Steve Viscelli is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a Faculty Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. The author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, he is currently researching the potential impacts of self-driving trucks on labor and the environment. Before joining “How Will Robot Trucks Change American Life?” a Zócalo/Issues in Science and Technology event, he chatted in the virtual green room about trying out long-haul trucking for six months, the most dysfunctional piece of technology he owns, and why the movie Logan offers a powerful commentary on AI.
When are you at your most creative?
Oh boy. Hours after sitting down at my desk. It takes me a while to warm up.
What do you do for those first couple of hours?
I like to immerse myself in a lot of details. I'm an ethnographer by training, and I do a lot of interviews. So I read what workers who are engaged in the kind of work that I study have to say about it. That just helps me to think more deeply, by really immersing myself in the details.
Do you have a favorite depiction of AI in sci-fi?
I have to say the portrayal of self-driving trucks in Logan, which I found really provocative. My son and I watched it, big superhero movie fans we are. It was so powerful, I thought, because you could tell it's set in the future but not far in the future, and most things look the same.
There's a family that runs a farm that has horses, and their trailer ends up going off the road and the horses get free. And these self-driving trucks, which have what looked like modern-day containers on them, but have these self-driving units under them, they're barreling down the road. And these horses are running across the road. It just viscerally brings together this issue of autonomous technology in the middle of creatures and vehicles and stuff that are not really of the same era, which I thought was really cool.
What's the most intimidating interview you've conducted?
The first interviews that I did with owner-operators for my first book, which was on deregulation and how the trucking industry had changed. I was really intimidated because I didn't know much about the industry. I got a job as a long-haul truck driver for six months before I started the interviews to not be so green, but I was trained by the big companies, which are kind of looked down upon by the long-standing, really experienced drivers.
The first several times I sat down with drivers—who were these big-belt-buckle-and-boots kind of drivers—to say like, "How do you think about trucking and unions?" and all these things that I knew were highly contentious topics, I was pretty intimidated. But I was completely wrong. Once I got over my fear, they just had a ton to say and a ton of experience that they wanted to share. And so they turned out to be really productive interviews and incredibly insightful because they came from such a different perspective than I had experienced before.
What was the hardest class you took in undergrad for your philosophy major?
I took a senior seminar in Heidegger. Reading Being and Time—that encapsulated difficult as an undergraduate. Without a doubt.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about truckers?
I would say that they make a lot of money. That's probably the biggest misconception. When you really count up all the hours, many of them are essentially minimum wage workers. Oftentimes, they don't make minimum wage.
Have you had a guilty pleasure in quarantine?
Lots of time with my kids. Normally, we're in South Philadelphia, which is kind of rough in the winter, but since [my wife and I] are teaching remotely, we retreated to a little rental place up in upstate New York. We've been getting outside for hikes and swims and skis and everything the whole time. So it's been lots of guilty pleasures that I feel very guilty about.
Is there a boss or a mentor who changed your life?
My postdoc mentor at the University of Wisconsin was Erik Olin Wright, who's an influential sociologist who forced me to broaden my theoretical lenses to account for the historical changes in trucking, and pushed me on a lot of important points. He passed away last year. He was a commanding intellect, just a true genius, and yet would spend time with us mere mortals in real in-depth conversations where he engaged seriously with all ideas and points of view with a humility that was really quite shocking to be around day to day. That patience and generosity of spirit and intellect is something I'll never forget.
Do you have a pet peeve about academia?
I would say the lack of interdisciplinarity is the big thing. There's lots of places where I feel like there could be collaborative discussions across disciplines. This is not to say that I don't recognize the value of disciplines, but that people studying the exact same problems and issues who may have different terminology and theoretical lenses just don't talk to each other and share. There are lots of efforts to overcome that, but you see a lot of people who are fully entrenched in it, and that can be a little frustrating and sad.
What's the most successful effort to cross those disciplinary lines that you've seen?
Around the future of work and technology, there's tremendous collaboration happening successfully. Maybe it's because it's kind of future-looking, and there's all this uncertainty, so we're able to set aside our biases a little bit more when we don't have as much real immediate data to work with. Or when we're being speculative, we allow each other a little more space perhaps.
What is the most dysfunctional piece of technology that you own?
Well, my kids will say it's my iPhone SE. And I'm not talking about the 2020 SE, I'm talking about the original. It's 4 or 5 years old, and the battery doesn't like going below 40 degrees, which is a problem here in Upstate New York. My kids refer to it as an artifact. I love the Philadelphia Phillies, and when I go to a baseball game, I have to borrow my daughter's phone to get my digital tickets because the SE cannot run the MLB app. So at some point, when it completely stops functioning, I'll have to get a new phone, but that's definitely my most dysfunctional piece of technology.