November 25, 2013

A World Walker Discovers Car Brain

Paul Salopek is walking across the world, retracing the pathways of the first humans who colonized the planet at least 60,000 years ago.

When he crosses the Red Sea into the Middle East, car ownership explodes to 300 or more vehicles per 1,000 citizens (the figure in the United States balloons to about 800) and he enters “a region subjugated utterly by the vulcanized rubber tire. The car has become a prosthetic … for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”


I just call it Car Brain.

The incidence of Car Brain grows with rising latitudes across the surface of the world. (Then it vanishes at the poles, where Plane Brain replaces it.) In the affluent Global North, this syndrome will be familiar to any hiker who has had to share a walked landscape with motor vehicles.

Cocooned inside a bubble of loud noise and a tonnage of steel, members of the internal combustion tribe tend to adopt ownership of all consumable space. They roar too close. They squint with curiosity out of the privacy of their cars as if they themselves were invisible. …

More striking than a Car Brain’s impaired road etiquette, though, are the slow pleasures it misses in life. The Car Brain will never know the ceremony of authentic departures and arrivals. …

Car Brains have lost all knowledge of human interactions on foot. People stiffen when they see a pedestrian approaching from a distance. But they relax and smile as they hear your voice, see your empty (unarmed) hands. …

AND then there is simply the act of traveling through the world at three miles per hour — the speed at which we were biologically designed to move. There is something mesmerizing about this pace that I still can’t adequately describe. …

I have nothing personal against motorized travel. Cars build middle classes. They grant us undreamed-of freedom. And I suspect that I’ll be driving away from my walk’s end point in Chile in 2020. But it’s probably inevitable that, as I plod through the Middle East, Asia and the Americas over the next six years, I’ll become increasingly alienated from the growing bulk of humanity afflicted by Car Brain. …

It can be lonely out here among the Car Brains. Sometimes, out walking, I feel like a ghost.


Read the full, elegant essay here in the New York Times.

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