So-Called Thoughts: What was once decried is now demanded. Coming up, the ultimate speed hump

At recent public meetings, concerned citizens have alluded to the newly available crime visualizations (viewable at

Among the other informative things one can now observe online are heat maps of crime frequency in Arcata’s different neighborhoods. To no one’s surprise, the Plaza and other heavily-used public areas see a lot of police activity.

It’s only logical to wonder, and fair to ask why we don’t have security cameras trained on these locations. While images from crime scenes often show only blurry, hoodie-cloaked figures with obscured faces, there are other instances when recorded video has aided in apprehending bad guys. Also, the cams’ mere presence can deter crime.

In keeping with the tense tenor of our times, the camera question has been posed to City of Arcata officials in the most antagonistic way possible, in part as an accusation inferring incompetence, neglect or disinterest. Along the lines of, “You’ve known for years these are the crime areas but you’ve done nothing to install cameras?”

Unfortunately, our public dialogue these days often defaults to these kinds of accusa-questions, with the cheap point-scoring that might be found in a bad personal relationship. That sort of thing already promises to pollute upcoming and important discussions of The Village housing project.

There’s a reason we don’t have Plaza cams – the public hated the idea. In 2001, a previous police chief tried to get one installed atop the then-Bank of America. There had already been one low-resolution blurrycam showing the western part of the Plaza mounted in the front window of the fourth floor of Jacoby’s Storehouse. Oh, the uproar.

The old Arcata Eye newspaper took numerous hostile phone calls and letters from people who assumed the newspaper was behind the Jacoby’s cam. It wasn’t; that was a project of Neuroscape, the ISP formerly located on the fourth floor, facing the Plaza. There was also a short-lived security camera shop in Jacoby's Storehouse called Third Eye something-or-other, so that might have caused some confusion with the Eye newspaper.

The police chief’s initiative was decried by Arcata’s civil libertarians as an intrusive manifestation of the “surveillance state.” There was fiery testimony at City Council meetings about encroaching Big Brotherism. A cardboard sign on the Plaza warned users about being surveilled. Humboldt State’s camera on the pedestrian overcrossing was repeatedly smashed out.

And thus, the effort to install a crime-fighting PlazaCam died.

What was everyone missing in that imbroglio? The huge cultural change that was coming with the advent of smartphones. No one at the time realized that 16 years later, almost everyone would be walking around with an Internet-connected camera in their pocket, and that the turn-of-the-century’s quaint standards of privacy were about to go the way of the buggy whip and pay telephone.

The protestations against photo intrusion were doomed, and any expectation of privacy in public spaces is gone on the electromagnetic winds of World Wide Web and high-speed Wi-Fi connectivity.

As recently as 2007, the notion of Plaza-watching cameras was vigorously decried by civil libertarians. That was the year I first saw people taking pics on their flip-phones, at a Las Vegas hotel.

So, if you wonder why the authorities haven’t installed cameras on the Plaza, it’s because back then, they were flamed with blowtorches of bluster – not unlike the hostile questions they’re getting now for having done what the public demanded in 2001, when cams were originally suggested.

16 YEARS AGO The blurry PlazaCam in Jacoby’s Storehouse prompted this cardboard warning sign. KLH | Arcata Eye

It’s kind of fun to speculate how the cam opponents back in the day would have reacted, had they been told this huge, technology-driven cultural change was coming. Probably by defending the mistake, in keeping with human nature.

But it was all entirely predictable – there were digital cameras and cell phones at the time, just not of the convergent sophistication we have now.

Here comes something similar

Why does this old news matter? Because once again, we aren’t foreseeing the obvious – a huge and fundamental change that isn’t just coming, it’s plainly visible and already well underway.

Last week, exasperated Buttermilk Lane residents gathered to discuss further ways of calming traffic on that speed-wracked street. Again, 15 or so years ago, a resident there tried everything from recording license plate numbers of speeders for public shaming to imploring them with signs about cats that had been killed by speeders. It didn’t work.

Education is for the educable. The rest don’t care, and are immune. Just as the only thing that stops the lazziez-faire, anything-goes Plazoids from being jerks is cops, the only thing that slows cars down is physical barriers. Potholes and traffic calming will never be enough to stop the speeders.

Buttermilk Lane’s DNA, as a long straightaway, is that it's a speeding corridor. Also a art of Buttermilk's tradition are the pits and potholes that the recent million-dollar resurfacing has temporarily alleviated. The street got its name because milk from dairies up the street had turned to buttermilk by the time it reached the bottom, churned by the jostling ride.

But even when it’s in its default state of moonscaped pavement, the neighborhood-degrading speeding never stops. But you know what? It’s going to, and fairly soon – just not because of all the do-gooder measures.

And not just on Buttermilk Lane. Everywhere. Even on Old Arcata Road, another street on which the residents have been trying to stop speeding for decades and with next-to-no success.

Autonomous vehicles are now on the road in limited but growing numbers. They’re used for specialized purposes now as the technology advances. But in a few years, Level 5 – that is, fully autononmous cars and trucks – will be common on the road. And a few years beyond that, human-piloted vehicles will be a minority. A few years more, and self-driven cars will be illegal.

The reason is, human-piloted vehicles won’t be as safe. They’ll also be a lot more expensive to insure and operate.

It’s been pointed out that a person’s car is only in use maybe 5 percent of the time. Autonomous cars will change that, allowing you to make money off your car when you aren’t using it.

Anyone who wants to will be able to join a web-based organization that allows them to let their car be used by others. People without a car will register with the site, then be able to summon a car and for a fee, have it pick them up and take them somewhere. The car owner will be making money off it while they aren’t using it.

This new tech will be as commonplace as today’s smartphones.

But the key is, the robo-vehicles will scrupulously adhere to speed limits and all other traffic regs. They won’t know how not to.

The impatient, formerly speeding-prone drivers inside won’t be mashing the gas pedal, because they’ll be reading books, surfing the web, posting to Facebook or Twitter or GruntPlook or whatever forum is in vogue a decade from now. Actually, they’ll probably be on the beach in Tahiti thanks to some immersive virtual reality technology.

In the case of commercial vehicles like speeding log trucks and delivery vehicles, there probably won’t even be a person inside. AI will be at the wheel, even though there may not be a physical steering wheel, guiding the truck safely and religiously observing all speed limits and traffic regs.

Feel free to dismiss all this as a deus ex machina dream, a tech-fanboy flight of fancy. A request though: please put any dismissive jeers in publishable form, so that, in another 16 years, we can pick up 2017-vintage Unions and knowingly tsk-tsk about this particular failure of foresight.

It’s all in the works and inevitable, thanks to billions in investments by vehicle manufacturers who are racing each other to implement these no-longer exotic technologies.

Along with improved safety, there will be any number of unanticipated consequences, helpful and otherwise. One is that the costly speed humps we’ve been installing, and which slow down emergency responders as well as speeders, will be unnecessary, and will be removed.

The recent list of Plaza improvements by a transportation activist group, for all their edginess, don’t incorporate the inevitability of autonomous vehicles either. The coming City Council study session on Plaza reforms ought to be mindful of transportation techno-innovations to come, or some of their findings and actions may turn out to be unhelpful, and consigned to irrelevance.

Hopefully any use of butcher paper at the session will have a better outcome than during prior uses.

We can’t foresee all the effects, but what we can predict with complete certainty is that autonomous vehicles are on the streets in increasing numbers, will eventually take over, and that they will change transportation profoundly and permanently, on Buttermilk Lane and beyond.


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