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The Car is Moving, but Who’s driving?

Science fiction is a powerful colonizer of the collective imagination. Through it’s cultural tendrils (books, comics, film, television, video games etc…), science fiction is able to supply goals for technologists to strive towards whilst simultaneously preparing the populace for the emergence of these new technologies. Powerful computers (not to mention tablets), handheld communicators, futuristic eyewear, cars that drive themselves, devices that can carry a library worth of books – all items for which some of the propagandizing was introduced (with varying degrees of subtlety) under the veil of fiction.  Thus, when we finally put on Google Glass or get behind the wheel of a self-driving car, it does not seem too bizarre. After all, we’ve seen this before.

There is little that is in and of itself surprising about advances in self-driving cars (sd cars), and compared to many other recent technological leaps, it seems that sd cars have received relatively less interest. It’s true that sd cars are not as “in your face” (or “on your face”) as a device such as Google Glass, but it may also be the case that we have enjoyed a long grooming process for the arrival of sd cars. From cruise control to GPS to computer controlled systems, those who are in the market to buy a new car will find that the new cars currently on the market already feature many computerized and automated parts. “Self-driving” , seems like just another option that the salesperson will offer.

Granted, some of the concerns about sd cars have remained in the background as a sense has remained that – while sd cars are certainly being tested – these cars are not about to takeover the roadways. Yet, that time may be coming sooner than anticipated. At least such is one of the takeaways from Claire Cain Miller and Matthew L. Ward’s recent New York Times article “Self-Driving Cars for Testing Are Supported by U.S,” which notes – amongst many other things – that the U.S. Transportation Department has given a “nonbinding recommendation” telling the states that sd cars should still be kept in the testing stage. Though, even recognizing that they should be kept in the testing stage is an acknowledgment of the progress being made. The article characterizes the Transportation Department’s statement as:

 “a recognition by government officials that it [the Transportation Department] had no choice but to keep up with the advancing technology in this area,“

What emerges is thus another installment in the tale of “innovation fast, government slow,” a story that has some truth value even as it glosses over larger societal and ethical questions: such as whether or not this innovation is a good thing and for whom is it is good. After all, “innovation fast, government slow” does not equal “innovation good.” Indeed, the article sets up the type of situation that makes one understand why a tech CEO might pine for a country of their very own. Especially as the “innovators” mainly in question in the article are none other than the folks at Google who are becoming the soon-to-be-cliché image of a corporation racing into the technology brightened future, with not more than a sneer for the skeptics.

There is a certain punning delight to stories about self-driving cars, as they provide the perfect excuse to indicate that in this case technology really is in the driver’s seat (I know you just rolled your eyes). Though, in some cases a human is still actually sitting in the driver’s seat:

“Google still requires people to sit in the driver’s seat, employees use the cars to commute the 40 miles between San Francisco and Mountain View, Calif.,…the cars have driven more than a half million miles, according to the company.“

There are certainly the obvious concerns to have about sd cars (and these concerns receive attention in the Times article), these are the worries about the initial bumps in the road that the cars will no doubt drive over as they take over the road. Yet, even if there will inevitably be a situation in which an sd car swerves to avoid a shopping cart and hits a stroller (this is an example used in the article) such concerns simply point towards an element of sd cars that is not directly addressed in the article. That being the way in which sd cars are a “take over” technology.

After all, as good as they can be made these sd cars will always be at the mercy of the unpredictable humans in the other cars on the roadway.  It is a point not made in the article, but for sd cars to work best they require highways filled with (and only with) sd cars. All of which can be networked or aware of each other in some way and thus best able to coordinate across the many vehicles on the road. Until such a time sd cars will always be at the mercy of actual humans (who do careless things like drive and text).

Yet what is perhaps most interesting in the article – as is usually the case in such articles – is the comments coming forth from those directly affiliated with the tech company (which in this case is Google). The article is subtle propaganda, what about the overt propagandists?

