A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of riding in a friend’s new Tesla Model X. It parks itself effortlessly, and as my friend engaged the autopilot and let go of the wheel at 70mph, my trepidation quickly evolved into a sense of awe and wonder. For two hours from Mt. Vernon to Seattle we barely touched the wheel. It recognized speed limits and adjusted instantly, maintained safe following distance, and on neighborhood arterials even recognized the difference between cars, buses, and cyclists. It was incredible. There was a undeniable giddiness at the sheer elegance of it all.
As emotions go, wonder gets its hooks into us pretty easily. By exceeding the limits of our knowledge, opening up new paradigms, and projecting authority, wonder tends to provoke an almost religious response. Specifically, wonder generates trust and faith.
This trust and faith too easily becomes salvific. We pledge our allegiance to the hammer, and suddenly everything looks like a nail. The technology is so good at performing its tasks that we forget to ask if it’s performing the right tasks in the first place. We conform our lives to it, rather than using it judiciously for the tool it is.
There’s a temptation to think that solutions are really complicated, and that we need creativity and genius to solve them. There are things like civic hackathons and large-scale competitions such as Challenge Seattle that do really good work at optimizing what we have, but they also share the conceit that if we were only a little smarter we could figure this all out.
At its best this impulse drives genuine innovation that makes our lives richer and more connected. At its worst it is a hubris that causes us to overthink and overengineer the solutions to our problems. But as our mortality attests, we are still small bodies in a large world, with bodily geometries and needs no different than our ancestors. To me, the striking feature about our daily lives isn’t their complexity but their banality. Employing neural nets to get a loaf of bread is excessive complexity to say the least. Relying on them to systematize all of our travel seems crazier still.
This isn’t to be a Luddite, or to claim any sort of purity from eschewing or scoffing at technology. It’s simply to not ask those technologies to do unnecessary or wasteful things, or to seek from them miraculous relief from basic geometric facts.
I see driverless cars as a necessary but by no means sufficient transportation innovation. They will help us wring out more road capacity, provide good arguments against road expansion, possibly enable less urban parking, and they may yet revolutionize taxi or bus-based transit networks. But there will still be fundamental geometric limits to these improvements. Any reliance on them in urban settings will disappoint, bumping up against the familiar feeling of too many vehicles in too little space. And to the extent that they tempt us to divest from mass transit, walking, and biking, they will actually worsen the status quo.
But what if instead of attempting to fit more of the same sand into the same hourglass, we just shrunk the grains of sand? Like the classic GIF so tautologically suggests, when you strip away the requirement that humans be encased in metal (autonomous or otherwise), you suddenly see not a scarcity of space and a surplus of people, but instead a scarcity of people and a surplus of space.
The Occamite solution is perhaps the most elegant of all, and it thinks more like Venice than Silicon Valley. It doesn’t make the reflexive mistake of nostalgia for an earlier time, when air and water were dirtier and cities were often places of dense misery and disease. Instead, it enables us to integrate technology toward a healthier and richer human experience, but one that’s still human-scaled. People scoff at the the “19th century technology” of trains, but you never hear the same disdain for the cellular respiration that moves our feet or turns our bicycles’ cranks. It’s ok to be small.
The Tesla I rode in and drove was magical, but the following morning it wouldn’t start until it completed a software update.