So it is here. In truth, the coming debate over driving is not really about driving at all, but about movement, autonomy, and reliance upon one’s self. Which is to say that the root question is whether free people are to be permitted to move themselves around without needing somebody else to agree to the transaction, or whether the government may interpose itself. This, naturally, is a perennial inquiry, not a contingent one. It would have been as pertinent in 1790 if there had been an anti-horse movement, and it will be necessary when the car has been replaced with the jetpack, or the rotocopter, or whatever is coming our way. May I move myself, or may I not?
After nearly three decades with a driver’s license, much of it spent driving for a living, racking up over a million miles in total (with no accidents!), I have to admit that experience has made me bitter and cynical. Most people, as far as I’m concerned, especially on interstates, are too impulsive, impatient and stupid to be allowed to drive. I wouldn’t shed a tear to see roads turned into above-ground subways filled with driverless cars. Hell, I could get even more reading done in the time that’s currently spent on stressful guard duty against some moron weaving into my lane while trying to Instagram a picture of his genitalia.
And yet, the basic philosophical argument that Cooke delineates is valid and vital. Like any sci-fi prognostication, the exact details are up for debate. Future policies and technologies may render some of his particular concerns moot, but he’s correct that the underlying argument will still be rumbling — how far are we willing to go to eliminate risk and inefficiency from our lives? What can’t be justified as a public health and safety measure by bureaucrats and managers incentivized by power and control? In a world where agency is largely felt to be an unwelcome burden, no matter what we officially claim to the contrary, the allure of Taylorism will remain strong — why not outsource this particular choice to the experts? Thinking, judging and considering is exhausting and only leads to decision fatigue. Let the machines massage those mental muscular aches away. Save your energy for puttering around in your garden or building model trains and cars. Those activities will remain unsupervised and unregulated…for now. I don’t know, maybe working in the yard causes back problems and skin cancer. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the results of the latest study before we can justify that.
Perhaps individual driving will pass into history and elicit no more than a collective shrug, judged to be an acceptable tradeoff. But the basic conflict will remain and reassert itself again and again, because we remain incapable of articulating a shared response to that most basic of philosophical questions: what is life for?