Autonomy and relational mobility

-by Dhan Zunino Singh, CONICET, National University of Quilmes, Argentina

In Buenos Aires, a metropolitan area of 12 million people, due to the coronavirus the use of public transport has been discouraged and limited (only seated passengers) while private transport has been encouraged -all of this, of course, for those who cannot work from home. The rate of car use has increased. Streets are congested, but drivers in private vehicles feel safer and the public policy of reducing mass transport use seems to be successful.

The cocoon effect of the car increases the feeling of safety. Cars provide mobile form of isolation. Drivers are able to engage in social distancing while in motion, neither others infecting nor being infected. Yet automobility is a system -more than the car. Every car moves the driver and passengers inside, but others outside are also mobilized in the process. People who work maintaining and repairing traffic signals and infrastructure, at car parks, gas stations or car washes, make automobility possible. Indeed, car washing is crucial for (avoiding) infection! As a driver, should I clean my vehicle myself instead of exposing others to a possible infection? Washing, after all, is probably one of the few moments when others, total strangers, enter your car.

Those who make automobility possible are workers, mostly public transport commuters, whose mobility has been restricted. Car drivers’ safety, in other words, is based on other people’s risks. The coronavirus thus highlights what we already know but tend to overlook: mobility, even in its most seemingly autonomous form, is relational.    

Corona and contemporary mobilities

-by Aharon Kellerman, University of Haifa

One way of looking at mobilities during these challenging Corona days, is noting the sharp decline in mechanized physical mobilities. This refers to terrestrial mobilities, including mainly trains, cars and buses, as well as to global ones, performed mainly through planes. During pre-modern eruptions of widely spread plagues, such slowdowns or almost full halts of physical mobilities amounted to a temporary suspension of mobilities at large. The current global epidemics is identified by a stopping of human physical mobilities, but this occurs side by side with continued open doors for the flows of commodities and information, both of which flowing at the domestic and international levels alike. The continued flows of commodities and information amount to continued domestic and global mobilities at the present, despite of the stopping of human physical mobilities. These mobilities will further serve as the basis for renewed human physical mobilities, once the plague will be over. The mechanized means for physical human mobilities exist, so that one can assume renewed wide physical mobilities following the end of the Corona crisis. However, it might well be that border crossing may involve new restrictions, such as temperature checking (as China used to require several years ago). The major difference between historical wide-ranging plagues and the current one is the wide availability of telecommunicated media for virtual mobilities. Mass communications media, notably radio and TV, permit authorities to distribute warnings, orders and guidelines to large populations, and this may turn out to constitute a major element in the fight against the continued spread of the Corona virus. Even more significant is the contemporary ability of people, who are forced to stay at home, to continue their work and stay in touch with their social contacts through the Internet, which further permits the reaching of endless sources for entertainment, news and knowledge. Obviously, if these media would not have existed, the behavior of populations during the virus crisis would have been completely different, possibly bringing about additional sick and dead people. Autonomous automobility, notably through shared autonomous vehicles, if available already now, could assist in the maintenance of healthier mobility, by the provision of a possible automatic cleaning and sterilization of cars after each ride. However, the very availability of autonomous vehicles would not make a difference, as compared to driven cars, since there are no destinations to go to, when everything is shut down…

#staythefuckathome

-by Johannes Starkbaum, CAS, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

Official curfew is on in Vienna. People are told to keep distance, especially the elderly. The streets in the periphery neighborhoods have been quite empty already during the last days. People go out for walking and running, yet not as many as usual for these spring days. The situation might be different in the inner parts of Vienna. I read a lot about current developments in newspapers and through micro-blogging. Several people go out for work or shopping, others seem to enjoy the fresh air. Social distancing does not comply well with public transport. In Social Media bubbles, biking is discussed as safe and sustainable way for arranging mobility. At the same time, I imagine other bubbles discussing the car as safe haven, where the driver and its companions are shielded inside. Either way, people seek distance.Solidarity is discussed as a key component of the current policies for reducing an exponential growth of infections. The younger population usually shows mild symptoms whereas older people and those with preconditions suffer far often from complications. People online tell each other to #staythefuckathome no matter if she/he is part of an at-risk group in order to reduce infections and thus to avoid a collapse of the health system. Solidarity is a concept also used in bioethics debates on data sharing for medical research, where larger populations give data for the benefits of others or future generations, stored in large and increasingly connected repositories called biobanks (Prainsack and Buyx 2012). Finally, today, newspapers announced that Austria’s major telecom company, A1, unleashed anonymous mobility data of citizens in order to track infection routes. Extraordinary events have caused such secondary use of data in the past – also in the field of biobanks. We have seen this in cases of serial crimes and in the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian ocean. Such extraordinary events trigger change and enable things that would have been impossible a few weeks before – ranging from people stop shaking hands to new types of data usage. I am wondering how the current situation will impact our mobility practices and our social life beyond this recent crisis. 

Prainsack, Barbara, and Alena Buyx. “Solidarity in contemporary bioethics–towards a new approach.”Bioethics 26.7 (2012): 343-350.

A return of the car?

