Driving Away with Autonomy

I keep hearing about driverless cars, or as I call them, mobile prisons. I don’t even like riding in a vehicle while somebody else is driving, so maybe my distaste for automated transportation is in part a personal problem. That said, hackers and feds could remotely commandeer an IoT car with powerlocks and deliver their helpless subjects right into a police station or river. But even when we are not at the mercy of tech-savvy nemeses there is a general incapacitation of humanity that corresponds to the capabilities of our machines. Talk about so-called “autonomous vehicles” should concern us about the displacement of our own innate freedom.

Marshall McLuhan’s study of “Media Ecology” argued that technology extends human abilities outside our body. The obvious advantage of tools is that they expand our capability while reducing the burden of work on our physical forms. The disadvantage, however, is that our naked abilities atrophy when we exercise them through technology. Gloves, for example, are a tool that I use when I am splitting firewood so that the friction from the handle of the splitting maul doesn’t give me painful blisters on my hands. McLuhan would describe gloves as an extension of my skin. If I wear gloves for too much of my physical work, however, my skin will remain fragile rather than tough. In other words, by extending my skin’s ability to protect beyond my body, my actual skin has become weaker.

A more cerebral example of a medium would be a mobile device, especially those which our language has come to describe as “smart phones.” Many people, including those without a deliberate Media Ecology approach, have considered that some mental abilities will decrease as we become more dependent on handheld computers. Perhaps people will have poorer memories when they’ve become accustomed to storing their friends phone numbers on their contact list and can use IMDb to recall the names of actors in movies, among other things. Maybe math skills will deplete as we now carry calculators at all times in the form of our phones. Although it is in part a play on words, it would not be too farfetched to say that “smart phones” extend our intellect outside of our body. This makes us conveniently intelligent as long as we are utilizing a handheld device, but without it we become stupider than we would have otherwise been.

So if you are riding along in an “autonomous vehicle,” that implies that you have relinquished your autonomy in exchange for a ride. The benefit is ease of transport, but the cost is the mediation of control, will, and freedom into a complex digital-mechanical apparatus. I personally prefer simplicity as well as autonomy, so I may never take the opportunity to ride in a driverless vehicle. That said, my position is not categorically anti-technology. Instead I want to evaluate media cautiously by weighing their effects on humans and the planet along with their alluring benefits. People will have to form their own evaluations, but for me the most healthy and enjoyable form of autonomous transport is walking.