Monday, January 26, 2009

An Easy Exercise in Modern Dystopia

My fellow Americans: let's imagine, for just a moment, the view from outside our society, looking in. This is an easy exercise for just about anyone in the continental US to pull off. All you need is easy access to an area with some suburban sprawl and a sturdy pair of shoes.
Step one: imagine a location within this suburban sprawl that you might like to visit. This could be a big-box grocery or department store, a specialty retailer or restaurant. It doesn't matter. If you plan to do any heavy shopping, it would be a good idea to bring your own bags. This is not for environmental reasons, as you'll see in a moment.
Step two: walk to this location. If your desired destination is more than two miles or so away (depending on your physical condition) you might want to park somewhere closer and only walk part of the way. However, for the full effect, you'll want to make sure that you need to cross some highway onramps and other areas of high-speed traffic. I recommend that you walk from your home. As mentioned above, be sure to bring your own bags with sturdy handles, because the handles of plastic bags tend to become painful during a longer trip.
On your way, it's likely that there will be sidewalks within your immediate neighborhood. They will be mostly empty, with only yourself and perhaps a few children of elementary school age to be seen. Many cars will pass, however.
As you get closer to the suburban commercial district, it's likely that the sidewalks will disappear. If there are sidewalks, the only people you will share them with are, in all likelihood, recent immigrants riding bicycles to their physically-demanding jobs. This is far more likely in California than on the eastern seaboard. In areas without sidewalks, you may be forced, at times, to walk on the shoulder of the road, sharing space with automobiles. Do so carefully, as this is a very precarious position, due the size and velocity of the vehicles.
Drivers will likely allow you to proceed across roads at intersections; cross carefully, however, as automobile drivers are unaccustomed to sharing this type of road with pedestrians, or may be distracted. Some intersections, especially those with lights, may have pedestrian crossing signals; others, like highway ramps, likely have none.
To enhance the experience, you can undertake this expedition during inclement weather; this will increase your discomfort and reduce driver visibility, making it even more dangerous.
After some time, you will reach the parking lot of your chosen business. While within the lot, your relationship to society changes. On the outskirts, you must contend with cars as they attempt to turn into the lot and find parking. As you approach the entrance, however, you will enter into areas of higher pedestrian density. Once you enter the business, you will find that you have been welcomed back into the arms of commerce, and that you have returned to a common, accepted societal role. This may be slightly shocking, having just come from your walk through the nearby roads, where your pedestrian activities actively impeded the flow of the dominant automobiles.
I hope that you have found the exercise enlightening, and please use due caution on your return trip.
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