By Shaun Scott
For members of Generation X looking to crawl out from under Baby Boomer mores, the Volkswagen Beetle once promised a trippy alternative to the unsustainable conventions of suburban existence. With their much-lauded efficiency and countercultural marketing, Volkswagen licensed the budding adulthood of an entire generation—but their bit-sized bugs weren’t a perfect fit for those that came after. For Millennials who live in gentrified cities instead of increasingly unaffordable suburbs, the convenience and maneuverability of the Volkswagen Beetle has met its match in ride-sharing services like Car2Go and ZipCar.
Ride-sharing promises all the tactical advantages of a tiny car, but burden users with none of the responsibilities of ownership. People who need to get to a Tinder date across town or swing by that new artisanal mayonnaise joint on Front Street register for the service, then reserve vehicles with a web browser or smartphone app. ZipCar provides a wide selection of vehicles—everything from Volkswagens to BMWs—but it competes for market share with Car2Go, which only offers those tiny blue and grey pods whose appearance nobody respects. While ZipCar requires drivers to return their vehicles to the lot where they were picked up, Car2Go lets you ditch it anywhere. By limiting availability to metropolitan areas and enforcing penalties for driving the car too far, Car2Go and ZipCar are both intended specifically for urbanite existence.
Make no mistake: ride-sharing is a byproduct of gentrification—of the massive civic reinvestment we’ve made in predominately low-income black American cities which were redlined, and starved of its resources.
For much of the mid-20th century, blacks in inner cities were subject to a policy of “benign neglect,” as residential segregation barred us from burgeoning suburbs that defined the American Dream. Times only changed when the energy panics and recessions of the 1970s heralded a neoliberal status quo that pushed Americans back into cities they once fled. Just as car ownership in the 1950s was an expression of the social contract between civic planners, corporations, and citizens who were encouraged to live in suburbs and drive to cities for work, ride-sharing today is an expression of an era whose socioeconomic hallmarks are privatization, increased urbanization, and digital convenience.
For sociologists Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski, the digital tools that enable ride-sharing are expressions of The New Spirit of Capitalism. As Millennials, we find ourselves embroiled in an economy where we work on short-term contracts for multiple employers. Because we often labor for low (or no) wages, we blow what little money we have on experiences that we share with the world on Instagram. Instead of saving money, many of us hoard our social capital in hopes that one day these connections will add up to a “real” job with a predictable schedule and benefits.
In the era of the 29-year-old unpaid intern, the personal computer and the smartphone that make ride-sharing possible, satisfy demands for the free flow of information and personal networks—but they also tether us to an information economy that runs 24/7. We’re constantly within arms reach of employers who ask us to do temp-work at erratic hours via e-mail. We allow Facebook to notify us of nebulous “networking” events that we drag ourselves to in hopes of hitting the social lottery somehow.
ZipCar belongs to a world where we have more things to drive to, but also more things we want to escape.
Meanwhile, Millennials in search of a metaphor for the complex relationship between capitalism and racism in the 21st century may look no further than Car2Go.
Just as the freedoms afforded by the smartphone come at a considerable cost to our mental health and sleep cycles, there’s an insidious way in which our cultural successes as African-Americans hamper us politically. The gains we make on the tiers of music, movies, and sports frequently set us back economically, politically, and socially. Societal progress is incremental, but individual success can be measured in zeros and commas; we tend to lean towards the latter. Sales of The Roots’ turn-of-the-century classic Things Fall Apart may have benefitted from their appearance in a Volkswagen commercial, but—in retrospect—the ad seemed to celebrate gentrification.
The tradeoff between artistic triumph and social justice is a huge sum of the Millennial socioeconomic inheritance. And it isn’t the quaint Beetle that expresses the Millennial condition, but the Car2Go.
We want a more perfect union, but this conflicts with our need for autonomy. We want to be “there” for you, as long we don’t have to drive too far on trips we’re being charged $0.41 a mile for—Car2Go is based on a certain urbanite idealism, but it’s also ruthlessly pragmatic: when the ride is over, it’s over.
Millennials loaded-up on the cultural hype machine surrounding Barack Obama in 2008, but grew disillusioned as it became clear that he couldn’t be a Magic Negro—à la Morgan Freeman—who would solve a socioeconomic problems caused by neoliberalism and the Republican counter-revolution in the 1980s. Obama, though reelected in 2012, failed to match the soaring optimism of his presidency just 4 years earlier.
In 2008 he was Black Jesus, but in 2012 he only had to be any minimally competent democrat. See that back lot over there behind the vegan cupcake shop—the one littered with dashed hopes and unrealistic expectations? That’s where you leave the symbol of racial reconciliation when you don’t need it anymore.
Some of us flaunt our politics like we drive our cars. I’m a black man and a Millennial. I share think-pieces about police brutality that show-up in my newsfeed. I’ve been known to court my fair share of Twitter beef with silly trolls. And I like the pictures on Instagram that feature friends of mine pumping their fists at protests. But I haven’t showed up to as many as I could.
I’ve come to realize that the commitment to justice can’t be treated like a Car2Go. If I want a better world to live in, I have to take ownership. And maybe ownership is a hard concept to understand for a generation that came up on temp work, 6-month leases, and ride-shares.
We can write-off our one-off commitments, but taking ownership is taxing. And yet we can’t afford not to do it. Now that the joyride is over, have you given any thought to how you’ll be getting back to reality?
*Featured Image Credit: www.galleryhip.com
Shaun Scott is a writer and filmmaker. His reflections on race, spectacle, and popular culture have appeared in The Monarch Review and City Arts Magazine. Find him on Facebook and follow him @eyesonthestorm.
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