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The One and the Many: Individuals, Cities and the Global Mind

Michael E. Earth on self-​driving cars, the end of individuality and New Pedestrianism

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An interview with Michael E. Arth

An interview by Yuri Boutenko

We all benefit from cities, even those of us who live in the countryside. Cities make us active and lazy at the same time. In cities, we have to work hard, but we also get access to amazing entertainment. Cities help us to get things done faster but make us stressed and testy in the process.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a big city – for instance, Moscow - without a proper sewerage system or a well-developed subway. Yet, once upon a time, these things were inconceivable, even in one’s wildest dreams. Moving around in horse and carriage, city dwellers of the past would never have imagined their descendants hopping on and off airplanes, or flying from Istanbul to Barcelona in a couple of hours.

Are we, the city dwellers of today, more daring in our thinking about the future? Can we imagine the unimaginable? Is it possible to think beyond sleek future visions of the Hollywood movies? In fact, fantasizing about the future could be very practical; dreaming can pay off. Michael E. Arth, an American artist and urban designer, is a very practical futurist and an expert in realistic speculations. He talks to Strelka about his ideas.

As a social activist and public policy analyst, advocate for the homeless, futurist, public speaker, documentary filmmaker and author, Michael E. Arth dreams green. He had a 10 year career as a fine-artist, worked as a home designer and builder in Los Angeles, and has rebuilt 33 homes and businesses in a former slum in DeLand, Florida, turning it into a Historic Garden District. In 1999, he founded New Pedestrianism, a more ecological and pedestrian-oriented branch of New Urbanism, with the purpose of designing new towns and neighborhoods. In 2010, he was a candidate for Governor of Florida.
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What will be the most important trends concerning urban growth and new mobility for cities in the coming decades?

Well, for me one of the most exciting things coming soon is shared, zero-​emission, electric driverless cars. Once Google or someone else maps all the streets in Russia, your country will also have the autonomous cars. These vehicles don’t need any special infrastructure. They will go anywhere on normal streets. By the end of this decade, all the major car manufacturers will have partial or fully autonomous cars. With progressive public policy, we could replace the world’s current billion vehicles with perhaps 200 million self-​driving vehicles in as little as 15 years. Before long, unenhanced humans will not be allowed to drive cars anymore on public roads. This is a big deal, because just in the US human-​driven vehicles cause 30 000 deaths and a 1.2 million serious injuries every single year. It’s like fighting the Vietnam War all over again every 15 months. Once robot cars are practical, we could eliminate 80% of existing, polluting cars in a 3 – 5 year period because we already manufacture 35 million cars a year. One third of the global warming problem could be solved just with this one solution alone. It’s easy because no one has to buy a vehicle to make it happen and everyone will be able to go where they want – kids, old folks, the infirm, the poor, the blind, the stoned, anyone.

Before long, unenhanced humans will not be allowed to drive cars anymore on public roads

Some people will own their own vehicles, especially special service vehicles, but they will be able to let them roam on their own to earn them money (perhaps managed by companies like Über). Cars will be also owned by companies like the existing car rental companies. Options will be expanded and cost less than car ownership, while also protecting the environment. Drunk driving will be a thing of the past. You will get the vehicle you want, when you want, for less money than owning one.

Will autonomous cars change the way the city looks?

There will be a tremendous change, because you can get rid of most parking lots, traffic lights, garages, car dealerships and other things associated with vehicles. We can start using the new vehicles very soon, because they can just use the existing roads. Nevertheless, we should still move toward putting vehicles on their own separate transportation network at the back of buildings with pedestrian/​bicycle networks in the front of buildings.

I remember one of the urban patterns from Kevin Lynch’s book ‘A theory of good city form’: two different grids – for pedestrians and for vehicles, overlapping but independent from each other. Do you have a similar scheme in mind?

