Twilight of the idylls


The Silicon Valley guys have a new hobby: driving fast cars around private tracks. They love it. “When you’re really in the zone in a racecar, it’s almost meditative,” Google executive Jeff Huber tells the Times’s Farhad Manjoo. Adds Yahoo senior vice president Jeff Bonforte, “Your brain is so happy that it washes over you.” The Valley guys are a little nervous about the optics of their pastime — “Try to tone down the rich guy hobby thing,” angel investor and ex-Googler Joshua Schachter instructs Manjoo — but the “visceral thrill” of driving has nevertheless made it “the Valley’s ‘it’ hobby.”

The Valley guys are rushing to rent out racetracks and strap themselves into Ferraris at the very moment that they’re telling the rest of us how miserable driving is, and how liberated we’ll all feel when robots take the wheel. Jazzed by a Googler’s Ted Talk on driverless cars, MIT automation expert Andrew McAfee says that the Googlemobile will “free us from a largely tedious task.” Writes Wired transport reporter Alex Davies, “Liberated from the need to keep our hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, drivers will become riders with more time for working, leisure, and staying in touch with loved ones.” When Astro Teller, head of Google X, watches people drive by in their cars, all he hears is a giant sucking sound, as potentially productive minutes pour down the drain of a vast timesink. “There’s over a trillion dollars of wasted time per year we could collectively get back if we didn’t have to pay attention while the car took us from one place to another,” he said in a South by Southwest keynote this month.

Driving on a private track may be pleasantly meditative, even joy-inducing, but driving on public thoroughfares is just a drag.

What’s curious here is that the descriptions of everyday driving offered with such confidence by the avatars of driverlessness are at odds with what we know about people’s actual attitudes toward and experience of driving. People like to drive. Surveys and other research consistently show that most of us enjoy being behind the wheel. We find driving relaxing and fun and even, yes, liberating — a respite from the demands of our workaday lives. Seeing driving as a “problem” because it prevents us from being productive gets the story backwards. What’s freeing about driving is the very fact that it gives us a break from the pressure to be productive.

That doesn’t mean we’re blind to automotive miseries. When researchers talk to people about driving, they hear plenty of complaints about traffic jams and grinding commutes and bad roads and parking hassles and all the rest. Our attitudes toward driving are complex, always have been, but on balance we like to have our hands on the wheel and our eyes on the road, not to mention our foot on the gas. About 70 percent of Americans say they “like to drive,” while only about 30 percent consider it “a chore,” according to a 2006 Pew survey. A survey of millennials, released earlier this year by MTV, found that, contrary to common wisdom, most young people enjoy cars and driving, too. Seventy percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 say they like to drive, and 72 percent of them say they’d rather give up texting for a week than give up their car for the same period. The percentage of people who like to drive has fallen a bit in recent years as traffic has worsened — 80 percent said they liked to drive in a 1991 Pew survey — but it’s still very high, and it belies the dreary picture of driving painted by Silicon Valley. You don’t have to be wealthy enough to buy a Porsche or to rent out a racetrack to enjoy the meditative and active pleasures of driving. They can be felt on the open road as well as the closed track.

In suggesting that driving is no more than a boring, productivity-sapping waste of time, the Valley guys are mistaking a personal bias for a universal truth. And they’re blinding themselves to the social and cultural challenges they’re going to face as they try to convince people to be passengers rather than drivers. Even if all the technical hurdles to achieving perfect vehicular automation are overcome — and despite rosy predictions, that remains a sizable if — the developers and promoters of autonomous cars are going to discover that the psychology of driving is far more complicated than they assume and far different from the psychology of being a passenger. Back in the 1970s, the public rebelled, en masse, when the federal government, for seemingly solid safety and fuel-economy reasons, imposed a national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. The limit was repealed. If you think that everyone’s going to happily hand the steering wheel over to a robot, you’re probably delusional.

There’s something bigger going on here, and I confess that I’m still a little fuzzy about it. Silicon Valley seems to have a good deal of trouble appreciating, or even understanding, what I’ll term informal experience. It’s only when driving is formalized — removed from everyday life, transferred to a specialized facility, performed under a strict set of rules, and understood as a self-contained recreational event — that it can be conceived of as being pleasurable. When it’s not a recreational routine, when it’s performed out in the world, as part of everyday life, then driving, in the Valley view, can only be understood within the context of another formalized realm of experience: that of productive busyness. Every experience has to be cleanly defined, has to be categorized. There’s a place and a time for recreation, and there’s a place and a time for productivity.

