is going to properly serve communities of different sizes. Rural communities really should have better transit as well. And that requires a commitment that really doesn’t exist right now, both to the kind of capital funding of transit, but also to the operations funding.
The federal and provincial governments are often happy to give municipalities money to buy new buses and build new subway lines, but then they don’t want to give the money to actually operate those lines later, when municipalities have fewer resources to tax and actually fund those services. So that’s a key piece of it. But we also need to think about how those services will work together, how they connect with one another—so, investing in the rail network, and the other means of getting around the country in a way that doesn’t require an automobile. And certainly in Canada, a large country, we still will require planes, but I think in the key corridor of Southern Ontario to Quebec City we could have high speed rail there. And that would make a huge difference to reducing flights and high-emissions travel.
The final key piece of that is really to think about the communities that exist around new transit hubs. In a number of places we’ve seen that sure, you build better cycling infrastructure, you make better bus services. But then, because those services improve, all of a sudden property prices rise. And people who are most dependent on those services, who would most benefit from those improvements, are then pushed out to places that don’t have them because they can no longer afford to live there.
So improving transportation is a key piece of climate policy, but we can’t ignore all of the other systems that exist alongside it. In particular, we need to take on the dominance of private developers within the housing system. and have much more investment in public housing—in cooperative housing. Communities should be focused around that so that people can actually afford to live there.