I feel like I drifted into the 21st century. I don’t really belong here. I took form in the 20th century. I’m accustomed to electricity and running water, watching movies and shopping for groceries. I would find life without these things very hard. That makes me very twentieth century. Where I go wrong and begin to feel queasy and alien is in the twenty-first century. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a total outcast. I’ve adapted well to some things. I love my new tablet computer. I love Pandora. What I don’t get is the complete and utter shift in values. Or the loss thereof: the erosion of civil liberties, the normalization of drones and surveillance and endless war, the transformation of universities into corporate industries for vocational training, or the zombification of an entire population of people walking trance-like down sidewalks fixated on mobile phones. These are the things that make me dizzy. These are the things that make me feel anxious and ill at ease. And now I can add one more to the list: Uber. Uber is the popular ride company that allows people with smartphones to submit a trip request, which is then routed to Uber drivers who use their own cars.
Uber, unlike taxi companies and mass transit, doesn’t have to answer to a higher authority. Uber doesn’t have to abide by the rules and regulations that protect consumers and workers from criminality. Uber operators don’t have to file for licenses, adhere to fixed rate standards, or comply with other county and state regulations that determine when and how a for-hire car can be booked. This seems anarchical to me in a way that erodes values of fair play and respect for people in general. Uber defaults on any responsibility for the way their drivers (and there really is no “their” in this scenario since drivers act as their own agents with no oversight) abuse passengers, female passengers especially, groping, bullying, or raping them. All Uber does is “deactivate” any driver accused of criminal activity. This behavior seems uniquely fitted to the new millennium in which everything is for profit and nothing is valued.
Value is vague, I know, a vague word, a value can be a goody buy at Goodwill but it also means honoring honesty, compassion, courtesy, or at least pretending to honor these things. Whether values are subjective psychological states or objective states of the world I will leave to the axiologists. My own feeling is that value is intrinsic and exists within the mind, that value is a matter of perception, a quality of attention. Money is good not because it is intrinsically good but because it leads to other things which are intrinsically good. But isn’t it possible to bypass money and discover the value of things without money? Doesn’t money enslave as much as it endows?
The taxi drivers are protesting Uber in France. Vigorously. For the last few years, almost since Uber got off the ground, they have blocked roads, burned tires, and attacked drivers who they thought were working for Uber. The French high court, the “Cour de cassation,” created the Loi Thévenoud (Thévenoud Law) which prohibits chauffeured vehicles other than taxis to charge a per-kilometer fee, to practice “electronic roaming” (the use of a smarphone app that shows the location of nearby available vehicles to potential customers in real-time) and making it a requirement that, when a ride is over, the chauffeured vehicle returns to its home base or a place where they’re authorized to park. This concession to the taxi drivers so pissed off the Uber drivers that today (February 8, 2016) the Uber drivers protested by blocking access to Roissy Charles de Gaule airport. France has a very high unemployment rate. For a lot of people, turning oneself into a taxi service is the only means to making a livable wage. The overall conflict seems uniquely fitted to the neo-liberal forces of the millennium. It’s dog against dog, the vulgarization of the commons into a theatre for gladiatorial conflict. Human interaction has been degraded into cheating, self-aggrandizement, and nail salons.
Here in Seattle, little has been heard from the taxi drivers, although city councilwoman Kshama Sawant has been a very vocal supporter of both taxi and Uber drivers to the have right to unionize, and it is thanks largely to her efforts that Seattle has become the first city to grant for-hire drivers the right to form collective bargaining units, including employees of Uber. “The so-called sharing economy is nothing new,” Sawant said. “It is not innovative. Ever since sharecropping, the sharing economy has meant sharing in one direction; that is workers have the privilege of sharing what they produce with their bosses. And just like in the past, these workers have to take out loans to buy a car to use for work and then they are trapped by debt into the sharing economy.”
1980, the year John Lennon was murdered by gunshot in the lobby of the Dakota hotel in Manhattan, and Reagan was elected president, was the year I saw everything change for the worse. It’s when I began seeing a spike in the homeless population. Consumerism, which was considered toxic in the late 60s, became a national obsession. Wealth was openly flaunted. Things became very Roman. Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” of 1979 was mocked and vilified. Reagan’s “Good Morning America,” which could be translated as “Greed is Good,” became the true national anthem.
In the next twenty years technocracy exploded and became the empire it is today, beginning in Silicon Valley (which was still perfumed with orchards and canneries when I lived there in the late 60s) and now here in Seattle. Seattle is now such a different city than the one I moved to in 1975 I feel like I moved to an entirely different geographical location, a city so removed from Seattle’s former unassuming architecture and humble eccentricities it more resembles Santa Barbara or San Diego with its glitzy skyscrapers, sky-rocketing real estate and burgeoning homeless population. The general consensus of neo-liberalism and technocracy are so alien to me that I feel like I’m the occupant of a dystopic city invented by a demented science-fiction writer. But it’s not fiction. Not fiction at all.
I’ll say it again: I’m not against technology. Cutting and pasting on a computer is a lot easier than retyping entire pages. I enjoy the convenience of Google and Wikipedia. I used to think that technology was chiefly responsible for the intellectual laziness of my fellow citizens and their obsession with material goods. But after a trip to France in 2013 I realized that this is not the case. Not at all. The French have the same technology. They just choose to use it with far greater discretion. The French still value books and art and conversation. Of all the hundreds of bistros and restaurants I passed, each with a large outdoor patio, I didn’t see one person alone with a laptop. Everyone was enjoying a conversation or reading a book or magazine.
The United States has a had a long history of anti-intellectualism and hostility toward abstract thought as opposed to hard pragmatic git-er-done solutions. Americans are hardwired to be hardwired. Some of us, however, opted out at an early age. I was fifteen when I very consciously decided to dedicate myself to art and thought and altered states of consciousness. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception was a seminal influence.
Over the years I’ve met a few other people extraordinary for their devotion to non-material values. Poetry in particular. The fact that there still exist people who can get excited about making something that lacks even the materiality of a painting or the immediate sensuality of dance and music, that someone can work privately, work earnestly with combinations of joy and frustration to make a poem, a thing without thingness, a thing in celebration of thingness, things of the intellect, dreamed things, invented things, is amazing. Some of these people have jobs and may not be desperate for money, but some of these people have made a conscious decision to devote themselves to this baffling and demanding art, this magnificently mutinous revelry of words. Is that not strange?