The subtitle of Humes’ new book Door to Door is The magnificent, maddening, mysterious world of transportation. It was previously mentioned on TreeHugger in the context of a short excerpt about the role of the car, but that is only one very small part of the world of transportation. It is a complex world that even our grandparents would barely recognize; Humes notes in the introduction:
Not only is it complex now, it is going to be changing even more rapidly in the future as self-driving vehicles change our cars and 3D printing changes our distribution. He ends the introduction with the warning “Buckle up” but could have added Bette Davis’s follow-up “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
We live like no other civilization in history, embedding ever greater amounts of miles within our goods and lives as a means of making everyday products and services seemingly more efficient and affordable. In the past, distance meant the opposite: added cost, added risk, added uncertainty. It’s as if we are defying gravity. The logistics involved in just one day of global goods movement dwarfs the Normandy invasion and the Apollo moon missions combined.
It was really hard for me not to love this book from the very first chapter. Here, he looks at the impact of the smart phone, which has displaced the transportation of newspapers and more : “smartphones have become the Swiss Army knives of the tech world, displacing a host of specialized devices: music players, alarm clocks, radios, cameras, calculators, tape recorders, GPS navigation devices, calendars, date books, Rolodexes, handheld gaming devices, metronomes, egg timers, flashlights.” (see the Radio Shack ad we showed where every single thing they sold in 1980 could be done today on a single iPhone:)
Yet to just make the home button on that iPhone involved suppliers and manufacturers by the dozens, spread from Changsha in Hunan to factories in Europe.
Much of this was made possible because of the shipping container, the “can” that transformed transportation. This, along with changes and tariffs and political changes in China, made the global economy happen. Whether it will last or change again as manufacturing gets “reshored” is another story.
Humes goes everywhere with this story; My favourite chapter is the story of the disposable aluminum beverage can. We have become so used to it that we forget the infrastructure behind it, from aluminum smelting to can production to nationwide distribution.
Yet habit, time, and ubiquity have drained this achievement of its true wonder and rendered it not just ordinary but beneath our notice. It’s simply a thing we buy and use and expect, which is the unintended but inevitable accomplishment of our modern, have-it-now logistics age: turning the remarkable into the mundane. And that’s the trap: Who questions what’s beneath notice? Who asks why—if—we need such products, or even if they make sense?
Then it is on to how we transport coffee, and how we move people in cars that are such terrible dangerous devices that kill so many people. (read the excerpt in the Atlantic here.) “No part of our infrastructure and daily lives wastes more energy and, by extension, more money than the modern automobile.” Its impact on our health, our climate and our landscape is laid bare, along with the fact that “When it comes to the number of people who die in car wrecks, America experiences the equivalent of four airliner crashes every week.”
But just as the manufacturers fought against mandatory seat belts, they still fight the kind of major changes that could make driving safer for everyone. Even though there are recalls and lawsuits over keychains and floor mats,
There has never been a recall aimed at fixing cars so drunks cannot start them, or so drivers cannot exceed the speed limit, or to prevent cell phones from being used while cars are in motion. Cars currently are designed to allow, even enable, all three of these deadly behaviors, although affordable technology exists that could make all three impossible.
Humes is an optimist about the self-driving car or autonomous vehicle, and sees them taking over the roads. In fact, he sees a future where the person-driven car (retronym alert!) will be entertainment rather than transportation.
The evolution of horse travel provides the road map for the future of the human-driven car, the difference between transportation and recreation. Horses were once beasts of burden. They were our motors… Now horseback riding is a luxury, enjoyed not on the regular streets and highways they gave up to cars and trucks, but in parks, on trails, and in equine-friendly communities. Cars will follow the same pattern. If there is a demand for it, there will be car parks and preserves and safe roads where humans can drive manually away from regular traffic.
I apologize for this being less a review and more a collection of quotes. But the book is so damn quotable, nuggets of information in every chapter. It drags ever so slightly in the discussions about logistics and pizza, (well actually, pizza is pretty interesting) but now I can’t look at a pizza and not think that the logistics that get it to my door are almost as complex as those behind the iPhone.
The book covers subjects that I know well and I was prepared to be critical. With such an immense subject it could have been wide but shallow, but in fact is a deep dive into one of the biggest stories of our time. After finishing the book I wanted to track a Fedex package I was shipping and remembered his Hume’s description of this magic:
Every time you visit the Web site for UPS or Amazon or Apple and instantly learn where in the world your product or package can be found and when it will thump on your doorstep, you have achieved something that all but the still-living generations of humanity would have declared impossible or demonic.
It is all unbelievable and magical. And it’s all in Door to Door.