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In the Shadow of Silicon Valley - Rebecca Solnit
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About Solnit, a San Franciscan, from Wikipedia

Solnit has been named as one of the "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World".[21] Her The Faraway Nearby (2013) was nominated for a National Book Award,[22] and shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.[23][24]

New York Times book critic Dwight Garner called Solnit "the kind of rugged, off-road public intellectual America doesn't produce often enough. ... Solnit's writing, at its worst, can be dithering and self-serious, Joan Didion without the concision and laser-guided wit. At her best, however [...] she has a rare gift: the ability to turn the act of cognition, of arriving at a coherent point of view, into compelling moral drama."[25]

Rebecca Solnit

Her piece from the London Review of Books

Vol. 46 No. 3 · 8 February 2024 = London Review of Books = Rebecca Solnit

Seeing cars​ with no human inside move through San Francisco’s streets is eerie enough as a pedestrian, but when I’m on my bicycle I often find myself riding alongside them, and from that vantage point you catch the ghostly spectacle of a steering wheel turning without a hand. Since August, driverless cars have been available as taxis hailed through apps but I more often see empty cars than ones with backseat passengers. These robots in the shape of cars don’t move like those with human drivers. While I waited next to one at a busy intersection, the vehicle first halted at the yellow light, then rolled into the intersection, where it stopped when the light turned red, confounding the traffic around it.

Still, I’ve become somewhat used to driverless cars in the years they’ve been training on the city’s streets, first with back-up human drivers, and then without. They are here despite opposition from city officials, including the fire chief, and San Francisco recently sued the California state bureau that gave companies licence to use the streets as their laboratory. Firefighters have reported driverless cars attempting to park on firehoses; last June one such car prevented emergency vehicles from reaching victims of a shooting; the vehicles are apparently unequipped to assess these situations and respond by stopping. Direct communication isn’t an option: the only way to get a driverless car to do anything is to contact the company in charge of it.

In early October, a driverless car owned by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, hit a woman who’d just been struck by another car, and in the course of performing what was described as a rote ‘pullover manoeuvre’ dragged her twenty feet, mangling her badly and leaving her trapped under its wheels. The device was unable to detect that it was on top of a human and would not respond to rescuers, who had to lift the car off her. Cruise withdrew its 950 driverless vehicles, but Waymo, a company launched by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, continues to send its cars onto the streets.

Driverless cars are often called autonomous vehicles – but driving isn’t an autonomous activity. It’s a co-operative social activity, in which part of the job of whoever’s behind the wheel is to communicate with others on the road. Whether on foot, on my bike or in a car, I engage in a lot of hand gestures – mostly meaning ‘wait!’ or ‘go ahead!’ – when I’m out and about, and look for others’ signals. San Francisco Airport has signs telling people to make eye contact before they cross the street outside the terminals. There’s no one in a driverless car to make eye contact with, to see you wave or hear you shout or signal back. The cars do use their turn signals – but they don’t always turn when they signal.

The rationales for the introduction of driverless cars include eliminating human error and allowing people with disabilities to get about without having to rely on other human beings. A more convincing rationale is that the corporations which own them can keep income that would otherwise have gone on drivers’ wages. Automation has, of course, been a way to increase owners’ profits since the Luddites protested against mechanical looms. Airports have self check-ins; supermarkets have self check-outs; roads and bridges have, in place of toll-takers, technology that reads your licence plate. Customer service phone numbers connect you to digital operatives and a host of other automated systems.

This takes a toll. Americans face a social pandemic of loneliness and isolation. The US surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, has declared it a crisis. His reports identify causes including the internet, smartphones and social media. None of these was created with this agenda, but all of them have advanced it. Some of the ‘examples of harm’ listed by Murthy include ‘technology that displaces in-person engagement, monopolises our attention, reduces the quality of our interactions and even diminishes our self-esteem’.

In the Shadow of Silicon Valley - Rebecca Solnit


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