Riding a bike through Washington, DC, during peak morning commute is to attempt to predict chaos, flirting with an ever-changing and kinetic organism of cars, busses, trucks, motorized scooters, pedestrians, and headphone- wearing cyclists, everyone vying for a slight angle to get ahead of everyone else. It’s a gauntlet that I’ve come to understand after more than 15 years of biking in the nation’s capital.
That might be why, while biking south on 11th Street, NW, one anonymous Tuesday, instinct told me that the car a few lengths ahead—a white Prius, gliding along with the slow- moving traffic—was about to break the unspoken contract of predictable behavior. And sure enough, midway between two intersections, the car suddenly merged right, crossing into the bike lane and coming to a stop.
A pump of my breaks, a quick glance behind, and I managed to swing around the left side of the car. It was an unseasonably warm day, and the driver’s window was down. And though I recognize the futility of telling anyone what they’re doing is wrong, this time instinct didn’t get the better of me.
“Watch where you’re going,” I said as I passed.
“I turned on my blinkers, you JERK!” she screamed.
I kept pedaling, and she stayed where she was, double-parked in the bike lane.
And even though I was next to her rear bumper when she stopped and would’ve seen the blinkers had they been activated, the incident registered as a minor offense at best. Dangerous and inconsiderate, certainly. But not enough for me to kill my momentum and engage in what would have been a fruitless conversation in the ever-long narrative battle between biker and motorist.
It did strike me, however, that our sense of righteousness has shifted over the last few decades. That Prius driver thought she was in the right. She says she turned on blinkers, so it’s not her responsibility to also look or even glance in the mirror. Her intention theoretically announced, the onus, she felt, fell on the rest of us—a position that, while perhaps not uniquely American, certainly feels as if it’s starting to dominate our social contract.
The concept of the car, of course, is embedded in the idea of America. German Karl Benz might’ve introduced the first motorized vehicle in 1886, but the American-born 1908 Model T from Ford made them accessible to the masses, and they quickly embodied the key ingredients of America’s DNA: expansion, exploration, and freedom, personified by the lure of the open road and later embraced by Hollywood as an engine of endless possibility that might’ve reached its most extreme self in the Fast and Furious franchise.
But the rise of the car culture also created the perfect vessel for one to shut off the world that’s blurring past. Windows up, music blaring, the climate dialed to perfection, the engine’s steady and reassuring hum, the car becomes an isolation chamber, with all controls within an arm’s reach.
JB Ballard wrestled with that dichotomy in his novel Crash, which chronicles the exploits of a cabal who found the erotic in crashing cars, exploring the intersection of pain, metal, movement, and sex. In many ways, the book articulates something more than mere fetishization, the fantasy promised by a vehicle’s intrinsic nature pushed to its most perverse. It also explores the state of isolation that cars provide, saying that literally crashing into one another was perhaps the only ways to break through that metal shell and connect—albeit a connection made amidst blood, broken bones, twisted metal, and shattered glass. Something envisioned to set us free has led to confinement.
But that Prius driver wasn’t merely following her “I’m right” instincts. She was also following directions—specifically the app that told her to pull over, so she could pick up her next share ride passenger. The smart phone told her to pull over, so she did. And the rest of us, her actions implied, shouldn’t be surprised.
As a culture powered by change, we embrace the kind of disruptions that new industries like car services create. But as a seldom- discussed side effect, many of the city streets dominated by car sharing now include a new slew of drivers more focused on their passengers then they are on predictable behavior and the rules of road.
If only this was isolated to the automobile. But walk three blocks in any part of a crowded street in any major city and you’ll witness what could be called screen blindness: people— tourists and residents alike—striving down the sidewalk, eyes locked on their cell phones. Maybe a glance upward now and then. But the unwritten expectation now feels like it’s not their responsibility to watch where’ they’re going. It’s your responsibility to look out for them.
Just like cars, cell phones were once embraced as a tool of freedom and liberation. Suddenly the breadth of human knowledge could be accessed with a few clicks on a hand-held device. But, as William Gibson recently observed, no science fiction author or futurist would’ve ever thought that the problem would be access to too much information.
As the fallout of the last election and the tireless and largely empty “mea culpa’s” from Silicon Valley have proven, social media has been weaponized, news consumption occurs in an echo chamber, and data is mined not to improve one’s life, but to help companies target the most desirable demographic. E-commerce lives in the vast depths of personalized data. Even the consumption of art—movies, TV, music—is largely dictated by algorithms driven by vast taxonomies designed to introduce slight variations on what you’re already listening to or watching. Seldom will anything surprise, and very rarely will anything challenge you. It’s that impulse to expect everyone else to get out of your way, streamlined into a battery-powered device that has generated a collective viewpoint the diameter of a pin prick.
If the dominate metaphor of change is the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, then we’ve regressed from the promise of liberation—by cars, by knowledge, by technology, by a growing sense of awareness—back into our individual cocoons.
None of this is new, of course. Bob Dylan sang about “darkness at the edge of noon” back in 1965. Apple even seems to want to acknowledge the problem by introducing Screen Time logs—a feature that feels like a fun-house mirror, humble-brag alt universe where tobacco companies voluntarily labeling their products as killers. But using those logs to understand how long—and how—you use your iPhone also reinforces that the device is essential to modern society, even if you pledge to stop scrolling so aimlessly through Facebook.
The apparent answer? Less screen time. But in a culture nursed on always-there convenience, that directive feels comedic. Engaging in activities like outdoor adventure or travel—pursuits that create some welcome friction against our daily lives—definitely help us understand our place in our world. But they’ve also become the backdrop for a new form of digital navel gazing.
Instead, perhaps we should embrace the concept of smarter screen time. Literally looking where we’re going, of course. But also making a concerted effort to revolt against the algorithms and search out media—art, film, music, and TV—that subverts expectation. To find stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable. That forces you to question.
Admittedly, the crop of competing 24- hour news channels—arguably the apex of the “Idiot Box” insult—doesn’t inspire confidence. But recently that medium has also spawned Peak TV, introducing both escapist entertainmen as well as shows like Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which strives to articulate the modern black experience; David Lynch’s lyrical and surreal nightmare portrayal of the poison pulsing through America’s heart in the Twin Peaks revival; Transparent’s humanization of trans people, the prescient and dystopian call to arms of The Handmaid’s Tale; and Breaking Bad, perhaps the best illustration of the corrupting nature of the “I’m always right” point of view.
Art is no panacea. Nothing really is. And likely that Prius driver would’ve still cut me off even if she’d binge-watched The Wire the night before. But in a world where the concept of truth is becoming subjective—when a fact is considered fiction if you don’t agree with what it says—engaging with the subjectivity implicit in art has become essential into understanding real truth.
Everyone wants to be right. But we need to remember that sometimes it’s okay to be wrong.