In the vision of a “frictionless” city held by many in tech, where nearly every city service, human interaction, and consumer experience should be mediated by an app or digital service that not only eliminates the need to directly engage with another human, but puts technology at the heart of those interactions , there is no serious attempt to address deep-seated problems — at least beyond rhetorical flourishes. Venture capitalist decisions to fund companies that transform the way we move, consume and lead our daily lives should not be seen as neutral actions. Instead, they push visions of the future that benefit them by funding long-standing efforts by companies to monopolize their sectors and lobby to change regulatory structures in their favor. Furthermore, rather than challenging the car’s dominance, their ideas almost always seek to extend it.
After more than a decade of being inundated with idealized visions of a technologically enhanced future whose benefits are not shared in the way their promoters have promised, we should consider what kind of future they are much more likely to create. I cite three scenarios that are far more realistic and that illustrate the world being created: First, it is even more segregated on the basis of income; secondly, it is even more hostile to pedestrians; and third, it wants to use irresponsible technological systems to control even more aspects of our lives.
Elon Musk’s closed green city
There are three main aspects to the vision laid out by Musk (leaving aside his plans to colonize space). The first are electric personal vehicles. Musk believes in “individualized transportation,” meaning that cars should continue to be the primary means of mobility and that most of the problems that accompany a car-oriented transportation system should be ignored. However, his vision is more than a simple preference for personal vehicles, especially luxury ones. In 2019, Musk unveiled the Cybertruck, an unusual vehicle not because Tesla never built a truck, but because it took style cues from dystopian science fiction and was designed to withstand brute force attack. The vehicle has panels that cannot be dented with a sledgehammer and windows that are supposed to be bulletproof. While the latter failed in Musk’s public demonstrations, the decision to pack such features into an incredibly large vehicle likely speaks volumes about the personal fears underlying Musk’s ideas for the future.
Another element of Musk’s vision is the use of solar panels, especially those attached to houses in the suburbs. After purchasing SolarCity, Musk championed the idea of homeowners generating their own electricity through solar roofs and arrays that could be used to charge their electric cars, charge their home batteries and potentially even make money by feeding into the grid. The third and final piece of the puzzle is the Boring Company’s imagined tunnel system, which turns out to be little more than narrow underground passages for expensive vehicles with autonomous driving systems — if they ever actually come to fruition. These aspects also demonstrate Musk’s preference for sprawling single-family home suburbs over dense transit-oriented development.
If Musk is to be believed, the vision he is promoting for a green future is one that will address the climate crisis, along with many other urban and mobility issues. Yet putting these three elements together and considering them alongside the trajectory of our capitalist society reveals a different kind of urban future. Without changing fundamental social relations, these technologies are likely to reinforce trends in the wealth of tech billionaires and the desire of these billionaires to close themselves off from the rest of society.
Recall that the first of Musk’s proposed tunnels was designed to make it easier for him to get to and from work without getting stuck in traffic with everyone else. Instead of a network of tunnels for the masses, such a system could be redeployed as a system designed for the rich, inaccessible to the public and connecting only the places the rich visit: their gated communities, private airport terminals and other exclusive parts of the city.