Technological Rupture and Los Angeles

Shiva Balaghi

The opening scene of La La Land transforms gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway into a dazzling song and dance sequence. Car culture has become embedded into the city’s DNA, even in the flickering fantasy world of the silver screen. Los Angeles famously has more cars than people. So how will new emerging transportation technologies transform the city and the way we live in it? On April 5, the Berggruen Institute and USC’s Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership and Policy organized a workshop to consider this critical question from a historical and comparative vantage, looking at waves of technological rupture that have shaped LA.

“The economic jolt railroading gave Los Angeles—just as the tiny village began to embrace big metropolitan dreams—can hardly be exaggerated,” said William Deverell, Professor of History at USC and Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the American West. The city was linked to the transcontinental railroad in 1876, connecting it to the global economy. But Deverell pointed to “little railroads” or trolleys that created a skeletal network, mapping the city’s early footprint. “By 1910, downtown Los Angeles was said to be the most dangerous arena for pedestrians in the entire world—fighting for their lives as they maneuvered around early cars, motorcycles, buses, bikes, trolleys, horses and freight lines.” Within two decades, urban planning and innovation put in place safety measures—“the crossing arms, the warning lights, the below grade intersectional cuts”—setting the stage for the city’s massive growth during the war and post-war era.

(R-L) Shiva Balaghi, Bill Deverell, Peter Westwick, Paul Amar, and Jennifer Holt

Peter Westwick, Professor of History at USC and Director of the Aerospace History Project, then spoke of the first major air show in the U.S. in January 1910, with some 225,000 people gathering for the Los Angeles Aviation Meet. That historic event sparked Southern California’s aerospace industry, which developed through a nexus of national security interests, corporate investment, and university expertise. Aerospace technologies, Westwick showed, led to a rippling of technological innovation in Los Angeles, from the movies to hot rods and even surfing. Meanwhile, Paul Amar, Professor of Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara, traced the interrelated histories of mechanization and containerization and the social history of the Ports of Los Angeles and San Pedro. Showing how technologies spur large-scale infrastructure, he underlined the need for democratizing models of technological innovation that centered labor, community, and the environment.

The first panel was rounded out by Jennifer Holt, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara, who addressed technological rupture as it pertains to the entertainment industry. New screening technologies, Holt said, “have changed the way Hollywood does business, and how tech companies in Silicon Valley and other digital distribution platforms have disrupted LA’s chokehold on content production, while also introducing new elements of surveillance into the entertainment landscape.” Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Buzzfeed, Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, and Apple have changed the very nature of content production and distribution. “Hollywood has been global since WWI,” Holt said, “but nothing compares to the platform available with the Internet. Netflix alone has 117 million paying subscribers in 190 countries and plans to spend between $7-8 billion on content production in 2018. There are now more Netflix subscribers in the US than cable subscribers.” The impact of the new screening technologies goes beyond entertainment. “The film biz is the TV biz is the app biz is the streaming biz is the provider biz,” Holt said. “I’m interested in the role that data analytics and surveillance are playing in this business and in our culture now. The flow of the world’s attention is structured, to a vast degree, by just a few digital platforms and social media companies: Facebook, Google (which owns YouTube), and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. These companies have come to dominate media distribution, and they increasingly stand in for the public sphere itself…As a viewer, you are now a commodity in a new form. If it’s free, you are the product.”

Attendees of the Technological Rupture in Los Angeles Workshop

A second panel chaired by Craig Calhoun, President of the Berggruen Institute, brought together Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of LADOT, Vince Bertoni Director of Planning of the City of Los Angeles, and Christopher Hawthorne, a longtime Los Angeles Times architecture critic who recently joined City Hall in the newly created post of Chief Design Officer. The lively discussion focused on the ways emerging transportation technologies—from driverless cars to electric bikes to drones—will fundamentally alter LA’s urban landscape.

Picking up the earlier discussions on how technology has historically shaped LA’s urban sensibility, Hawthorne cited architectural historian Esther McCoy, who described the city as “a marriage between Walden Pond and Douglas Aircraft.” Hawthorne noted a monoculture in LA that construes the river and freeways as having only one purpose. The influence of car culture is so strong, he argued, that the challenge now is whether we can reimagine these monocultures in different ways. “The way the car acts as an arrogant actor in our city,” Hawthorne said, “it has really shaped our communities and neighborhoods.” Reynolds noted that automated vehicles and electrification of transportation will fundamentally alter notions of public space across Los Angeles. She imagined the possibility in the near future that “with the flick of a switch, we will be able to turn a street into a park or a playground.” And this calls for a new approach to city planning, Bertoni argued: “It’s not just about going vertical and building near transport, but it’s about using spaces we already have in new ways.”

Christopher Hawthorne

With so much focus on data-driven technologies, Bertoni emphasized the need to bring quality of life into the forefront of LA’s plans for future mobility. “One of our great challenges is addressing social equity and displacement,” he said. “We can’t just focus on the raw numbers that resulted in five or six freeways going through Boyle Heights. We need to look at quality of living, too.” Reynolds also emphasized the role of city government in ensuring that transportation technologies are distributed equitably across the city. “The private sector will go to Santa Monica, they will go to Venice and Beverly Hills, but I need to drive services to areas where they are not going.” The city’s future mobility strategy will use automated vehicles to extend access to public transportation to underserved communities. “Racial and socioeconomic equity is baked into our strategic plan,” Reynolds emphasized. “It doesn’t sit on top of the agenda; it is the agenda.”

The relationship between social equity and technological innovation was threaded throughout the day’s discussion. Technological ruptures lead to social transformations, political shifts, and global realignments. Additionally, all of these produce new possibilities and challenges for the way we live as a society and raise fundamental questions on the nature of democracy itself. Collectively, the workshop’s participants showed that impact of technological innovations on Los Angeles are best viewed not as discreet moments but ongoing transformations that unfold over time. Now positioned as a hub of emerging content and transportation technologies, these two linked sectors will fundamentally alter Los Angeles’ urbanscape well into the 21st century.