Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Driving Change

M. R. O’Connor, for in the New Yorker, reviewed the idea of living in a shifting era of what it means to be a driver (the Roy here is Alex Roy, who you may know for his Polizei 144 antics or for driving across the United States in just over 31 hours):

Finally, Roy points out that many of the problems autonomous cars promise to solve also have simpler, non-technological solutions. (This is true, of course, only if one assumes that driving isn’t a problem in itself.) To reduce traffic, governments can invest in mass-transit and road infrastructure. To diminish pollution, they can build bike lanes and encourage the adoption of electric cars. In Roy’s opinion, the best way to make driving safer has nothing to do with technology: it’s to raise licensing standards and improve driver education. Over lunch — a Niçoise salad — Roy argued that our fixation on driverless cars flows from our civic laziness. “It’s easier to imagine that technology can solve a problem that education or regulation could also fix,” he said. In place of the driverless utopia that technologists often picture, he asked me to consider another possibility: a congested urban hellscape in which autonomous vehicles are subsidized by companies that pump them full of advertising; in exchange for free rides, companies might require you to pass by particular stores or watch commercial messages displayed on the vehicles’ windows. (A future very much like this was recently imagined by T. Coraghessan Boyle, in his short story “Asleep at the Wheel.”) In such a world, Roy said, “The joy of the ride is taken away.”


Perhaps it was inevitable that a nascent right-to-drive movement would spring up in America, where — as fervent gun-rights advocates and anti-vaccinators have shown — we seem intent on preserving freedom of choice even if it kills us. “People outside the United States look at it with bewilderment,” Toby Walsh, an Australian artificial-intelligence researcher, told me. In his book “Machines That Think: The Future of Artificial Intelligence,” from 2018, Walsh predicts that, by 2050, autonomous vehicles will be so safe that we won’t be allowed to drive our own cars. Unlike Roy, he believes that we will neither notice nor care. In Walsh’s view, a constitutional amendment protecting the right to drive would be as misguided as the Second Amendment. “We will look back on this time in fifty years and think it was the Wild West,” he went on. “The only challenge is, how do we get to zero road deaths? We’re only going to get there by removing the human.”

I would love to hear from readers around the world whether Walsh’s perspective is the case. Is the apprehension to self-driving cars or the desire to have human rights to control autonomous vehicles a mostly American stance? For what it’s worth, it was a software control that could not easily be overridden that brought down two 737 Max airplanes.

Also, I thought this was an insightful observation in the context of platform freedom, obfuscated code, and increasingly locked-down hardware:

In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” from 2009, the political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford argues that manual competence — our ability to repair the machines and devices in our lives—is a kind of ethical practice. Knowing how to fix things ourselves creates opportunities for meaningful work and individual agency; it allows us to grasp more deeply the built world around us. The mass-market economy, Crawford writes, produces devices that are practically impenetrable. If we try to repair our microwaves or printers, we’ll quickly be discouraged by their complexity; many cars produced today lack even dipsticks to check their oil levels. Driving the Tesla Model 3 has been compared to using a giant iPhone: instead of controlling the car directly, one seems to pilot it by means of a user interface.

This is a great essay.