Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Dreamtime of the Driverless Car

Slap another 2,500 bucks onto the already steep price-tag of Tesla Motors' Model S sedan and your luxury "smart car" will be rendered even "smarter" still (no, Virginia, cars are not actually smart), with software activating a suite of features that represent a first version of an "autopilot" program aligning libertechbrotarian Elon Musk's car company more stolidly with kindred Google libertechbrotarians who have been futurologically evangelizing Driverless Cars for years now.

In the Bloomberg Business advertorial (as expected, every single "journalism" outlet coughed up some promotional hairball flogging the Tesla press release for free in the name of what passes for technology news) the car's new features were framed in customary futurological narrative mode. The first sentence of the first paragraph casts the software package as the materialization of a long-deferred dream: "Tesla Motors Inc. will begin rolling out the first version of its highly anticipated Autopilot features to some owners of its all-electric Model S sedan Thursday."

Since the infantile fetishists thronging gizmo-fandoms do indeed wait in long lines to purchase the latest landfill-destined models of this or that handheld gadget, I concede that this first sentence is factual enough as far as these things go, and do not doubt that visions of Tesla Autopilot sugarplums have been dancing in the heads of cheerleaders Musky for the latest low-earth-orbit SpaceX amusement park ride or coffin train Hyperloop cartoon gifted to the world by our soopergenius savior celebrity CEO.

However, as a rhetorician I have to point out that the real argumentative heavy lifting performed by the framing of a product as the fulfillment of a collective dream, the arrival into The Future promised by futurists past, is that it offers up narrative collateral investing the futurological dream of the sentence following it with the plausibility and force to make the bigger sale: "Autopilot is a step toward the vision of autonomous or self-driving cars, and includes features like automatic lane changing, auto steering and the ability to parallel park itself."

Enraptured by this "vision" you may have overlooked that the none of the features actually listed there is new -- some amount to the phony novelty of marketing neologisms repackaging features decades old, like slightly souped-up 70s-era cruise control, while others have been available for a few years now in other cars and offer a mixed record of welcome minor conveniences as well as troubling new occasions for accidents, like automatic parallel parking features.

Of course, there is nothing like futurology to distract you from the disappointment and even danger of present offerings by recasting them as stepping stones to future satisfactions in which you are somehow participating aspirationally now, even if in the form of disappointment and danger. Consumer capitalism does few things better than tricking us into paying for the dissatisfaction of deferred satisfactions as satisfaction (a deferral that ends in our deaths, by the way, and eventually, very possibly, in the death of our planet).

As with the futurological nightmare of truly autonomous weapons systems, or Killer Robots, exclamation point, the futurological daydream of truly autonomous automobiles, or Driverless Cars, exclamation point, is far from reality -- of a piece with the general denigration of intelligence, recognition of which is indispensable to the support of human dignity, in faith-based futurist discourses of "artificial intelligence," as well as with the general demoralization of intelligence distracted by small screens and harassed by targeted marketing and scoring -- but quite apart from that reality on the ground, the "vision" of autonomous artifice as a documentary and justificatory rhetoric is palpably ideological, functioning to distract our attention away from the risks and costs of parochially profitable technodevelopmental changes and especially away from any grasp of the culpability of the investors, owners, designers, coders, marketers, sellers of artifacts in the suffering and death that accompanies that parochial profitability by divesting actual actors of agency and imaginatively investing artifacts with agency.

Given the long-held American romance with cars as cyborg shells -- a romance adjacent and often entangled with fantasies of gun-ownership and open-carry prostheses -- at once "enhancing" and ruggedizing us as individuals ready to compete for positional advantage or more usually momentary survival in a Hobbesian-Darwinian marketplace (the never-needed four-wheel-drive wilderness vehicle or the unsafe-security-theater-massiveness of the mini-van enlisted for the work commute, the exurban shopping trek, the flight to heteronormative suburbia) as well as providing avenues for comfortably conformist pseudo-rebellions against the exactions of this relentless competition (the road trip of the youth not yet or the retiree no longer defined by wage-slavery, the vestigial frontier of the lonely highway, the alluring transcendental myth of traffic flow), it is initially hard to see how the relinquishment of agency promised by the "driverless car" exerts its ideological tug in the first place.

Rather like the plummeting sticker-value of a freshly purchased car the second it is driven off the lot, perhaps there is a likewise instantaneous plummeting of a car's dream-value the moment it is snarled in a traffic jam, resounds with the collision of an empty shopping cart, bleeps an engine-temperature warning, or the needle edges its way all too soon toward empty. But surely the deeper ideological work of "the driverless car" is that it provides a discursive space in which one can concede the conspicuous catastrophes of car culture -- the pollution and waste and unsustainable suburban sprawl, the white-racist demolition of thriving diverse neighborhoods to make way for highways and overpasses facilitating the fiscal and institutional abandonment of majorities living in our cities -- catastrophic outcomes inspired by an earlier generation of futurists, hell, some of history's most influential futurists actually called their dream of car culture Futurama -- all the while disavowing the need to address these catastrophes in a substantive way: The Driverless Car is the futurological promise that we will save ourselves from car-culture by saving... car culture!

Why change public policies or budgetary priorities to facilitate dense diverse walkable neighborhoods and bike lanes and public transportation and continental rapid rail when you can pretend instead that simply purchasing millions more cars year after year as we have done year after year -- sure, so soon to be hybrid and electric, so soon to be artificially intelligent, so soon to be driven entirely by precarious, disorganized, unregulated drivers or,I suppose, "AIs" summonable with a digital handheld app, or so the story goes, as if that means anything real or would mean anything good even were it to become real in any measure -- purchasing millions more demanding, costly, lethal, indistinguishable cars, inching day by day through jammed traffic and an amplifying status quo toward The Future of flaming wreckage, bleak cube-stack mountains, and toxic landfills -- that somehow, somehow, this treadmill will take us somehow somewhere new, will address somehow our existential car culture grievances, will solve somehow our planetary car culture problems.

I predict...

It won't.

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