There aren’t many places to mingle these days.
Sure, there are shared spaces: parks, coffee shops, crammed subways and sidewalks. But it’s the rare place that lends itself to promoting actual interaction and conversations among strangers. And with the advent of driverless cars, being tested now by ridesharing service Uber in Pittsburgh, there will be even fewer such places.
Because somehow, even as we hold fast to societal norms and are silent around strangers in elevators and in airplane seats and head for the quiet car on the train, ridesharing cars have become places where strangers actually talk to each other, where people who may not otherwise have met in our self-segregated society interact.
And while the conversations are cordial, they’re not just about the weather and how the local sports teams are faring. I’ve even talked about the supposed social third-rail topics of politics and religion.
I conversed with one Uber driver about college costs and how to solve the tuition crisis and the 2016 presidential candidates and to another about gun control. Another time, noticing a rosary hanging on a car mirror, I asked the driver if he was Catholic. He wasn’t — but we ended up having a discussion about religious practices, including fasting.
It hasn’t all been so heavy. I’ve heard a woman’s story of what it was like to immigrate to America as a teen with her parents. I’ve heard about another driver’s experience playing college sports, and a different driver shared what it was like to be a cop.
Uber isn’t alone in considering driverless cars. John Zimmer, the co-founder of competitor Lyft, which has experimented with such cars in San Francisco and Phoenix, wrote last week that “autonomous vehicle fleets will quickly become widespread and will account for the majority of Lyft rides within five years.”
There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to driverless cars — among other things, it could free everyone stuck in a grueling car commute every day to read or write or do a hundred other things they can’t do while simultaneously paying attention to the road.
But we should think ahead to what new genuine shared spaces we could create to encourage more conversations among strangers.
Because right now we do live in a fairly self-segregated society.
According to an analysis of a 2013 survey by The Public Religion Research Institute, 91 percent of the people in white Americans’ closest social networks are white, and 83 percent of the people in black Americans’ networks are black. We also self-segregate, at least when it comes to marriage, by education levels: About 60 percent of married couples in 2012 were at a similar education level, according to the Pew Research Center.
Nor are we fantastic when it comes to regional diversity and living among people different than those we grew up with: “The typical American only lives 18 miles from Mom,” as a 2015 New York Times headline put it, and a 2008 Pew Research Center study found that over half of adults (57 percent) had always lived in the same state.
When it comes to politics, 62 percent of Democrats say they have only a few or no close friends across party lines, and so do 45 percent of Republicans, according to a 2016 Pew study.
This is important because it’s not TV pundits, slinging talking points at each other on cable, who are going to change many minds. It’s people having tough conversations. It’s the minimum-wage worker talking with the small-business owner, the pacifist talking to the military veteran, the gun owner talking to the parent terrified of another school shooting.
It’s easy to write off people with different ideological views as idiots, bigots, etc. — until you’re talking to them face to face.
We need to find ways to facilitate more of those conversations. It’s true they may continue when there are multiple riders who are strangers in a driverless car, although my own experience has been that the Uber pool is a much quieter experience than regular Uber.
But we can’t just rely on ridesharing to provide those opportunities: We need to make sure they exist, and not just for the car-free.
Katrina Trinko is managing editor of The Daily Signal.