Yes, that’s the idea of New Pedestrianism, which is a more ecological and pedestrian-​oriented version of New Urbanism. There are historical examples of this, going all the way back to ancient Rome, where vehicles were banned from the streets at certain hours of the day. I would like see all new towns and neighborhoods putting the automobile streets at the back of the buildings, while a linear park with cyclists and pedestrians runs along their fronts. The basic infrastructure should be like that but there could be workable variations of this scheme, including carefree zones like we have in many European cities already. Also, a central business district or neighborhood center should always be within walking distance of housing. With the cars and pedestrians on a separate grid, my daughter can walk downtown with friends and I won’t worry that she’ll get run over by a car. To mix cars with pedestrians is ugly, dirty, noisy and dangerous.

I would like see all new towns and neighborhoods putting the automobile streets at the back of the buildings, while a linear park with cyclists and pedestrians runs along their fronts

It seems very clear and smart, but are you talking about re-​planning all the existing cities?

Retrofitting an existing city is more difficult, but it’s practical to pedestrianize certain streets – especially those in historic districts where the streets are already narrow and not conducive to automobile traffic. You wouldn’t want to destroy a historic district to put in a different transportation grid, as was proposed for Paris by Le Corbusier. In Le Corbusier’s case, he wanted to rebuilt the cities for cars, skyscrapers and freeways and we know how that turned out. We should make it very difficult to build suburban sprawl, while streamlining the planning and permitting process for those wanting to develop New Pedestrianism.

Is New Pedestrianism or getting rid of most of the world’s cars being discussed by governments or municipalities? If this is really going to happen, we need to take action now.

There is a trend toward making the cities safer for pedestrians, but very few people are talking about getting rid of all human-​driven cars in exchange for a much smaller number of self-​driving cars. First of all, the car companies want to see more cars on the road, not less. This is only one example of the trend toward automation and the Internet of Everything.

By 2030, we are going to see significant automation in every field, and the next problem will be growing unemployment. We all should think about technological dividends that accrue to everyone. In other words, we should address inequality through guaranteed minimum incomes.

Flying cars are a stereotypical element of many futurist visions. Do you think there is potential for this kind of transportation? 

Remember the cartoon ‘The Jetsons’? They had flying cars. When I was growing up we all thought people would have flying cars and so it’s common now for people to express disappointment in technological progress by asking ‘Where are the flying cars?’ and ‘Why don’t we have space colonies on Mars?’

Some things are simply not practical. Why send squishy, vulnerable, high-​maintenance humans into space, when robots can do the job much better and cheaper? Robots will only get better. Humans will still be subject to radiation poisoning, aversion to zero gravity, motion sickness, boredom, bathroom breaks, etc. for some time to come.

I don’t think that flying cars are going to be the preferable transportation any time soon because of the noise and visual pollution. I might be wrong but my intuition tells me that people will complain if they see too many flying objects in the sky. With virtual reality, high-​speed air travel will be less important. Also, if you can take your office, or entertainment, on the road that is not congested in an autonomous vehicle, the journey is not so arduous.


By the way, the Russian avant-​garde architect Georgy Krutikov even thought about flying cities…

Flying cities are probably just a fantasy, because we humans crave trees, grass, chirping birds and water lapping at the shore. Also we haven’t yet developed an anti-​gravity machine that is practical. It makes a pretty picture, though.

It seems that we simply cannot talk about the cities today without mentioning the ubiquitous 3D printing.

Yes, with molecular manufacturing, you’ll eventually be able to print anything… You can create, deconstruct and recreate buildings at a very low cost. Eventually you’ll have a box in your house – maybe it’ll be in your neighborhood center – in which you can throw in any crap you want and get anything else out at the other end. Your turd can turn into a supercomputer. You will be able to make anything out of anything if things are rearranged on the molecular level. Expect this sort of thing beyond the Technological Singularity – the point beyond which computers surpass human intelligence and become self-​aware. Ray Kurzweil (an American author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist, and a director of engineering at Google – YB) came up with a term – The Law of Accelerating Returns – that refers to the observation that technology is accelerating exponentially. If you take 30 steps linearly you get to 30. Thirty doublings, such as in exponential growth, gets you to a billion. We are seeing this kind of growth in information technology. In 10 years, a computer will be 1,000 times faster for the same price! In 20 years, computers will begin to mimic humans. In 30 or 40 years, they may be self-​aware.