This discomfort with the informal, with experience that is psychologically unbounded, that flits between and beyond categories, can be felt in a lot of the Valley’s consumer goods and services. Many personal apps and gadgets have the effect, or at least the intended effect, of formalizing informal activities. Once you strap on a Fitbit, you transform what might have been a pleasant walk in the park into a program of physical therapy. A passing observation that once might have earned a few fleeting smiles or shrugs before disappearing into the ether is now, thanks to the distribution systems of Facebook and Twitter, encapsulated as a product and subjected to formal measurement; every remark gets its own Nielsen rating.

What’s the source of this crabbed view of experience? I’m not sure. It may be an expression of a certain personality type. It may be a sign of the market’s continuing colonization of the quotidian. I’d guess it also has something to do with the rigorously formal qualities of programming itself. The universality of the digital computer ends — comes to a crashing halt, in fact — where informality begins.

Image: Burt and Sally mix their pleasures in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

15 thoughts on “Twilight of the idylls

  1. Tom Slee

    I think you have this right, especially “Silicon Valley seems to have a good deal of trouble appreciating, or even understanding, what I’ll term informal experience.”

    James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” has many parallels in the Silicon Valley worldview; his perspective that states (and now markets) require formalization and simplification in order to “see” or measure citizens and consumers.

  2. Faza (TCM)

    There’s no deep secret here, I think: geeks like to solve the kind of problems geeks can solve.

    A computer can be a wonderful problem-solving machine – if, and only if, the problem can be formalized. Therefore, in order to be able to solve a problem, it must first be formalized. In order for computers to be able to “assist” people, people must be made to act like computers.

    Now, I can appreciate the need for some formalization, especially if the actual problem is pressing. Computers are generally good at two things: counting and retrieving data – provided we make it easy for them. Since these two things are among those that humans aren’t necessarily good at (especially when we speak of complicated calculations or vast volumes of data), we tend to be pretty happy with computers taking over these tasks – even if it means we must start paying more attention to just how we store the data to be processed.

    Unfortunately, what we’ve been seeing over the past fifteen years is solutions being offered to non-existing problems, as computers are taken out of the realms where they shine into realms that they’re pants at, but are gonna have a go anyway. These solutions require the same kind of cutting ourselves down to size that all computer-based solutions entail. Self-driving cars seem like a cool thing, but even Michael Knight drove (not rode) around most of the time. The funny thing is that self-driving cars are one of the more sensible things to come out of the Valley. There is an actual problem that may be solved: driving to a party, getting blasted and returning home safely.

    I don’t think that lack of time for “productivity” is weighing much on anyone’s mind – quite the opposite, in my experience. A computer program that can construct reports that would take a human hours to compile in seconds makes a lot of sense from a productivity standpoint – which is why I find myself writing such programs. However, it would be foolish to expect that the kind of reasoning that may be used to sell your computer smarts to business (where time is money) applies equally when trying to flog consumer products. Given that the folks in the Valley have little to no experience with customer-facing business (the kind that actually must convince the guy in the street to part with some of his hard-earned dough) and have long forgotten what it’s like to be yer average consumer (if ever they knew), it would probably be too much to expect them to know the difference.

  3. Sam

    I think you’re being overly extrapolative here, and not interpolative enough either.

    I’m a geek who loves driving fast on a track, as well as leisurely cruises through scenic backdrops. You can drive with the windows down in a beat-up Camry on a fine spring day and feel richer than Zuck.

    What self-driving cars will address is ALL of the rest of the driving we do – my commute to work, the errands, schlepping kids to sports – all in heavy traffic, on increasingly decrepit roads. All of that, in any urban environment, has become simply awful. I wish mass transit were the answer; it isn’t though for many of us. So we are faced with the reality of spending 1-3 stressful hours every day behind the wheel. That’s the problem the self-driving car solves for.

    So your post seems to be overly frothy about the pleasures of driving – it’s pleasurable in small doses, usually on weekends, or yes, on a track. That’s the extrapolation you incorrectly jump to.

    Side note that my colleagues on the track are more likely to be plumbers, small business owners, nurses rather than Valley or Wall St kingpins. You can drive an old Miata on the track and have a blast and learn new skills and make new friends.

    What you also fail to realize is what draws a number of people to track driving is a love for fine engineering – the same thing the draws some of them to technology and code. Whether people work in tech or not, those who race are united in reveling in “informal experiences”.