“Driverless cars could “change our lives, give us more green space, mobility, fewer hours wasted,” Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, said this month. “The average American spends 50 minutes commuting. Imagine if you got that back.”

and

“Leslie Miller, a Google spokeswoman, did not respond directly to the statement [from the Transportation Department]. She said Thursday, “We are introducing autonomous vehicle technology to improve people’s lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient.”

It is fair to say that Miller and Page are both rather biased in their viewpoints, as Google employees they are not about to defame the project, and even were they not Google employees to denigrate this project of sd cars would jeopardize their technophile credibility. Which is a slightly polite way of saying that the statements from Page and Miller are at best questionable and are more likely just absurd. And that’s ignoring the easy target of the “improve people’s lives” line (prime meaningless capital-techno speak to justify anything and everything). Though Page is correct in suggesting that these vehicles may “change our lives.”

Nevertheless, it must be asked how exactly sd cars will give us back the time spent commuting? For it seems that it will just mean that we won’t have to have our hands on the wheel, we’ll still have to commute, and as many train or subway takers would certainly report not having to keep your hands on the wheel does not make commuting suddenly a joy. Likewise it is difficult to see how driving will be made safer so long as the roads are filled with unpredictable drivers who are not themselves in sd cars (to say nothing of crumbling infrastructure [what does an sd car do when the bridge it’s on collapses?]). Furthermore the “give us more green space” is a statement that suggests a precious lack of understanding to the way in which personal automobiles have caused the carving up of green spaces for highways. All of which is to say nothing about the many people who seem to derive a genuine enjoyment from driving (quite a few people).

Yet at the very least it should be recognized that much of what Page and Miller say is based on personal value judgments, and thus they both might just hate driving and want to be liberated from it so as to have more time to think up new ways to violate your privacy…or, devise new fancy devices (either or). Though both Page and Miller seem to have within their comments the buried assumption that sd cars will eventually be the only type of cars on the roads (such would be the best way to guarantee “increased safety” and to have “more efficient” commutes as a result of no one driver doing something foolish on the road). Once again it seems that Google’s masterminds are mentally living in the “post implementation” future, once all of our pesky concerns have been wiped away.

Indeed, Page and Miller’s vision also seems to forcibly clash with the millions of dollars spent on automotive advertisements that encourage people to identify with their vehicles. If you are what you drive, than what happens when you are no longer driving? The answer is that you identify with the high-tech commodity of liberation through technology instead of the lower tech commodity that liberates you by giving you the ability to “drive away.” Such was alluded to by Herbert Marcuse (in his book One Dimensional Man) written back when self-driving cars were still safely ensconced in science fiction. As Marcuse wrote:

“The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.” (Marcuse, 11)

Though, perhaps what is occurring is that as Google and its corporate ilk emerge as the new titans of “social control” they can subsume some of the specific commodities into the broader allegiance to the corporate identity. Companies like Google are experts in the production of technologically driven “new needs,” which present new areas of consumption for users to “find their soul” within (although Apple is better at this than Google). Which brings the discussion to the other elements of the self-driving car dilemma, namely that this actually has precious little to do with cars.

In the age of big data (more on that here) the primary concern of companies like Google is in accumulating ever more information, and in order to do that such companies need to be constantly expanding into more areas of people’s lives. It is true that devices like smart phones already provide a great deal of information, but a self-driving car promises to provide even more information. A self-driving car potentially provides a person’s every destination to Google and from Google to…whomever. Something that police and repressive regimes are sure to love (something some Google execs know lots about), as they will no longer need to place a tracker on a car, they can just demand the info from Google. Thus sd cars are just another way of ensuring that your every motion is observed and tracked, all in the name of “liberation.” For whenever you tell your sd car “take me here” you will also be telling Google (or another company) and anybody else who might purchase or demand that data where you are going.