You can throw in any crap you want and get anything else out at the other end. Your turd can turn into a supercomputer

According to Kurzweil’s projections, by 2045, artificial intelligence will exceed the intellect of all humans on Earth combined. Once this line is crossed, the colossal intellect will continue accelerating: then a super-​intellect or a hive mind will emerge. Humans will strive to become part of this swarm intelligence because they don’t want to be left behind by their strange new progeny. The biggest challenge for humans is to survive this transition – the super intelligent entities might want to get rid of us at some point if we have not adapted to the new realities. The transition period will be tricky. What if governments, corporations or newly created entities use technology to hurt people? The evolution of computers may be the greatest existential threat we face, or it could be also the most important step in human evolution.

Back to the the 3-​D printing… Can we imagine the whole cities being printed?

The abilities of a technologically advanced race will seem like magic to us, as Arthur C. Clarke once said. But people are going to evolve as well. If uploading becomes possible, we’ll eventually get rid of our bodies. Perhaps in 50 – 100 years, if we need a body for some reason, we’ll just fabricate one and inhabit it. In this case, we won’t need as many physical buildings. It seems to me, humans will eventually be able to upload their consciousness and join super intelligent entities. Part of our mind will merge with UNICE, the Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities, a hive-​like consciousness that will emerge from the interpenetration of computers, humans and advanced forms of the Internet. Like swarms of creatures acting together – something which is very common with birds and insects – people also will have this hive mentality, they will think as a group, yet still be able to withdraw in order to experience separateness.

It sounds like the end of individuality…

No, but politics and governance will become more efficient – almost automatic. I see UNICE as first being a public policy mind wiki that through group intelligence will come up with practical and equitable solutions to all social problems.

By the way, in my forthcoming book ‘The Time Traveler: An Artist’s Quest Through the Past and Future (1953 – 2045)’ – I write about the past, which is non-​fiction, but if you flip the book over, the back cover becomes the front cover, and it’s another book – a ‘memoir of the future.’ It’s not necessarily predictive, but rather prescriptive. It’s about what I’d like to see happen, rather than what I think will actually happen. Hopefully, it will inspire positive change instead of being a dystopian novel that predicts doom and gloom.

If uploading becomes possible, we’ll eventually get rid of our bodies. Perhaps in 50 – 100 years, if we need a body for some reason, we’ll just fabricate one and inhabit it

I write about my life from 1953 (the actual year of my birth) till 2045, pretending that I am already 92 years old. Chapter by chapter, year by year, I imagine our future. In 2023, for instance Time Magazine puts UNICE on the cover as ‘Entity of the Year’ instead of ‘Person of the Year’. In 2023, UNICE will not yet be self-​aware, but it will be a public policy mind-​wiki – the discernible wisdom of the crowd based on having all the facts.


Any ideas about how we are going to use this group mind?

In 10 years from now, you’ll be able to talk, for instance, to your glasses – smart glasses, – they will display all necessary data, talking back to you, as it were. It will speak to you in your own language or dialect and you will feel like you are talking to yourself. This is the beginning of the hive mind. About 20 years out, I see decisions about issues of local and global importance being made collectively, and much more representationally, according to evolving constitutional guidelines. The benefits of automation should accrue to everyone. Everyone should have their basic needs taken care of, while we should still have incentives for societal contributions and invention. We’ll solve most of the social problems, such as the inequality, poverty, overpopulation, and corruption in electoral politics.

Will people still prefer living in the cities?

The trend is that growing numbers of people want to live in cities, because there is more stuff going on there. Also it is more efficient to have resources arranged in a more compact way. And people are social.

It means that urban growth will continue. Do we still need to (master) plan our cities, or they should just grow on their own as live organisms or hives?

As long as planners use New Pedestrianism… But seriously, we have to manage growth and in some cases, starting from scratch is more practical than trying to rebuild. We should also end population growth – a global problem that is not so apparent in Russia. Instead of adding 220,000 more people to the planet every day, there should be negative population growth. Africa is currently projected to grow from one billion to four billion, and Asia will add a billion if nothing is done. Meanwhile, we are developing technologies that will take care of the production issues related to aging, while at the same developing extreme life extension that may eliminate the negative and lethal effects of aging altogether.