  4. Nick Post author

    Sam, Thanks. I would point out, though, that the Google self-driving car has no steering wheel or pedals, and the company’s explicit goal now is get rid of human drivers altogether. As the head of its car program said in his Ted Talk (according to McAfee), “we should be striving not for more and better tech to assist human drivers, but instead to replace them.” This is the end game that many in the industry are promoting. (Marc Andreessen, for instance, says, “Ten to twenty years out, driving your car will be viewed as equivalently immoral as smoking cigarettes around other people is today.”) Like you, I’m dubious that things will play out that way. Nick

  5. Brutus

    It’s not really possible to sort the complexities of these issues in just a few paragraphs, and almost no one has patience for longer treatments, so onward we plunge with potential solutions aimed at the wrong problems. For example, driver error and fatigue are safety problems, the driving experience is problematical only under some conditions, and traffic congestion and poor roadways are not problems best addressed by driverless cars. Subordinating these issues to hardware and software solutions developed by computer engineers and sold by marketers (now often the same computer engineers) is a blithe mischaracterization of the issues. But there are plenty of suckers who think they need individual gadgets and software to do increasingly specialized tasks. Every time I hear “we’ve got an app for that,” I shrug it off, knowing that even if it’s free to download, it comes at a cost to the fullness of human experience gained by doing things for oneself, including sometimes doing it the hard way. Cooking is a good example, where a simple utility knife used in one’s hands is more gratifying than, say, loading a food processor — at least until one is working at industrial scale.

  6. Fdo

    Elon Musk recently said that he would forbide human driving. He says it’s for improving our security, but in fact this is required by the industry of self-driving cars. They need to reduce the number of options —human drivers are unpredictable— in order to formalize the problem.

  7. Nick Post author

    Musk, as a purveyor of sports cars and a would-be purveyor of autonomous cars, finds himself in a fascinating position. After suggesting on stage that driving would eventually be made illegal, because “you can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine,” he quickly backed away from the comment in a tweet: “To be clear, Tesla is strongly in favor of people being allowed to drive their cars and always will be. Hopefully, that is obvious.” I guess that means Tesla won’t be adopting “Two-Ton Death Machines” as its marketing tagline.

  8. Brian

    Another creepy report from the world of automation. The main German TV station, ARD, is starting to replace their news readers with avatars motion-captured by WETA Digital in New Zealand. (German, but the pictures tell the story, too)

    How Long will it be before Germans get their “news” from Gollum, Frodo and the gang? Or how about beloved, but dead former news readers?

    In the article, a news reader who was sceptical was won over when he was told he could “read the news at home is his pajamas”. Why does every new step of automation get sold this way and why do people want to do everything in their pajamas?

    “And that’s the way it is!” Or will be sooner that we think.

    (sorry for not commenting on Nick’s post directly, but the other commentors are nailing it)

  9. Gillian Russell

    The “something bigger going on’ reminds me of Iain McGilchrist’s work on the divided brain and our increasing privileging of left brain perspective, which is abstracted, mechanistic and analytical: “formalizing informal activities.”

    Brian made me laugh out loud with his pajamas comment! In the research I have done on technologically-mediated psychotherapeutic treatment, the idea of clinicians being able to work in their pajamas as a positive perk came up repeatedly! There is some research to be done: why do people want to do everything in their pajamas??

  10. diane

    I would say, without reservation, that I cannot wait for that significant solar storm which fries all of the satellites and transformers upon which all of the touted [non] innovations rely upon (which, insanely, it appears no apparent entity[ies] are attempting to ensure that any back up infrastructure is maintained for that quite likely occurrence), if it weren’t for the fact that billions have not been asked for their permission to institute any of the insanity going on, though they will be the first ones (as always) to suffer the consequences.

    Progress might have been us humans learning how better to understand one another (an example might be a tiger which somehow knows a particular tiger is fifty miles away), but no, what we have is a stunningly homogenous (ultimately militaristic) teeny elite crew of quite pallid guise (pronounced: gīz) who have clearly been proclaiming that all humans, Outside Of Themselves, of course – are obsolete, and cannot be relied upon to make a choice as to how they desire to live.

    We’ve gotten well beyond the point where technology is usually helpful, we are at the point where it’s become obscene in it’s obsolescence of those intangible realities which make life worth staying alive for.

  11. Gillian Russell

    Through the wonders of Google Translate–I get the April 1st reference.

    And yet–not so far fetched (google Sim Sensei–…

    and all those therapists I interviewed really did want to work in their pajamas!!

  12. Brian

    The internet turns April Fools Day inside out so that only one day a year can we recall what it was once like for our brains to be fooled as in the past.

    One other days, we can no longer be “fooled” because no one truly “believe” or “know” as they once believed or knew or trusted.

    Fly-by browsers like me are antiquarians. Being fooled is like a ride on a time machine.

    Excuse me, I will now try this new card game three-card monty that this nice man wants to show me.

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