As I dictate the original words of this post into my digital recorder (for which I will edit later) I am sitting in traffic headed into Pittsburgh for a daylong series of continuing education classes hosted by AIA Pittsburgh. I am passing the time.
I’m reminded it has been more than 14 years since my daily commute on this route ended; it has also been more than 22 years ago that started. In 1995 I joyfully began a new job downtown Pittsburgh and commuted more than 35 miles each way for more than eight years. Most of that time I happily tolerated it or didn’t mind the commute as I mentally found ways to deal with it. Once we get away from this type of daily challenge, we are quickly reminded of how glad it is over.
Now my mind is thinking about the automobile, this early 20th century symbol of freedom and muscle flexing manifestation of technology and the power of mass production. Is it possibly masking a larger problem as we live far and away from family, work or other necessities? I can’t live without my car. We have built a life that requires it, as have most of the people in this country and many other countries around the world. However, it does begin to raise a question as we see the effects of traffic and our concern over how we measure our time on this planet. It seems utterly wasteful to tax ourselves the high price of sitting in traffic with very little to do but pass the time instead of use the time. We know the audio book industry has grown and the podcast world has flourished because of it. But as I see the lady in the car next to me eating breakfast while driving, I wonder about the amount of fossil fuels being burnt to keep these mobile vehicles creeping along. I should wonder was it worth it?
Some of my recent travels for work or for attending our son’s track meets around Western Pennsylvania have taken me through a lot of sleepy old towns that were built around industry. As an architect, I can’t help but wonder how they emerged a century or two ago and even with perfunctory observation skills, it is quickly evident that people built their houses close to work. You may say “of course they did” because they had to walk to work because the automobile had been invented yet. There seems to have been a very simple, but rational mindedness to people when they settled down to build a life; a few simple things were important – have a family, live close to your income source, and be part of a village or community.
Maybe as I approach the half-century mark, I think differently than when I was twenty, and perhaps those who are currently twenty-something easily dismiss this because they’ve never known a life without their current technology. Maybe they see it like me. I have always been a believer in a “moving forward” mindset. In other words, aging people reminisce and wax nostalgic (as I often do), yet they often they wish for the days of old more often. I bet if the genie granted the wish to go backwards to restore life to a previous time, when according to their memories was simple and better, they would go. It’s obviously a bit adolescent and we would be quickly reminded how our memories are biased towards better things; the bad days and unpleasant events are placed on the lower shelf of the library of our mind.
It does make one wonder if things are in fact, progressing or if they’re just merely changing. I believe asking questions is more important than getting answers – for in the asking of questions, hopefully one stumbles upon the value of asking better questions. Before answers can be provided, we need to be asking the right questions, otherwise we may move forward, but progress nowhere.