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.”