Wednesday. 1/12/2021

The Monocle Minute

Image: Alamy

Opinion / Alexis Self

Road sense

In contemporary marketing parlance, “smart” means better. We have smart dishwashers with in-built wi-fi connections (that also wash dishes) and smart speakers with high-definition screens (that also play music). In an increasing number of countries, we also have smart motorways, where traffic flow is controlled using artificial intelligence – that you can also drive on.

But while a mistake with the former two probably wouldn’t be fatal, the latter’s inability to deliver an improved user experience comes with a pretty hefty price. A BBC documentary found that in the UK, between 2014 and 2019, 38 people died while using smart motorways. Many campaigners consider that number to be too high.

Now, after the seemingly unstoppable rollout of such roads across the country, British MPs on parliament’s Transport Committee have called for their construction to be halted due to safety concerns. The scheme’s future looks uncertain. Conceived as a way of ameliorating congestion without the financial or ecological effects of road expansion, smart motorways were always going to be accused of putting cost before safety.

On the AI-assisted motorways, what was the hard shoulder (breakdown lane) is now a fourth lane of traffic, which can be closed if a breakdown occurs. These roads in fact result in fewer deaths: between 2015 and 2018, the fatal-casualty rate on smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder was lower than on those with one. Yet though fatalities are lower, accidents can be more traumatic. Deaths that occur after drivers break down and are effectively stranded have been particularly distressing for bereaved relatives and fear-inducing for many road users.

Using any form of high-speed transportation requires a soupçon of cognitive dissonance but the thought of breaking down on a road at the mercy of four lanes of fast-moving traffic without a refuge area is horrific beyond belief. To label something “smart” in such circumstances is an insult to both man and machine. Minimising environmental damage and improving traffic flow is an admirable aim but unless the technology to do so is improved, smart motorways should be left in the lay-by.

Image: Alamy

Travel / Thailand

Off the rails

After more than a century as the Thai capital’s central rail hub, Bangkok station, informally known as Hua Lamphong, will close this month. Long-haul and commuter trains will soon start arriving at Bang Sue Grand Station (pictured), a newly built replacement to the north of the city that will be the largest rail terminus in southeast Asia. While some passengers are already grumbling about the extra minutes that this will add to their journeys, there’s growing public interest in the fate of the soon-to-be decommissioned Hua Lamphong. Though Thailand’s indebted state-owned railway operator has promised to preserve the façade, it also plans to develop the site for commercial purposes. This has raised fears that the building’s domed roof will be destroyed to make room for another shopping centre or block of flats. Prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that there will be a series of public hearings this week on the station’s development. When it comes to listening to the people, however, his government doesn’t have the best track record.

Image: Getty Images

Politics / France

Right off the bat

We knew it was going to happen; it was just a case of when. Yesterday Éric Zemmour (pictured), the French far-right polemicist, announced his candidacy for next year’s presidential elections. Running as an independent (like Emmanuel Macron in 2017) he hopes to eclipse Marine Le Pen for the nationalist vote. If the polls are to be believed, he stands a fair chance of doing so.

The former journalist has already had a marked influence on political proceedings, not least because his controversial brand of populism has forced candidates, including Macron, to lurch to the right in certain policy areas. Recently, Zemmour has been dogged by scandal, including an affair with his personal assistant and giving the finger to a counter-protester in Marseille. Whether this is held against him remains to be seen but, considering the political rise of a populist presidential candidate across the Atlantic just a few years ago, it would be foolish to rule Zemmour out yet.

Image: Getty Images

Health / UK

Up in smoke

As the UK prepares to become the world’s first country to prescribe e-cigarettes as a smoking-cessation tool, vaping start-ups are mobilising to outflank Big Tobacco. Larger manufacturers such as Altria (which produces the Juul), Imperial Brands (Blu) and Japan Tobacco International (Logic) have reportedly been slow to sign up to the programme, which British public-health bodies see as a significant step towards their ambition of achieving a “smoke-free England” by 2030. Yet a cloud of suspicion still hangs over e-cigarettes. Anti-tobacco activist Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco has dismissed Public Health England’s claim that e-cigarettes are “95 per cent less harmful” than tobacco – a figure he says is “ridiculous”. Nonetheless, if smaller companies such as Nottingham-based Multivape manage to edge out major tobacco firms in the emerging field of medicinal e-cigarettes, it could help to free the sector from the imperatives of an industry that relies on the permanent addiction of smokers.

Image: Getty Images

Culture / Global

State of the art

In a sign that artificiality has become enmeshed in the contemporary art world, this year’s ArtReview Power 100 has been won by a non-human. The annual list, released today, has been topped by ERC-721, a type of interface for non-fungible tokens on the Ethereum cryptocurrency blockchain (nope, us neither). The Power 100, which has long been a way of measuring how a change or development in one part of the art world affects another, is compiled by more than 30 panellists and collaborators from around the world, tasked with evaluating who’s shaping contemporary art in their locality. Elsewhere on this year’s list are more conventional names, such as the artists Olafur Eliasson and Ai Weiwei, as well as some unexpected entries, including Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Whether this is a sign of positive change in the art scene is open to debate but it is irrefutable that the old art-dealer system and attitude has shifted. How long this will last is another matter.

M24 / Monocle on Culture

Review: ‘House of Gucci’

Robert Bound, Tim Robey and Simran Hans discuss the accents, outfits and performances in Ridley Scott’s true-crime drama House of Gucci. Has it lived up to the hype?

Monocle Films / London

The 2021 Monocle Christmas Market

Monocle’s Christmas market landed in our Midori House HQ with Glühwein, gifts, good cheer and reindeer last weekend. If you missed it, don’t despair, our Zürich market will happen on Saturday 4 and Sunday 5 December at Dufourstrasse 90.

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