I recently had a conversation with a driver who was seated next to me on the bus. I write “driver” because, as it turned out, driving was the central component of his self-image. He wasn’t accustomed to using public transportation, but rather to “driving with the car” almost everywhere. But the car was being repaired that day, or maybe his wife had taken it, and he had to take the bus.
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I was surprised to see how stressed he was. Every couple of minutes he looked at his watch and complained to the bus driver. Yet the essence of traveling by bus or train is passivity. Command of the trip is not in your hands, so you might as well forget about it and acknowledge the fact that you are in the hands of others. You can’t change fate, the speed of the trip or the time of arrival; you can only surrender.
That’s what I tried to explain to my companion on the bus, but he refused to surrender. Like a neurotic who tries to lose a tic in his finger, but finds that it is replaced by a facial tic, he began to get involved in what was going on around him in the bus. He was outraged by the fact that the soldier behind us was talking on the phone. After that, because all motion is relative, he expressed displeasure about the direction in which Israel is going, then mumbled something about how the world is on the road to perdition.
Clearly he wanted mainly to be in control, to navigate – in a word, to drive.
Modernity is sometimes defined as the era in which humanity took its fate into its own hands and began to perceive itself as an autonomous entity. But in the 20th century, and more especially since World War II, that autonomy has assumed a concrete form: driving. “Cars, cars, fast, fast!” the modernist architect Le Corbusier wrote. “One is seized, filled with enthusiasm, with joy, the joy of power. The simple and naive pleasure of being in the midst of power, of strength. One participates in it. One takes part in this society that is just dawning.”
America, the leader of the free world, became the quintessential republic of drivers, the place where driving became a crucial element in realizing one’s citizenship. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted, in his book “America,” “All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behavior.”
Other observers were appalled by the spectacle. In the wake of the Holocaust, German-born philosopher Theodor Adorno, who lived in exile in Los Angeles following the rise of Nazism, discerned the authoritarian political traits of the citizen-driver. “Which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe put the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists? The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting unresisting jerkiness of fascist maltreatment,” he wrote, in his book “Minima, Moralia.” Adorno himself was injured in a traffic accident in 1928, suffering a concussion when the car he was in collided with a bus.
But this era is apparently on the wane. As a television commercial for Alfa Romeo cars warns: “It might be your last chance to drive.” Intel’s recent acquisition of Mobileye is yet another step toward the revolution of autonomous, driverless cars. Mobileye's Israeli founders promise that self-driving cars will be on the road by 2021. In two decades, they predict, driving by an individual will be illegal.
There’s much talk about the ethical questions raised by the advent of autonomous cars. How will a self-driving vehicle cope with the moral dilemmas demanding that a choice be made, for example, between endangering the life of a passenger in the car and endangering the life of a girl who suddenly darts onto the road? There’s also a great deal of discussion about the economic interests that will be affected by this revolution, and about its impact on the job market. But much less attention is being paid to the cultural and psychological implications of a driverless society. For it’s obvious that the elimination of driving portends a society that will be radically different from the one we know today.
If traffic laws are the central metaphor for the rules of behavior in the modern age, and if driving is a metaphor for citizenship, then robotic driving exemplifies the form taken by politics and society in the age of artificial intelligence and big data. If this trend is taken to its logical conclusion, we will soon be at a stage in which the fate of society and the state will be decided not by autonomous citizens who have the ability to decide and to err, but by a faceless, bodiless super-brain whose considerations will be beyond our grasp. The world might become safer (though that’s far from a certainty), but it will also become alienated and incomprehensible.
Men will suffer most. That driving is still identified with men goes without saying. To drive, according to the hegemonic model of masculinity, is almost as important as getting laid and making money. To be a bad driver is to fail as a man. That was particularly noticeable in the decades after World War II, when driving was considered saliently male territory. In a study conducted in Israel in the late 1970s, 50 percent of male respondents said that they would miss a car more than any other object then in their possession; of the female respondents, only 24 percent cited the car – most of them cited the refrigerator.
What will men do without their hands on the steering wheel? They will be men of a completely different kind. Loss of control over the private vehicle is almost as bad as castration, so it’s clear why old-fashioned men are up in arms. They don’t fear only the loss of their job ; they are also afraid of losing their general autonomy to faceless forces. They are fearful of the passivity of bus passengers, whom they despise.
Should we rejoice over the decline of the male driver? Not necessarily – because driving is disappearing just at a time when men have lost privileged status in this realm. In recent decades, feminism has given women their own place on the road. Women have gradually carved their way into the driving society and have turned the road into a channel of liberation.
In her book “Fast Girls and Bad Cars,” professor of English Deborah Paes de Barros depicts the road of the future as a feminist utopia. The advantage of a republic of the road is that the differences between sexes and races are blurred on it. From the outside one sees only a sexless, racially neutral car. No wonder women drivers generate such antagonism among sexist men.
From this point of view, the rise of vehicular autonomy is a lamentable sign for the future of the relations between women, men and machines in the era of automation. It might have been thought that the decline of manhood would entail the rise of womanhood. But that’s not what’s happening before our eyes. It’s not women who will replace men, but robots. And that’s probably true off-road, too.