Justin Trudeau is currently promoting an app for my phone that will notify me if I’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. My iPhone is flipping on the microphone every so often to listen in – or maybe it isn’t – you can ask Siri. I’ll be going home soon with location services on. Google has a good idea where I work, where I live, where I shop and where the kids go to school. But what exactly does all that have to do with a book entitled Why We Drive?
Driving, argues Matthew Crawford, is one of the few places of Sabbath rest left in our consumer culture. One of the few places where we cannot be tracked, managed, controlled, influenced or nudged. In our cars, on the open road, with the phone on silent, we are momentarily free from the demands of work and commerce and advertising. Big Tech knows this. The car on the freeway is the final frontier after the collapse of the blue laws, and it remains the place where the marketing cannot get through because, my dear driver, you are driving.
And here, standing against this takeover of every last semblance of sabbath rest, is Crawford, declaring that oncers become noncers . . . if we give up the car and the freedom to drive, then the gig is up.
Crawford bolsters his claim by making a positive case for driving itself, including a little neuroscience. We can’t form memories until we learn to crawl, he writes, and our memories are associated with a mental map of the world we create when we start moving around. Driving is an extension of this – our world gets bigger, and so does our mental map of it. Driving also involves skill, focus, attention and feedback from the environment around us. While Crawford doesn’t say it this directly, his argument comes down to this – driving can produce that rare emotion: joy.
Crawford holds a PhD in philosophy, and published his first book Shop Class As Soulcraft about a decade ago. He is the rare philosopher who can just as easily find his way around an engine block as a library. The book is scattered with delightful stories of his adventures into junkyards and crash derbies, giving little images of worlds that are fading. It takes someone like this to communicate to the increasingly tech-savvy public that we might lose a part of ourselves, a valuable skill set, a culture, a way of being in the world, when “Hey Siri, where is the grocery store?” becomes “Hey Siri, please drive me to the nearest grocery store.”
Crawford pokes at our presuppositions. He asks: is a new hybrid really greener than a recycled car with similar gas mileage? Does tech, like the government COVID app, really make things better? For us? For the company that makes it? Do we really want Google to know where we are, and where we are going, and then allow these algorithms to start planning the trip for us to maximize advertiser’s profit? Do we realize that we are quietly becoming the product, rather than the consumer? What happens when the last sabbath, the sabbath of the long car ride on a Sunday afternoon to see how the crops are doing, slips away?
We are in the throes of a communication revolution greater than the invention of the printing press. Crawford offers a bit of a map regarding where we might be headed. Fasten your seatbelt.