"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Occasionally a new technology is unveiled for which the politics and ideologies driving it are thinly veiled, at best. Sometimes a new device’s ideology is secreted away in the trunk or the glove compartment, from time to time it may laugh boisterously from the back seat, at times it may even sit shotgun, but every now and then the ideology is the whole car. The latter is the case with Google’s newly announced “self-driving cars” which are just as much a metaphor, if not more so, for the state of our technological society as they are actual vehicles. The self-driving cars are the reification of a particular technological worldview, one in which under the guise of new freedoms we are asked to surrender more control to technology.
Google’s ambition to release such vehicles is not particularly new – it is a project that has been in the works for quite some time – yet in its latest phase the project has undergone a rather significant shift. Whereas the earlier vehicles in Google’s self-driving fleet seemed to be retooled versions of fairly standard vehicles the cars that Google recently made public are hardly standard. Many of the features of vehicles to which most drivers are accustomed (steering wheel, pedals, gear shift) are gone in Google’s new cars. What the human in the vehicle is left with – when it comes to control – is a start button, an emergency stop button of sorts, and a screen. In these new cars it is not simply that the human is not behind the wheel, it is that there is no wheel (as in driving wheel) at all.
Google’s self-driving cars are literally being driven by the technology. Which is really just another way of saying that these cars are being driven by the engineers, technologists, executives, and designers behind those technologies. Which is really just another way of saying that a “self-driving car” is just a “Google driven” car. Granted, “Google-driven car” does not have the same futuristic sound as “self-driving car.”
Due to the obvious safety risks associated with vehicles (crashes, for example) the roll-out process for the Google cars will likely move relatively slowly in comparison to the speed with which other technologies are often introduced. Much remains to be seen – and much more may still change. Unlike Google Glass, where the company has been able to race forward without giving a darn about criticism (which has kind of backfired for Glass), the Google cars require a slower roll out. Furthermore – or by extension – it is not entirely clear whether or not Google’s cars represent an intention to take on the major car companies as a competitor or simply glob onto them in a symbiotic relationship (similar to the Droid OS – where Google builds the OS but others built the devices). Other questions such as whether these cars will be available for personal ownership or whether they will function as a high-tech taxi service to be summoned by the click of a button (and therefore which places will they be available in) – all await answers to be given at a later date.
It will likely be quite some time before the streets of your city (or town) are filled with Google’s cars (unless you live around Silicon Valley [in which case the streets are already filled with tech buses]) – however, what makes these cars interesting is the relationship they set up between the user (or rider) and the vehicle itself. Which is really another way of saying – the relationship between the user/rider and the tech company steering the development. For a self-driving car that is summoned to a location by an app and which then shuttles a person to the desired location without the person being able to do much except hit the “emergency stop” button – is one in which a person is being forced to trust completely in the technology, to trust completely in Google. If one gets into such a car one will have to trust that the car will actually take them where they want to go, and they will have little choice but to sit idly while the car (meaning Google’s algorithms) determine the best way to reach a given destination.
One can wonder – only half in jest – if these cars will have an odd tendency to park in front of billboards for several minutes at a time, or if they will have a tendency to drive to places (such as stores) that have paid for preferential (“sponsored”) rankings.
The Google car makes increasingly clear the conundrum of our highly technological society, wherein we are asked repeatedly to put our trust in proprietary technological systems in exchange for the promise that these devices and machines will take us where we want to go. Though it is often the case that we are not so much “asked to” as that we are “told to.” This is one of the places where the logic of “disruption” creeps into the scenario wherein those at tech firms feel entitled to introduce far-reaching societal shifts on behalf of the rest of society. While self-driving cars may make it seem that “where we want to go” is the location we give as our destination, in this situation the real question of “where we want to go” is not about physical destination but our destination as a society. What Google’s self-driving cars reshape is not the “where we go” of location but the “how we get there” – for the intent of these cars is to shape the “where we go” on a societal scale. And the “where we go” to which these cars drive us is a future in which we have become ever more reliant on technological structures – for this is no longer simply about the vehicle, it is about the whole range of further technologies that are responsible for getting that self-driving car from point A to point B.
Yet for a self-driving car the physical destination is something of an afterthought, the vehicle itself is the real destination.
While some have responded skeptically to these self-driving cars with comments about how trains/subways already fill this role – the point is precisely that trains and subways do not fit this role. For the self-driving car is not actually about making transportation easier for more people. If the problem that somebody is trying to solve (to put it in Postman-esque language) is “how do you efficiently transport the most people?” – than it is obvious that the self-driving car is a questionable answer. However if the question is “how do you make people more reliant on complicated structures of technological power” than the self-driving car emerges as a wonderful answer. Again, this is not about efficient transportation it is about control. These new self-driven cars are marvelous demonstrations of technological ideology – once you agree to enter the car and sit within it you become enclosed in its drive, which is really just the drive of the company behind it all.
The future as envisioned by self-driven cars does not need you to drive – it does not want you to drive – it just wants you to sit passively while a major corporation takes you where it wants you, and the world, to go.
And thus the self-driven car is the perfect symbol for the direction our technological society is moving in: a car in which a person sits in the “driver’s seat” but where it is the corporate machine that is driving.
The human no longer needs a steering wheel, for it is them and not the car that is being steered.