Future Tense

Ubering Through the Anthropocene

Ride-sharing is a mundane example of planetary destruction.

A line of Uber and Lyft cars, with a dark black sedan in front.
Everything looks ordered and idyllic on the smartphone screen, but in the real world, the illusion of control and set-direction is shattered. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Adapted from Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey Into the Environmental Humanities, by Christopher Schaberg. Out now from Bloomsbury.

Sometimes the Anthropocene, or destructive human impact at a planetary scale, is rendered as a vast spectacle. From certain curated perspectives, planetary destruction can appear horrifying, vivid—and cinematic. Other times the Anthropocene can seem elusive and indistinct—almost invisible. The weird thing is, it’s always both at once. Look up at jet contrails in the sky and you see a technological marvel at work, the miracle of human flight. But it’s also material evidence of our immense carbon footprint, climate change in action. It’s a million little gears and electronic signals in sync, as well as a gradual, cumulative reshaping of the atmosphere. But it can be difficult to entertain these perspectives simultaneously.

Sometimes such double awareness arrives in more grounded, if circuitous, examples.

For instance, it was late at night, after the keynote lecture at the International Association of Environmental Philosophy conference in State College, Pennsylvania, in October 2018. I was deep in whiskey-fueled conversation with Cary Wolfe about Wallace Stevens as the crowd fizzled out. The reception was over, all the drink tickets used up. Cary and I both realized at once that we had better get our rides back to our hotels arranged—before the nearby Metallica concert let out. So long Jacques Derrida, hello James Hetfield.

Traffic had been a nightmare getting to the conference hotel, as cars poured off Interstate 99 toward the Penn State stadium. My friend Margret Grebowicz and I had heard about the concert at dinner across town, when we noticed that the restaurant was full of patrons wearing skintight black Metallica T-shirts and dark jeans. Our keynote was at a strangely ornate hotel on the very edge of the Penn State campus, the opposite direction from the stadium—but with only one highway to where these two paths diverged. As Margret and I drove through rain and darkness to the conference hotel, we lost our way. At times, it felt like we were driving through no world at all, except for the long line of taillights we saw in the far distance, marking a procession of fans bound for the stadium. As for us, mere philosophers ranging from the professorially disheveled to the slightly hipper Euro-chic, we gathered in our hotel meeting room. As we listened to Cary deliver a sober, serpentine discourse about how deconstruction and evolutionary biology merged and comingled, I couldn’t help but think about another performance taking place, not so far away, maybe even hearing the faintest reverberations of song lyrics: “Bulletproof! Ah, kill the truth!

Metallica vaguely on our minds, we all knew that after the talk we needed to disperse and get on our ways before the roads were congested again. But Cary and I got chatting about the birds in Stevens in the lobby, and before we knew it, we were watching vans full of black-clad, sweaty, smiling concertgoers tromping in through the revolving doors of the hotel. We looked at each other in panic: We had blown it. We then each turned to our phones and attempted to hail rides.

There were only a few little car avatars spinning in the void of our phone screens, off in unknown simulacral cul-de-sacs at the edge of town. Eventually we each found a driver willing to fetch us, at ridiculously inflated fares. Mine cost $50 for a quick ride to my shabby inn on the other side of town. This was the gig economy, all right: There is no world, there are only hustling Uber drivers and shitty hotels.

A couple days later, heading home from the conference, I got another dose of the strange surge mechanics behind ride shares. I deplaned at my home airport, Louis Armstrong International, appreciating the familiar mellow vibe of the old terminal and looking forward to getting home to my family. I anticipated an easy Uber or Lyft pickup, and the quick $30 ride home.

Instead, I encountered a quite different scene as I strolled through the sliding doors beyond baggage claim.

At first it was just the regular taxi line that struck me as odd: Easily 200 people were lined up waiting for taxis. And the arrivals lanes were jampacked, barely crawling toward the exit. I hoped that this was merely the analog clunkiness of old-school taxis and ill-timed family pickups. But inside the parking structure, where the ride shares were coordinated, things were even worse. A snarl of vehicles, no line or recognizable order whatsoever, and hundreds of deplaned travelers standing by their roller bags and holding up their phones in earnest, as if in deference to some gods that were reticent to show their powers.

I tried in vain to summon a ride but faced what everyone else seemed to be facing: a glut of demand and too little supply—or rather, what supply there was had become constricted by an infrastructure that was unable to handle this confluence of ride shares, standard taxis, and ordinary airport pickups and drop-offs. The center was not holding.

All at once, something totally bizarre happened. Everyone had been clustered in the parking garage, where Ubers and Lyfts were supposed to file in and pick up their fares. But as if in a moment of spontaneous revolt, passengers started to leave the garage. People wandered outside this designated space and into the approach ramp, crossing the roadways, meandering through the palm trees that lined the outer edges of the parking structure, charging across the highway, dragging their roller bags behind them. And all the while they were holding up their phones, attempting to make contact with willing drivers, rides located just beyond the mayhem and madness of the airport bottleneck.

It looked like the zombie apocalypse.

Around this time the airport tweeted, “We are currently experiencing traffic delays on airport roadways. Please be patient.” The understatement of this bland tweet, contrasted with the chaos on the ground, could not have been more glaring. The airport issued no follow-ups, no clarifying instructions or advice. The delays multiplied exponentially by the minute, and travelers were going rogue. By the time I found a ride, it was with an Uber driver who was having just as much difficulty syncing up to a rider, and I—having gone rogue, too—caught him well outside of the parking structure. We made eye contact, both understood what we had to do, and I climbed in his Honda. We then inched along in traffic for a full hour before ever making it beyond the airport perimeter.

As my home airport continued its massive construction project that would entirely replace the old facilities, Uber and Lyft rides increasingly circulated around and coursed through the city. Planning for our new terminal commenced in 2011, long before ride shares blossomed and reconfigured ground transportation at airports nationwide. My experience at the ride share lot revealed the ballooning tenuousness of this arrangement—an ad hoc, improvised solution that just barely works, until it doesn’t.

Once the new terminal in New Orleans opened in November 2019, a year after my experience in State College, ride shares almost immediately ensnared the arrivals roads—roads that had not been designed for ride share dynamics. The airport adjusted, trying to force Uber and Lyfts to work more like an old-fashioned taxi line, with riders forming a long queue and using a pin system to sync up with drivers. But this new plan has created its own problems and risks undermining the individualized logic of ride shares in the first place. The ebb and flow of gig economics is not at all a controllable dynamic, even as the new terminal has attempted to better coordinate pickups. Across the country, LAX was facing its own ride share hellscape.

Urban centers, suburbs, and rural towns everywhere are learning to adjust to the encroaching wilderness of the gig economy. But airports are uniquely susceptible to the whims and vagaries of ride-sharing. It may be that in these spaces, the peak of mobility can slam quickly into the harsh constraints of physical space.

Everything looks ordered and idyllic on the smartphone screen, where cute automobile avatars wait to be beckoned, multiple cars for everyone. In the real world, on the ground, where a thousand vectors continually converge at once, or vanish—and not always in neat and tidy fashion—the illusion of control and self-direction is shattered, and what emerges is something akin to the heavy metal of contemporary existence. When demand spikes and fares hike, when free selves run rampant and collide into digital gridlock, when Boeings and Airbuses dump their passenger loads, and Kias and Buicks scramble to gather them up—the entire fantasy of modern progress can seem poised to collapse in an instant.

All the frantic jockeying and roaring engines, all the infuriating smartphone alerts and fingers tapping on screens … so many minor residues and dispersed exhaust trails of the Anthropocene. And I’m every bit implicated.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.