In a previous article, I discussed some of the ramifications of self-driving cars from the perspective of some of the ongoing themes I have introduced in this column. I have been concerned about the loss of human agency, the loss of friction in the human narrative, and being thrown into an experiential vacuum by being reduced to a passive passenger all the time. Now it appears that automobiles are not the only form of human transportation to be affected by automation. Companies like Rolls-Royce are working on ships: first ferries and tugboats, but eventually cargo ships to be operated through remote control or by themselves. No need for human intervention, except a relatively small amount in the case of remote control, where there would be one person exerting control out of an office far away from the ship. In particular, the inventors of these kinds of vessels say that humans get tired, humans make errors and some of these errors lead to accidents. We have seen these arguments used for self-driving cars. Truthfully, they could be used to argue against most implements, devices, and machines that humans have developed in order to extend their dominion over the planet earth. Most of the items that humans have invented have risks. A person can cut himself using a hand-held razor. This is a major reason why electric razors were invented. When a person uses an electric razor, the idea is that he is not going to cut himself.
But shaving does not represent a significant part of the human narrative. Shaving is not a significant organic imprint that helps a person feel alive. It is not the kind of imprint that one would want to preserve on an enduring physical surface and/or in the memories of the people around him. Sailing a commercial ship on a big body of water does represent a meaningful part of the human narrative, is a significant organic imprint that can help at least one kind of a person feel alive, and does represent a potentially preservable imprint that becomes a part of a person’s surrogate immortality. And the specialness of the imprints in this case comes precisely in the need of this kind of a person, a sailor, to make lots of little decisions and sometimes some big ones in the directing of his tasks to help get a ship to its destination and, at the same time, to help keep the ship in good shape and afloat.
And in the process of making these decisions and performing these tasks, there is always the possibility of making a terribly wrong decision or performing a task in a terribly wrong way or simply confronting an unforeseen situation like a terrible storm or the boat hitting something and springing a leak. A decision or a task performance or an unforeseen situation or a combination of more than one of these factors can all put the ship in peril.
Humans make mistakes. Sometimes they are easily correctable. Sometimes they are correctable, but it is too late to prevent some kind of permanent damage in a situation. Sometimes they are fatal. And some unforeseen situations cannot be corrected at all in time and become fatal. Many people today feel they want as much as possible to get rid of the possibility of human mistakes and even unforeseen situations from all major life processes. And the only way that they can effectively accomplish this goal is by extracting people as much as possible from the human narrative.
Inventors of the remote control and automated ships say another reason that we need this kind of cargo ship is that fewer and fewer people today want to go on long voyages where they have to be away from home and family for long periods of time. This is a legitimate concern, and yet it is frequently going to be true that participating in vibrant life experiences in one area of one’s life narrative is going to require a more minimal participation in other areas of one’s life narrative. Becoming a sailor, for many people, is entering a life filled with adventure, fighting to survive on the water and visiting exotic ports of call. Furthermore, it has acted as a source of dreams for men who were unable to give up the responsibilities they had at home in order to pursue riskier enterprises. Many autobiographies and novels have been written on the subject of the life of a sailor. Many of the adventures in these autobiographies and novels have involved dealing with pirates or even being a pirate. Supposedly the modern remote control and automated ships are impervious to pirates. There are no sailors to take as hostages, and cargoes can be more effectively protected.
But do we let terrorists stop us from living in big cities or from flying? If we are going to go on living, truly living, there are always going to be problems, unsatisfactory aspects of our individual lives and our living environments which we are going to have to confront and deal with. And that has always been a part of life. Pirates have been successfully dealt with in the past and are being successfully dealt with in the present (although there has been a small recent resurgence of Somali piracy, because foreign governments have let their guard down.) But our new way of dealing with piracy - creating remote control and automated cargo ships - is creating one more small layer of vacuumization in our fields of experience in our daily lives. It is one more wedge separating us from our grounding in the external world. It is one more change away from our aspiration to live a more adventurous vibrant life. It is one more elimination of the organic friction that people need in their lives in order to feel alive.
The only way to get rid of all the dangerous human error in our daily lives is to completely take the life out of our lives. And that is what the inventors of machines like remote control and automated cargo ships are doing. They are putting all of us gradually into the living death of overprotection from ourselves, the living death of a total experiential vacuum. We will be protected, all right, but we will barely be able to feel anything, because there will be so little left to feel.
(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow