Slate September, 4th 2012                       > version française




This year, the 3D printer and the driverless car are as modern as it gets. We won’t dwell on the 3D printer here, a delusional marketing ploy to essentially refit consumer’s living rooms as a supermarket (and factory).

However, we can ask if the removal of the steering wheel is one giant leap for mankind, or, at least, for the automobile industry.

Those car makers still making money (they know who they are) continue to produce new and useless gadgets to overload our already over-equipped automobiles. Thus will they fill the bottomless void of their reasoning that ‘accumulation equals innovation’, which, given the relative success of this strategy, prevents them from considering sustainable and profitable alternatives.

In this context, we’re not surprised to see the development of automatic braking systems which function more or less reliably (cf. the disastrous demonstration in 2010 of a car crashing into a truck instead of stopping ‘as if by magic’ as the press looked on), or, ultimately, a car we no longer need to drive. Bring on the one we don’t need to buy!

Must the emancipation of man systematically be implemented via the emancipation of the machine? How do we qualify an idea pushed continuously in one direction, to the point of becoming counter-productive?

“Because technology makes it possible doesn’t mean there is cleverness inside.”

For Ivan Illich (Austrian philosopher, 1926-2002), a technicalized society generates frustration among the poor and insatisfaction among the rich and leads to cultural uprooting and homogenization. He denounces economic and financial growth (having more) as a final end within industrial societies, and proposes its substitution by a more sociable model where the overriding central criteria is humanity and well-being, personal and social development, creativity and imagination, liberty and autonomy. The tools to implement such a society are non-neutral and shape one’s relationship to others and to the world. Illich offers the notion of a user friendly tool to work with and not a tool which works in the place of. Conversely, a non-user friendly tool dominates and shapes the person.

Whereas Google has brilliantly shown the economic interest in freeing users by affording free access to user friendly and open tools (search engines, maps, assorted software), when it comes to the automobile, they’ve freed the object itself. Their driverless car has covered 500,000 km of American highways, without a single accident.

Of course, it could be argued that freeing up brain time while stuck in traffic to study, be  entertained, rest or work, impacts on our personal emancipation or security issues. In the same way, conceiving of mass transit systems for future megalopolises, featuring clusters of individual self-driving vehicles rather than articulated buses blocking intersections, would facilitate traffic problems and enhance the autonomy of users.

But these technological solutions, taking responsibility away from drivers, are disconcerting for several reasons. Imagine you’re in heavy traffic, at the ‘wheel’ of a car but having nothing to hold onto. Predictably, your brain will be unavailable for any task other than to frenetically agitate your eyeballs in all directions or send waves of sweat down your neck. Especially when other drivers in the same situation are all around you, and bikes, and strollers, and it’s raining, and . . .

As you may have guessed, cruise control is not our thing.

So yes, let’s think about enhancing the quality of our car trips (many opportunities exist for developing applications in micro-entertainment, tourism, health, work, social services . . .) without forfeiting our responsibility in favor of the automobile as object, which can only lead to increased costs and the mollifying of our brains which, too, are drivers of our economy.