The Commuting Surplus

The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration's National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year. Meanwhile, Census data show the proportion of people aged 21-30 increased from 13.3% to 13.9%.

According to the experts, young people don't want to drive anymore, and the Internet is to blame! Aside from criticizing journalists for lazily falling back on not one, but two tired tropes (kids these days + the Internet) to generate interest in something that is not incredibly newsworthy, I wanted to see what else might be causing a decline in US car culture.

I see automobiles as the most prominent (and for many years, almost the only) designed object in most American's lives. For years, they were also an overt expression of identity. In movies, in cities and towns everywhere, life seemed centered around the car. Sections of cities were destroyed and new cities built for them. Like any strategy predicated on growth, it had to come to some end, right? With the design force Apple and multiple websites and interactive products, there are other options Americans to express themselves.

It may be that American youth is less interested in what's being offered by auto manufacturers. I don't have any data, but perhaps cars today are too conservative and aimed at broader market segments, with fewer interesting variants to be appealing. Smaller, cheaper cars for years have been overlooked by manufacturers as worthy of their attention. Practically speaking, people must be doing something with their time, and it seems they all want to be online. All along cars have been just a means to socialize, and now its a lot easier to do that using Facebook and Twitter and mobile apps. It's very hard to use these while driving.

Another aspect not covered is how the rise of hacker and maker culture comes into play. Cars can't be hacked so easily anymore (exception noted), with blackbox computers and sophisticated engines and drivetrains. Computers and websites can be easily customized and are vastly cheaper than cars, too. The economy has been in a prolonged recession and new cars are inaccessible for many.

Lastly, it seems collaboration and environmental concerns are powerful motivators for people to consider public transport, sharing services, and living in denser urban areas.

Compared to older generations, Millennials participate in and are more open to collaborative consumption programs, such as media, car and home or vacation sharing. - Millenials Prefer Sharing Over Ownership

In many ways, they are trying to undo what their parents and grandparents did when they fled the cities for "greener" pastures.

The challenge for designers is systemic, and has been for some time. Its a massive service design challenge in some ways, and one that seems to be coming from the bottom up, rather than the corporate-driven suburbanization effort. Better urban planning and a much wider array of transportation options are needed for people who want to use their cognitive surplus.

Pre-emptive Help

I've been an Amazon user for almost 14 years now, starting with books and moving on to just about everything else they sell. For the last couple of years I've downloaded MP3s (initially just to avoid Apple's DRM, but now because I can find music much more easily). Every time, though I have had to download and install a new copy of their MP3 downloader (nicely done for what it does, by the way). screen-shot-2009-10-28-at-102830-am

The number of times I've bailed on downloading music is much higher than the number of copies of this that are in my Downloads folder (and I've deleted a few copies over time as well).

Today, though, Amazon did something new, which they always do in their subtle, tweakish way. Just below the confirmation message, they offered several answers to what they must know to be common problems. One of them, it immediately occurred to me, was mine.


Even though I'm pretty good with computers and such, for some reason I had never thought to associate the Amazon file type with the appropriate application in my browser. It's something I've done in the past, but not in this case. Anyway, a couple of clicks later, I think I've solved my problem.

The reminder for me is to keep on iterating on everything I put out there. Small adjustments can make a massive change, while massive changes may just introduce more inadequacies to be cleaned up later.

Faux Populism

Gathering my thoughts after the conventions of the past two weeks, I want to write about the success of GOP faux-populism. I want to figure out how to counter this, as its been a resounding success for a couple decades now. By "faux-populism" I mean the GOP's tactics of persuasion that employ messages appealing to a broad base of constiuents, but who logically shouldn't support them (i.e. tax cuts for the very wealthy or the dismantling of our social safety net). Krugman's piece today captures one element of the tactics - that of (faux) class resentment. By painting Democrats as overeducated snooty East Coast elites, they seek to alienate working-class voters with a portrait of a party run by people who aren't like them. It also taps into the legacy of a demographic and economic shift that occured over the last 50 years. The rise in education, income, and overall success of the South and Southwest (and accompanying decline of the Northeast) led to a relative shift of power. Class and regional resentment had been brewing over time, so the rapid change in these regions meant they carried both this to Washington.

Another insightful writeup by Rick Perlstein discusses how the very cultural mindset of conservatives is one of beleagerment and marginalization.This is also a recurrent theme in Christianity, with its roots in its founding in the Roman era.