Self-driving cars also bring up the uncomfortable question of control in a very direct way. Will you be able to take control back from the self-driving car? What if the self-driving car decides to pull off the road to stop at a sale? And, if you must remain on alert to take back control does this not take away from your ability to do other things whilst the car drives itself? What if Google enters a deal with BP wherein your car will refuse to stop at other gas stations? In the guise of liberating us from the burden of driving sd cars actually enslaves us by stripping us of the control which is then turned over to a machine which is being controlled by a huge corporation. It is the emotionless drive towards efficiency in which actual human engagement is just another aspect awaiting replacement of the human components with mechanical ones.

Driving a car is an activity that requires the full engagement of a human being, which is why the results can be so calamitous when the human is not being attentive. In engaging with a vehicle people are able to literally steer the machine (often with negative results) they can drive to work, to the movies, over a squirrel, above the speed limit, drive while intoxicated, and so forth. The human remains active and in control, and knowingly so, but what the changeover to sd cars represents is what was described by Lewis Mumford  (in Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power, the Myth of the Machine, volume Two) as a situation wherein:

“man himself is thus losing hold on any personal life that can be called his own: he is now being turned into a ‘thing’ destined to be processed and reconstructed collectively by the same methods that have produced the atomic pile and the computer.” (Mumford, 287).

The car moves from an appendage to a human, to the human being an appendage to the car. Where once a key was needed in the ignition now a warm body is needed in the vehicle, but just as the key was not in control so no longer is the human. Yet it is important to keep in mind that what is happening with self-driving cars is but one aspect of shifts in our technological society.

Google is engaged in an active quest for more data, and as it goes about this mission for more it must continually convince people that the tradeoff is in the people’s favor. As with Google Glass, an important way to think of these new innovations is to use Lewis Mumford’s concept of the technological bribe, wherein the shiny toys and devices that are delivered to us with the promise that they will improve our lives make us the serfs to new technological lieges. We are bought off before we can object, convinced that efficiency and convenience are good tradeoffs for autonomy and privacy. As Mumford wrote:

“In a culture where only the machine embodies order and rationality, the ‘liberation’ of man does not mean an increase of choice: it means only the liberation of his unconscious, and his submission to demonic impulses and drives. By funneling all order into the machine, man has cut himself off from those repetitive acts and rituals which so long proved useful in maintaining some degree of internal balance, some prospect of creativity.” (Mumford, 370)

The slow ceding of more and more functions of our daily lives to machines may be portrayed as a new form of liberation, and yet in embracing this technologically defined freedom we find ourselves made ever more reliant upon increasingly complex technologies, ones over which we have precious little control. Will people be able to fix their sd cars software in their own garage? Will sd cars sputter to a halt if you don’t update the software weekly? Will your windshield start displaying advertisements for every shop you drive past?

Our technological age is one in which it increasingly seems that we are losing our agency to our devices as we become reliant upon them to a worrying degree. As technological convenience becomes a gold plated and comfortably padded crutch we begin to forget how to walk without it. Furthermore it is not simply that we are surrendering control to our machines, but to the companies who build, program and control those machines. It’s not a “self-driving car” it’s a “Google driven car,” or more accurately a “Google driven Toyota” and in that equation you are not going for a drive, you are being taken for a ride.

We are allowing technology to spend more and more time behind the wheel. But is it taking us somewhere that we actually want to go?

[The unofficial soundtrack for this post is “You’re Driving Me” by The Cravats and “This is Motortown” by The Very Things {it gets two songs because of how long it is}]

Works Cited:

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge, 1991.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers (1970)

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

13 comments on “The Car is Moving, but Who’s driving?

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  2. Tanvir Ahmad
    June 11, 2013

    I saw a movie related to self driving car in 4 years ago and i thought this imagination would true in future.
    At last my imagination will true for modern technology. I specially thank you Google to take this imagine decision which will reduce clash and environment pollution.

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