-by Gert Schmidt, University Nuremberg-Erlangen

I doubt that my contribution is going to fit with exposing another critical reflection as a critic of automobilism. Let me say this: right now (facing corona) I am glad having a car as it is not very clever to use subway, trains, and buses for getting my everyday things done – buying food, visiting my dentist and close friends, etc. Living in Munich very near to a subway-station, I normally use public transportation — but today, and for next couple of months I will enjoy having my little Smart for all the necessary, and not so necessary activities of physical mobility … I suppose that many other people having internalized the fashionable attitude ‘be critical regarding automobility’ will have similar experiences.

Driving Through Corona City

-by Ole B. Jensen, Aalborg University

Last night I took the car from my house on the city edge to the centre. My daughter lives there, and as a senior medicine student she is getting ready to join the Corona crew at the local hospital. I brought her some food and freshly baked bread, and a few other things. She is not isolated, but needs to minimize social contact in order to be ready for ‘the call’.

As I drove through the city, I clearly sensed the lack of traffic compared to an ordinary evening. I also noticed the lights in the flats – many more people seemed to be at home. When I reached her street, she came down and picked up the things from the trunk of the car. This way she would not get into contact. We briefly chatted at a safe distance through the window, and I returned to my house.

This trip made me think of the old debate about the car. Is it really a cocoon or an ‘iron cage’ of modern mobility as John Urry (2004) claimed? I often refused this interpretation in my advocacy of seeing the car as ‘filtering’ rather than ‘isolating’ (Jensen 2013). We are sensing-through the car as it mediates the ‘I-World relation’ (Ihde 2009). Speed, street surfaces, lights, and smells are not ‘gone’ but rather transformed and mediated. However driving through Corona City seems to suggest that there is an element of cocooning as well.

I felt rather protected and safe in this iron box (and I do not drive a ‘Hummer’). However, I still prefer to think of the relationship as one of human/non-human hybridity, where the car mediates my senses through a filtering process of ‘osmosis’ (Jensen 2016). We might want to think about it with Sloterdijk’s metaphor of ‘foam’ (2016) pointing to the interconnectedness and the porous relationship between inside and outside, between cell and cell within a foam structure. This is echoing Latour’s point that ‘we are enveloped’ (2008), and my car is such an envelope.

The trip re-enacted an understanding of the embodied and emotive attachments to the car, what Sheller describes as ‘automotive emotions’ (Sheller 2004). As I realized during the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull back in 2010 (Jensen 2011), extreme disruptions are windows into the psycho-practical bonding between mobility technology and humans, and between humans and the infrastructure/city. To move towards a ‘critical automobility perspective’, we need to appreciate this affective dimension. My trip through Corona City was moreover a reminder that disruptive events may work to ‘think with’, and ‘thinking with Corona’ opens up to understand how car-drivers are attached to the car by this strange effect of protection, mobility, and mediation.

References

Ihde, D. (2009) Post-phenomenology and Technology. The Peking University Lectures, New York: SUNY Press

Jensen, O. B. (2011) Emotional Eruptions, Volcanic Activity and Global Mobilities – a Field Account from a European in the US During the Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, Mobilities, Vol. 6, No. 1, February 2011, pp. 67-75

Jensen, O. B. (2013) Staging Mobilities, London: Routledge

Jensen, O. B. (2016) Of ‘other’ materialities: why (mobilities) design is central to the future of mobilities research, Mobilities, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 587-597

Latour, B. (2008) A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), Keynote lecture for the ‘Networks of Design’ meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3rd September 2008

Sheller, M. (2004) Autoemotive emotions: Feeling the car, Theory, Culture & Society, 21 (4/5), 221-242

Sloterdijk, P. (2016) Spheres. Volume 3: Foams. Plural Spherology, South Pasadena: Semiotext(e)

Urry, J. (2004) The ‘system’ of automobility, Theory, Culture & Society, 21 (4/5), 25-39

Some Thoughts on What Comes After A Mobility Shock

-by Mimi Sheller, Drexel University, Philadelphia

As the coronavirus sweeps around the world, outpacing public health efforts to contain it, all human mobilities have been brought to an abrupt halt. People have stopped going to work, children are kept home from school, many businesses have closed their doors, airplanes have stopped flying, cruise ships are turned away from ports, borders are closing, factories have stopped churning out products, and the shipment of goods globally has vastly slowed. The governing regime of mobilities has been thrown into sudden disarray, and with it the world economy. Under these exigencies to de-mobilize our lives, we are forced to adopt new routines, new habits, and new ways of stilling ourselves, our economies, and our social interactions. Universities, of course, have also closed, and I write this from home under orders of social distancing, while I prepare my Spring term course for online teaching.

Additionally, shortly on the heels of this global slow down there is also a mounting shift towards new patterns and kinds of mobilities: we hear of evacuations of travelers returning from abroad, essential workers getting to their jobs by bike or walking, and university students moving out of their dormitories. Governors are calling for surge capacity, mobilizing the National Guard, and perhaps the military armed forces. Local communities are planning for drive-in virus testing, online working, delivery services, and logistical processes to re-fill grocery store shelves. We learn that if governments do not extend the social safety net, at least here in the United States, we will soon see evictions, homeless people roaming the streets, and further uncontrolled spread of CoVid-19. Amid these unfamiliar mobilities we hear calls for social solidarity, as much as social distancing.

