Progress is Stuck in Traffic

Posted: November 7, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post follows somewhat thematically with the wonderful posts written this week by Michael Stelzer Jocks and Tricia Lunt. Read those, too!)

The first time I heard of the internet was in the early 1990s while my family was at the Rosemont Convention Center. My parents were at a Pet Expo on the main floor, and my older brother and I sneaked upstairs to a small computer show.

My 8-year-old brain didn’t retain much from that afternoon, except a foggy memory of standing still and listening intently to a “grown up” (who was probably 23) tell us about this amazing computer program called Prodigy that allowed people to do amazing things like order items from Service Merchandise. My mind was absolutely blown. I could now order a blender, a vacuum cleaner, and a Phillips CD-i without leaving my bedroom!

I linked out to info on “Prodigy,” “Service Merchandise,” and “Phillips CD-i” for everyone under 30.

I linked out to info on “Prodigy,” “Service Merchandise,” and “Phillips CD-i” for everyone under 30.

Twenty-three years later, this internet thing has really caught on! It’s WAY more than just a fancy alternative to mail order catalogs. And forget being “home” for internet access; lots of us have the internet in the palm of our hands – literally – with smartphones.

The extraordinary advancements in computers and mobile technology make me proud of human ingenuity and I’m giddy to see what technology will come next.

But then there are days like yesterday, when I was stuck in traffic for three hours, that I start to lose faith in humankind’s collective ability to be, ya know, smart n’ stuff.

My drive to work on a normal day takes about 50 minutes. A wee bit long, but not unreasonable. However, yesterday, rain coupled with car accidents turned I-57 and I-94 heading into Chicago into a stream of idle metal boxes. Rather than arrive an hour early to work, as planned, I arrived an hour late.


Like all people, traffic makes me angry. I’m angry at whoever caused the accident. I’m angry at all the other people around me for clogging the road by deciding they should also go to work today. I’m angry at myself for not clairvoyantly predicting this dilemma and setting out from home even earlier than I did.

On top of all of that, I’m angry at us humans, because whenever I’m stuck in traffic staring at a sea of brake lights, I always think the same thing: We’ve got to be able to do better than this.

Ford Model T

Ford Model T

Automobiles have been around for nearly 130 years, and started becoming common over 100 years ago with the Ford Model T. A century later, we’re still driving around – sticking it out to the bitter, expensive, polluting, trafficky end. Sure, cars have improved, but they’re still cars. This is humankind’s brilliant solution to the simple problem of how to get from Point A to Point B: sit on top of four wheels and roll around slowly and inefficiently.

There has to be a better answer.

In the early 2000s, I overheard two of my college professors discussing this secret project that was in the news. Apparently, this project was for a new invention that would revolution transportation. I did some research, but everything about the project was kept extraordinarily quiet, except the deafening buzz surrounding the product’s unveiling. I imagined it could be the flying car, or personal spaceships, or teleportation. But what was it?

The Segway.

11 1/2 out of 13 people agree that it's possible to raise both hands while riding a Segway.

11 1/2 out of 13 tourists agree that it’s possible to raise both hands while riding a Segway.

Oh how revolutionary it is! Now tourists can take “walking” tours at 1.5x their normal speed! And mall cops can glide effortlessly between Auntie Anne’s and Mrs. Fields, all while striking two-wheeled terror into the hearts of the restless, mall-roaming youths.

But, I suppose I should at least give credit to the Segway for being something slightly different, because therein lies the true difficulty in creativity and innovation: nobody has thought of it yet. It’s easy to propose changes to what currently exists: make cars and trains and planes faster, make their fuel cleaner, make them more comfortable. Build bigger roads, build better rails. All of that may help, and all of it may improve our situation, but none of it is the ultimate answer to transportation. Inventing an ultimate answer from scratch – on any issue – is much more difficult.

Nonetheless, how is it that we can go from Prodigy to iPhones in under a quarter-century, but have been stuck with cars for more than a century? We humans are capable of such magnificent ingenuity, and yet simultaneously, we can be so creatively bankrupt as to accept never-ending brake lights as a solution to anything other than how to raise someone’s blood pressure.

C’mon, humanity. We’re smarter than this. We’ve got to be able to do better.

I hope.


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