Ripe seeds of invention everywhere abound, and it awaits only a certain combination of need, of circumstance and, above all, perhaps, of chance, to decide which shall germinate.
The High-Speed Internal-Combustion Engine by Harry Ricardo, 1923
“Ricardo’s “ripe seeds of invention”…begin to germinate around some settled platform…allowing a body of communal expertise to develop. The impatient optimizer may see such an inheritance as an obstacle, something to be swept away in the name of forward progress. Human beings are often bullheaded in their attachment to something suboptimal. Call it loyalty, call it perversity, or call it a cultural inheritance, this conservatism has at times been responsibe for amazing leaps forward, paradoxically enough…tradition can itself be an engine of progress. It organizes the transmission of knowledge. It also provides an idiom for some shared endeavor, and a set of historical benchmarks, such that one can imagine oneself outdoing particular human beings who came before, and who worked wthin the same basic limitations. Tradition thus provides a venue for rivalry in excellence, the kind that sometimes brings a whole community to new and unexpected places.
In this respect, I think it is fair to call hot-rodding an art form.”
This is, I’m certain, the most entertaining and engaging work of political philosophy that I will read all year. Crawford tells great stories about what we could call the “car culture’ to make serious arguments for defending the personal freedom integral to the act of driving, and the human virtues cultivated in making and doing stuff to cars. He attacks the particular threat of the autonomous car to critique the larger issues posed by the intrusion of ‘big data tech’ into our society.
Hot-rodding as an art form is a little tongue in cheek, but he’s not talking about street racing. He describes the ingenuity, creativity, and passionate pursuit of making something better, something imagined and created through a high level of craft. I’m never going to pick up a wrench let alone tear down an engine, but I can sincerely admire the skill and passion that the car enthusiast pours into realizing a personal vision.
His title is what caught my attention. Didn’t quite have me at “Drive” but he hooked me with “the Open Road”. I love to drive and I love a road trip above almost anything. The prospect of the so-called autonomous car fills me first with bafflement – who doesn’t want to be in control and enjoy the physical sensations of driving? – and then incredulity – who thinks these systems would be any more error free or secure than any other bug and hack riddled software that we know? – and then fear and outrage – are some “experts” going to force us to relinquish yet another piece of personal independence and active agency?
I feel more and more uncomfortable with what has been aptly named “surveillance capitalism” (Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) and anxious about its relentless extension into our lives. I have no wish to be a passive engine of consumption, but it is harder and harder to defend privacy and avoid (or even recognize) the little nudges and gentle steerings that intrude into every activity.
“…the Blob that seeks to claim every nook and cranny of human experience as raw material to be datafied and turned to its own profit. What this amounts to is a concentration of wealth, a centralization of knowledge, and an atrophy of our native skills to do things for ourselves.
However one comes down on a contest such as that between…consumer convenience and a living wage, between waiting an extra five minutes to hail a cab versus spending an extra ten minutes in traffic because the streets are flooded with empty Ubers, shouldn’t these questions be decided by us, through democratic contest and market forces? That is not at all what is happening. It is more like colonial conquest, this new and very unilateral form of political economy.”
Definitely a bigger issue than keeping my car keys. That’s important too. I like to drive, I like to use the skills developed over many years and miles of driving, I like making the choice of route even if it’s not GPS “optimal”, and I enjoy (mostly) the interaction with fellow drivers as we share the community of the road.
“To drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and one can’t help but feel this when one gets behind the wheel. It seems a skill worth preserving.”