"The constant staging and re-staging of acts of "courage" in the face of liberal "marginalization" — that manages to unite all the opposites. It keeps conservatives from each other's throats — and keeps them more or less always pulling in the same political direction."

A book by George Lakoff I've been reading, "The Political Mind", looks at how powerful mental frameworks are developed by conservatives that strike deep chords with people. No amount of reasoning (what he calls Enlightenment-era thinking) will dislodge the idea that someone is under seige. Only a more compelling narrative framed and endlessly repeated in an accessible manner will succeed.

This is similar to what's happening in Turkey today. There, the secularists have been in power since the founding of the republic in the 1920's. They have overseen a tremendous increase in wealth throughout the country, and in particular the rise of rural and lower-class peoples who are typically more conservative and religious. Now the (moderate) Islamists have been voted into power, the secularists are upset at the erosion of what they've accomplished and are disdainful. Its not clear that the Islamists have an ulterior motive (the dissolution of secular institutions in favor of Islamic law), or they are legimately seeking greater religious freedom.

Watching Palin speak, I was impressed with how convincing her message was, even though her experience was seriously at odds with the stated planks of the GOP. As is the case with much of the South and West, massive amounts of federal dollars have been directed to Alaska to develop infrastructure and institutions. Its relative isolation probably breeds some resentment, but not to the point of cutting off the gravy train. Again, though, her appearance and message appealed directly (and through code) to Americans who think they're being looked down upon when in reality they're the ones in control. Look at Washington (all branches of government in Republican control for 25 years), the "media" (FOX news, Rush Limbaugh, and a seriously degraded mainstream press), and the number of self-professed faithful and you don't see any marginalization on their part. But that's being logical.

Who's the real "celebrity"?

From Jake Tapper at ABC ( Which presidential candidate hosted Saturday Night Live (hint -- the musical guests were The White Stripes)?

Which one had cameos on "24" and "Wedding Crashers"?

Whose wife secretly got her pilot's license and owns a jet?

Who is pals with Warren Beatty?

Whose daughter is friends with Heidi from MTV's The Hills?

Whose wife once told Vogue, explaining the purchase of a 7th or 8th house, this one a beach house, "When I bought the first one, my husband, who is not a beach person, said, 'Oh this is such a waste of money; the kids will never go. Then it got to the point where they used it so much I couldn't get in the place. So I bought another one.”

Whose family credit cards have been known to ring up more than $500,000 in charges in one month?

Fearing Fear

Some wonderful friends just departed our home after spending part of a week with us here in Brooklyn, and a few days in Washington, DC. It seems they had a nice time (besides the cool weather), and were pleasantly surprised how livable (dare I say, European) New York is. But one complaint they had really resonated. Most everywhere they went (and they visited a number of touristy spots) they encountered what they felt to be frustrating and overwhelming security arrangements. They didn't encounter any problems due to their Belgian citizenry, but were amazed at the barriers (and inefficiencies) that met them at nearly every federal or high-profile facility. I had to apologize and explain the extreme politicization of my country's "security" in the name of the "war on terror".

To loosely paraphrase, our country is still re-fighting the last war. Reading things like this makes me crazy. We will become so fearful in our daily lives we will lose what we've worked hard to build. Why can't we conduct anti-terrorist actions like any other police or military action? Like other countries who have extensive histories of radical violence do? Don't make a big deal about it -  just go after the guys.

Bush as crime partner

I'd like to think I'm less prone to the lure of conspiracies, but I am a sucker for anything that exposes the vast right-wing conspiracy machine. While he correctly stepped down due to his own personal failings, Elliot Spitzer may also have been the victim of a highly politicized Judicial Department (remember the Attorney General firings?). He wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post a month before his downfall that pinned much of the blame for the mortgage crisis on deliberate actions of the Bush administration.  When you label the Bushies "partners in crime" and detail their incursions into the mess, which clearly were meant to benefit financial corporations, you set yourself up for a big hit. Especially when they are watching you.I doubt anything will ever come of this. Everyone is too fatigued of the scandals, and Bush is still very adept at dodging these things.

NY Primary

For the first time in memory, I'm excited about the Democratic primaries. Usually, I'm somewhat content to focus on the general election, but I think what's really different is that things aren't completely decided yet. I'm a little dismayed that Dems are beating each other up so much, only because I worry that they'll do too much damage early on and turn off voters.