Skip to 0 minutes and 12 secondsLook at this. A speed bump, or speed hump, or speed cushion. They belong to the family of what they call traffic calming devices. It's an anti modernist invention! It's interrupting the smooth flow of progress, slowing things down. That can't be a good thing, can it? Getting in the way of the free flow of progress? Remember the pedestrian crossing? That was a bit of technology that was invented so that cars and human beings on foot could coexist in the city. But it turns out it wasn't enough. People were still getting run over, apparently. Signs showing speed limits did not create enough moral force to slow people down. So the landscape was altered to interact with the technology of the car.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 secondsYou can't go too fast over a speed bump without car and driver lurching around uncomfortably. So this invention is interesting in itself, because of what it tells us about humans and their environments. It assumes we've got a slightly wild nature— that, given the chance, we'll put the foot down. Or that our techniques for internalising morals aren't effective enough, which is another way of saying, training to be obedient in family or school is just not working. So we might have to conclude that it's a technology that enforces a morality, as so many other technologies do— locks and honesty, frosted glass on bathrooms and modesty, alarm clocks and punctuality and work. Thus, our human nature can't be taken for granted.

Skip to 1 minute and 51 secondsIt's engineered by our built environment. And in this, human nature is still very much a work in progress. I'm looking forward to the next invention that enforces my obedience to higher order values like safety, industriousness, and health.

Speed bump

In this video, Stephen argues that a speed bump is “a technology that enforces a morality” — in this case, it enforces a value system or mode of conduct for driving in urban areas.

This example is important for several reasons.

Like Eben’s article on Palo Verde National Park, it illustrates the embeddedness of scientific facts, technology and human value systems. Unlike Eben’s research, however, this example takes place within the “built” environment.

So far, our discussion of the interconnections between sciences and humanities, and between facts and values, has focused largely on examples from the “natural” environment. However, it is important to recognise that our argument about the interconnections between facts and values extends to all types of environments. As you’ll see in Week 2, the Environmental Humanities attempts to break down any conceptual distinctions between humans and “nature”.

Discussion:

  • Do you agree with Stephen’s conclusion that “our ‘human nature’ can’t be taken for granted; it is engineered by our built environment”? Why or why not?

References

  1. Ghassan Hage, “On the Ethics of Pedestrian Crossings: Or Why ‘Mutual Obligation’ Does Not Belong in the Language of Neo-liberal Economics,” Meanjin, vol. 59, no. 4 (2000): 27-37.

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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

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