Friday, September 18, 2009

Nostalgia for the Now

Someone was telling me a story about how they were in traffic the other day watching the driver of the car next to them actually reading a newspaper folded across his steering wheel while he drove. Standard trope about distracted driving.

How far we've come from the days when you put on goggles and driving gloves before you got behind the wheel -- it was almost like an athletic event, certainly physically and mentally demanding, requiring knowledge and concentration to keep the elaborate contraption running. Every car was a sports car.

But closed cabins took away the need for driving goggles; automatic transmission, power steering and brakes made athleticism unnecessary; the roads were paved; seat belts and air bags were put in place to protect our frail bodies. We grew quite comfortable in our driving lives.

Now, out of our comfort, we grow careless, and the engineers invent car radar to keep us safe. How far away can full autopilot be?

It suddenly seems like this moment is a kind of dangerous valley, where we've already mentally given up control of our fate to the machines, even though the engineers haven't quite gotten them fully finished for us.

And it reminds me of something Bill Joy famously quoted in his article about Grey Goo:

Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

I prefer to think of this a bit metaphorically, not just as the individual giving up control of his fate to a machine, but as the individual benefiting from the creations of the group. The robot is really a stand-in for the ever-more-complex apparatus of society.

But for now, anyone is still free to wake up and drive like an athlete, mindfully inhabiting the present moment, fully in charge of the ton of steel they're riding down the road.

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