Erasing an Invention

I'm in Italy. Over the past two weeks I've been reposting my entries on technology. Here is a related post on Le Corbusier and his conception of the modern city.

Seed is disseminating questions to its bloggers (I guess a la so this week the question is:

If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?

The invention I would choose to uninvent? I spent the weekend asking some friends. Some answers were machine guns, the atomic bomb, spam, cars ...

Cars did strike something deep in me. Along the lines of Heathcote Williams' Autogeddon:

If an Alien Visitor were to hover a few hundred yards above the planet
It could be forgiven for thinking
That cars were the dominant life form,
And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell:
Injected when the car wished to move off,
And ejected when they were spent.

The oil driven economy is a major force driving all our current global problems, be it war or global warming. Over the past hundred years, no other invention has so profoundly changed the way society was structured and how it operates. But even the most ardent anti-automobilists would admit, cars have also provided many benefits. Transportation is now cheep, efficient and democratic. Cars provide freedom to travel like no other form of transportation. No if I were to choose an "invention" to eradicate it would be Le Corbusier's concept of a city.

What is Le Corbusier's city?

Well to find out we need to find out about Le Corbusier. He grew up in a small but dense urban center in Switzerland where little Charles and his friends owned the streets. But the introduction of the car changed what the street was used for. Cars were fast and dangerous and forced kids and pedestrians off the streets. Roads now belonged to the car, not the neighborhood. Instead of fighting the car, Le Corbusier preached that we must accept it and all its tyranny. Urban centers were no longer fit for families and little kids and hence residential communities must be exported beyond the urban centers.

The result was the creation of suburbia, the abandonment of the urban centers and the destruction of cities. Urban centers were for work, suburbs (and ex-brubs) are for living. To better facilitate transport, huge swaths of the city were leveled to make way for highways, freeways and expressways. So not only were urban centers deserteted by the middle and upper classes, but were destroyed by Le Corbusier's followers. One example is the destruction of the South Bronx by Robert Moses to make room fro the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Newer cities like Houston or Los Angeles were built with these ideas in mind. In ither words they were built around cars and not people. These cities inspired Jean Baudrillard's philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation, which in turn inspired the Wachowski brothers to write The Matrix. Fake cities where no one communicates, where people live in isolated non-communities, where individuals are out of touch with the reality of others ... where self interest rules, and the community vanished. Affluent (and mostly white) citizens are exported (or "escape") to the suburbs, and minority communities in urban centers are neglected and starved of resources.

Unlike Marxist politics that have been reversed in the past couple of decades, Le Corbusier's cities are here to stay. Urban centers and the funding of public institutions that benefit huge swaths of urban citizens such as public transportation, schools, and community events, all suffered. Attempts to reverse these policies, such as Boston's Big Dig, are expensive and not feasible for most American cities. Although cities such as New York have somewhat rebounded, certain aspects such as repairing the educational system is almost impossible as urban dwellers with money are usually childless and less willing to fund public education, or are supper rich and thus send their kids to private school. Neighborhoods such as Bedsty and Roxbury are trapped in several vicious cycles (the first being poor uneducated citizens => broken homes => bad environment for kids =>poor uneducated citizens; the second being crime => flight of local business => zero job opportunities for kids => crime) that cannot be rejuvenated by the quick-fix schemes that many politicians prescribe to them.

A very bad situation, and it's of our own doing.

The funny aspect of this situation, is that despite the fact that Americans are ardent "free market" supporters, the modern American city is based less on the free market, than on central planning philosophies that come from Le Corbusier's ideologies. Robert Mosses destroyed the South Bronx, not through market forces, but more on the belief that highways are good and urban centers are relics of the past. But the cities (or the sections of cities) that escaped Le Corbusier's theories are where all the new ideas and inventions come from. These cities are dynamic and they produce all our cultural icons and intellectuals. In addition they are the centers that drive American capitalism and are the most efficient in terms of energy consumption. But as most American cities belong to Le Corbusier, America have to live with his ideas for a long time to come.


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Very interesting choice. If I were to choose one invention it would be internal combustion.

We almost had an electric solution but Standard Oil and GM put an end to that.

Twice in my life I lived within walking distance of my workplace, and in the second of those times I was able to get by without a car. The groceries and other stores I frequented were all within walking distance. Without a car, life is simpler, more healthful, and lots quieter.