Crucially, there has also been a global slowdown of fossil fuel consumption, and a collapsing price for oil. As transportation and production seize up, and international travel shuts down, the demand for fossil fuel is plunging. If airlines go bankrupt, if trucking is severely reduced, and consumers stop buying new cars, will this actually kickstart the transition away from fossil fuels? As countries seek to recover and pull out of this mobility shock, will we seek to return to the high-mobility, high-energy, high-carbon economy of the past? Or will we begin the urgently needed shift to a low-carbon economy, one premised on more resilient, regenerative, and circular forms of local exchange? Could this be the push we needed to truly implement the low-carbon transition that scientists have warned us is necessary to stop the global climate emergency?

While some might see this as the wrong time to worry about climate change — in the midst of a viral emergency that needs immediate response — for others these two things are connected. While it may not be clear yet whether climate change has facilitated the jump of new coronavirus from wildlife to humans, certainly scientists have been predicting increasing risks of pandemics. Even more to the point, though, our response to CoVid-19 may share crucial elements with our needed response to climate change. Both problems remind us that the world is interconnected, and we cannot wall ourselves off. And while some societies might veer towards authoritarian and military responses, demonizing outsiders and rallying nationalism, others are recognizing the need for international cooperation, mutual solidarity, and shared resources and knowledge.

Above all, though, it is becoming clearer that the response to both coronavirus and climate change share common elements. Proponents of the Green New Deal in the United States, or the Green Deal in Europe, have been calling for a massive transformation of our energy infrastructure, housing, and transportation systems through public investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and low-carbon transportation. These proposals are exactly the kind of government stimulus that could also help pull our economies out of the current slump, and build more resilient communities with greater social solidarity.

So, while we are still in the midst of the immediate emergency response, it is also worthwhile to begin to envision and plan for our recovery and rebuilding process. Mobilities theory is crucial to this planning because we have been focusing for the last fifteen years on the problem of low-carbon transitions and understanding how everyday social practices are embedded in complex systemic change. Changing the ways that we do mobilities will be crucial to the post-CoVid-19 world. And making sure we do so in a socially equitable and just way will be crucial to the future of the world.

About blog posts

Every crisis is an opportunity.

Call for photos: (auto)mobility and Covid-19

As pictures tell thousand stories, we would like to complement our blog reflections with pictures: photos reflecting on how mobilities, personal and social timespace was rearranged the world over due to the virus and the measures taken.

Please send us your personal photos about (auto)mobility life in coronatimes. We will publish them on the blog and later, maybe, create an exhibition at the Institute for Advanced Studies, in Vienna.

Please send them to cas@ihs.ac.at

By sending the photos, you agree to their publication on the CAS website, the potential presentation at a public exhibition at the IHS, and its use for creating scientific reflections on these (publications).

We want to collect your experiences related to the current rearrangement of personal and social perspectives on mobility. Please continue also to send us (personal) reflections, approx. 250 words, in an academic blog fashion (personal reflection, but also some level of learned explanation, maybe reference in literature etc.). You are, of course, invited to write about anything that is of interest to you in this specific situation animated by corona.

Please send your entries to cas@ihs.ac.at and we will notify you once it is online.

Thank you!

Reflections on Coronavirus days

-by Robert Braun, CAS, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

First day of effective curfew – basically government ordered ’stay home’ immobility in Vienna. Trying to settle in to the new temporary life: somewhat longer sleep, breakfast together with family and then starting work. Two online meetings – not unusual for international projects, but strange for our office jour fixe. I am looking at the video-feed, a somewhat strange intrusion into my colleague’s privacy, a voyeur’s peep into everybody’s home. Only those switch off video, who log on via phone – closing down is opening up in other ways. Later a walk to the local shop to get essentials: no cars; silence of the street, some people pass by. The sounds, or rather the no sound is eerie and uplifting. Families with children taking a walk, most of them letting their kids – small ones – run around; no fears of fast cars passing. People keep a distance when passing each other on the narrow pavement, but nobody steps off onto ’car territory’ yet.  

No passer by is rushing, people seem to walk slower. There are no meetings to be missed, people are not in a hurry. They also look at each other with worry – there is a sense of distrust, as the sickness is invisible. I pass an older lady with a dog, our dogs sniff each other, we both try to step back a little but the leashes hold us together; for a brief moment we are entangled, as always, but this time we do not want to get nearer to let the dogs befriend, but withdraw to our own; Harvey’s time-space compression[1] seems to aquire a new meaning. As labor, circulation, capital as well as movement and human spacetime is rearranged by a virus, time and space are both compressed and decompressed; commodities are behind closed doors; capital flows are blocked and mechanized movement is almost stopped.

Virus time and virus space is on. A beginning of an end. Of what is not yet known.

[1] David Harvey (1990) Between Space and Time: Reflections on the Geographical Imagination, Annals of the Association of American Geographers Vol. 80, No. 3. pp. 428-434. 

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