Sunday, November 2, 2014

Letting Your Car Drive Itself

            One of the basic themes of this column is the attempt by modern inventors to make life as frictionless and as risk-free as possible.  All kinds of devices are being created to make our daily lives as smooth and as safe as possible.  A really good example of this is the self-driving car.  On May 28 of this year, there was an article in the Adopt Network online publication (“Thoughts on Google’s Self-Driving Car Prototype”).  According to this article, not only does this car take all the work out of the hands of a driver, but it appears to make the process of driving safer.  There are no blind spots as a result of special sensors, and these sensors can also pick up objects that are over two football fields off in the distance.  The sensors enable the car to react properly to any potentially dangerous vehicle.  And because the driving is out of the hands of the driver, the latter can now dedicate his time to other projects.  For those who don’t totally trust the abilities of these cars, they can be built with manual override controls.

            So what’s wrong with using them?  To understand this, we have to analyze how such a car will affect a person’s engagement with the world.  We have discussed how making our lives too frictionless and risk-free puts us in an experiential vacuum, where we are metaphorically floating in space, and where we feel totally ungrounded and disoriented.  Our capacity to make, receive and preserve organic imprints is disrupted, and thus our capacity to feel fully alive is diminished.  Finally, our capacity to create a surrogate immortality through meaningful preserved imprints is impeded.  In an experiential vacuum, there is a lack of a template to allow humans to properly connect with and bond with one another and to properly connect with and manipulate material forms and substances for our purposes.  In other words, an experiential vacuum drains the life out of life.  There are no meaningful imprints without organic friction.  There are no meaningful imprints without some personal risk of failure.  A life without some friction and some risk is a living death.  A person living such a life goes through life numb and somehow not fully conscious.  Sort of like being a zombie.  Or a robot going mechanically through the motions like the machines around him.

            The inventors of the self-driving car feel that they can applaud the fact that it diminishes dramatically both the friction and the risk involved in riding in a car.  In terms of friction, a self-driving car relieves a person of the supposedly onerous task of manipulating a steering wheel, a turn signal, a gas pedal, a brake, and a gear shift.  But people who enjoy driving, enjoy actively manipulating all these parts of a car.  Manipulating these parts represents the aspect of driving that brings some positive friction.  This is in contrast to riding a horse, a camel, an elephant or a dog sled, all of which involve much more focus, more physical activity and more jostling in the ride – a lot more positive organic friction.  But take away the driving from the driver of a car, and the driver, in effect, loses the friction as well as the control over a major form of locomotion in his living environment.  Granted many people take public transportation and taxis and never drive, but at least these people have the comfort that another person and not a machine is making the decisions for driving.  Plus the passenger has the direct immediate control of telling another human where they want to get off.  Once a self-driving car is programmed, all human participation in the trip is removed, unless a person uses the manual override controls.  But something tells me that once a person gets seduced into the passive mental posture created by the normal procedures in a self-driving car, he will increasingly view the manual override controls as an invasive imposition, a source of negative tension-pocket friction that overstimulates him, makes him feel uncomfortable. The person will become so numb, that he may not be able to use the manual controls effectively in an emergency, if the autodrive should fail in some way.

            And this is what happens when we increasingly try to make our living environment frictionless.  The more we get rid of friction, the less we can tolerate friction, and the more we feel the need to get rid of still more friction.  And the paradox is that even though we start to tolerate friction less and less in such a situation, we still really need the friction, if we want to feel fully alive.  Which means, of course, that our increasing intolerance of friction pushes us further and further into a numbing experiential vacuum, a living death.

            As for risk, if we believe that a human is a being who is constantly prone to making dangerous errors, we can also believe that he should be separated from the activity of driving.  A self-driving car becomes another means by which people can protect themselves from themselves.  This, of course, assumes that machines can be counted on to perform locomotion activities safer by themselves, than they can perform those activities with minimal if any human participation.  Recent studies of drones, which are being considered for many civilian purposes apart from the already established military uses, are not so promising.  There have been over four hundred crashes of American drones since September 2001.  Of these, half occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another quarter occurred in the U.S.A.  Causes for the accidents include mistakes by pilots, mechanical problems and poor communication connections.  If we can’t prevent drones from crashing, how are we going to prevent self-driving cars (another group of independent locomotion vehicles) from crashing.  Drones require a minimum of human participation in locomotion activities, just like self-driving cars.  It makes one wonder if he should believe all the advanced hype for a highly independent locomotion product, while it is still in the prototype stage.

            But let us assume for the moment that self-driving cars prove safer than cars driven by humans.  Do we always want to be protected from ourselves in any activity that involves risk.  Without risk of some kind, there is little or no opportunity to make, preserve or receive organic imprints.  Thus, there is little or no opportunity to have rich vibrant life experiences and to prepare for death.  I once read a science fiction story about some people who lived in a society where machines had been programmed to serve people and to protect them from harm.  The result was that people weren’t allowed to perform any meaningful activity.  The people had put themselves into a living death.

            In today’s modern technological society, we are moving in the direction of this fictional society I had read about.  As it is, many of our manually-operated electrical machines don’t allow the same kind of rich organic imprint that pre-electrical machines and tools have.  When we ride inside a car, the ride is so frictionless, that we feel we are floating.  Granted that our maneuvering on the ride keeps us from totally floating and allows us to experience ourselves making some kind of imprint.  But the intensity of the sensory experience is not the same as riding a horse.  In this latter form of transport, we really have to work in order to travel effectively and safely, and, in the process, we make and receive organic imprints.  And there are all kinds of accidents that can happen to horses, or to camels, elephants, and dogs, if a person is not very actively careful.  Accidents which can, in turn, cause a person to be hurt.  But these are the risks that a person takes while enjoying the rich vibrant sensory experience of riding a horse, a camel, or an elephant, or traveling in a dogsled.

            What happens if one wants to stop the car suddenly to talk to a neighbor on the street, or take a detour on a road trip to an enchanting small town with beautiful homes and quaint shops?  I guess one uses the manual override controls.  And what if one loses the ability to effectively use the manual override controls from lack of practice?  Or finds it an overwhelming source of negative tension-pocket friction to have to actually participate in one’s travel navigation?

            There are just so many possible negative consequences from using a self-driving car.  But the inventors of this car want to make an already frictionless ride more frictionless and to protect a person from harm.  Pretty soon, the world will function as one enormous self-propelling gyroscope, and people will be able to sit on their lawn chairs drinking martinis, margaritas and mint juleps watching life go by.


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