Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When something goes wrong with a machine, it is easier to blame human error than it is to blame the machine itself. Such blame shifting is a wonderful sleight of hand in which the machine gets to maintain its aura of perfection even as the fault is cast upon the foolish, fallible human. There is a certain self-deprecating quality to this, which itself covers up just how misanthropic this tendency may be.
Despite the rumors that steadily make their way into excited hypothesizing in the press, the first time many people become aware of a new technology is when the finished product appears. Certainly, people assume that there was some lengthy process of prototyping and testing, but oftentimes when a new device is unveiled to the public it is simultaneously being unleashed upon them. Thus, there are not many new technologies where people can feel as though they genuinely have a vantage point to watch a new technology’s genesis. Self-driving cars, however, may be a rare example to the contrary. Several companies are working on self-driven vehicles at the moment, but the potential danger posed by this technology and the need for testing these machines on quasi-public roadways makes it so that these machines cannot solely be tested within the controlled confines of a tech company’s campus. These machines are in public, and therefore the tribulations in their development take place in a setting where it is harder to cover up the accidents.
And there have been some accidents.
That being said, car crashes are not amusing. And though dramatic collisions are recurring features in popular entertainment, they are still somber occurrences that continue to happen with tragic frequency and horrific consequences. Nevertheless, those with a tendency to look askance at tech companies claims to be improving the world (instead of just improving their profit margins) may be tempted to indulge in a measure of schadenfreude when they see headlines about the number of fender benders in which self-driving cars have been involved – especially as these accidents do not seem to have resulted in any fatalities. However, to read beyond the headlines of these stories is to generally be confronted with a familiar explanation: the problem is not the machines, the problem is humans.
At the surface level there is obviously a kernel of truth to this, at least insofar as many of the accidents in which self-driving cars have been involved have featured the self-driven car being hit by a human-driven car. It is also worth recognizing that these minor – and so far they are minor – collisions are not in and of themselves worthy of headlines. Indeed, what is newsworthy is hardly the dented fender; rather what is newsworthy is that it involves a self-driving car. And yet what the story of the self-driving car represents has less to do with autonomous vehicles and more to do with the way in which discussions about technology are being structured. Self-driven cars are not being presented as a hazard to cars driven by humans, human driven cars are being presented as a danger to self-driving cars. Thus, instead of a technology promising to provide self-actualization for humans, what emerges is a case wherein the pesky presence of humans is holding self-driving cars back from actualization.
There are numerous tendencies within the history and philosophy of technology that present different takes on human interactions with machines. Some of these views present technology as a threat to humanity, others magnify the beneficial potential of technology whilst downplaying the negative risks, some views emphasize that technology must be understood in terms of how it is socially constructed and society shaping, still other thinkers have emphasized that some technologies are “democratic” while different technologies are “authoritarian,” and somewhere in the dark background is a certain misanthropic approach which worships and lusts for technology while viewing humans as the fleshy relics of a bygone age.
The adoration for machines and the shunning of humanity is not a particularly new tendency, though many of the individuals who were early celebrants of this ideology have fallen (with good reason) distinctly out of favor. Contemporary discourse around technology – at least as it plays out in the popular press – tends to be rather narrowly focused on the ways in which technology can improve human lives. True, there are concerns about people losing their jobs to robots and deeper fears of those same robots rising up to obliterate humanity – but such anxieties are couched against a backdrop of a world made easier thanks to a multitude of apps and devices. Only on the fringes of technological discourse is one likely to encounter individuals earnestly swearing their loyalty to technology while denigrating humans; however, the case of self-driving cars presents a warning regarding the ways in which such views can slowly creep into the larger discourse. It is easy to dismiss of fanatical technological ardor when it reeks of a mix of messianism and millenarianism – but the same faith can make inroads just as well when presented as a simple gripe about humans as the problem.
The discussion of self-driving cars is an interesting thing to behold, largely because there is actually a discussion to behold. Though calling it “a discussion” is probably bit of an exaggeration. Watching the errors and challenges of self-driving cars presents people with a rare opportunity to pose questions such as: “do we want this?” “who really benefits from this?” “might this be dangerous?” Usually these are questions which play out long past the prototype stage, but the genuine physical threat that self-driving cars may represent has meant that some of these questions can be asked earlier. It would be incorrect to suggest that many people are being invited to genuinely contribute to a consideration of whether self-driving cars are a good or a bad thing. After all, the companies building self-driving cars are gamely keeping at it, they are testing them, they have invested a lot of money in them, and frankly they do not seem to particularly care what people think – except insofar as they must follow certain governmental regulations (which they surely wish they could do without). And some of the clearest evidence of these companies’ confidence is in the way that the accidents have been framed: wherein problems are always the fault of humans, not the self-driving cars. Furthermore it is not even the fault of humans riding in the self-driving cars bumping into other things! No, it is humans in their regular cars bumping into the self-driving cars! Bait and switch completed – blame is deflected from the self-driving car and it is done in such a way that subtly advances another goal. For it quietly suggests that the only way to genuinely guard against this danger will be to ensure that everybody is being ferried around in their own self-driving car.
If the danger is the human element, than simply eliminate the human element.
It is worth approaching such claims with a measure of wariness, and it is important to see this as an opposition not between humans and machines but between humans and other humans who are ideologically and financially entangled with machines. Therefore, the problem with self-driving cars is not humans, as such, the problem is with humans who are not conforming to the strictures of the technological paradigm of which self-driving cars are a part. The misanthropic tendency visible in the discourse around self-driving cars takes the form of a mocking distaste for people who have not yet become suitably bound up in technology – and the only thing it has to offer as a solution is more technology. Thus, the self-driving car is the solution to the problem created by the self-driving car – though the main beneficiary of this solution is not humans, as such, but the small group of humans who stand to make a lot of money should this solution be accepted.
And what better way is there to push for this solution, than to suggest that people are the problem?
Despite the way this matter is framed in the news, this does not come down to people not being “good” enough, it is just another way of insisting that what people do not have enough of are high-tech “goods.”