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Crawford, Matthew B., Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (Custom House, reprint ed., 2021).

When driving, we open ourselves to a broader world, to a more expansive field of experience. Following the introduction of the first automobile in 1886, and with each subsequent advancement, man has been able to travel farther and faster than ever before. Driving affords us not only the ability to cover 60 miles in one hour, a feat which would have been unthinkable only 200 years ago, but more importantly the ability to uniquely experience the world. But is this experience of driving, one which is now deeply integrated in day-to-day life, meaningfully human? Does driving as an activity suggest something more than utilitarian functionalism?

In his latest book, Why We Drive, self-professed gearhead and cultural critic Matthew B. Crawford sets out to answer these questions, and in response presents an anthropology fitting to the complexity of driving. His answer is one of sublimity and vulgarity, beauty and violence, risk and reward. It is, in other words, a properly human anthropology that boldly accepts the reality of human existence as dramatic. It is an exposition of humanity that necessarily rejects what Crawford deems to be the “unbearably light” existence prevalent in the technocratic society of today. All this is presented in Crawford’s gritty yet sensational style with the deceptively simplistic question: Why do we drive?

Throughout the book, Crawford’s concern is the development of a thoughtful argument against the ascendancy of automation predicted to drastically change the experience of driving as we know it. Two facets of the argument are distinguishable: the positive, encapsulating those distinctly human pleasures and travails discovered behind the wheel; and the negative, rejecting the “manufactured experiences” and elements of social control that dominate our lives today.

We are called to respond to life and engage with reality, and in this response, we must be willing to risk something. A life devoid of these challenges, or of cars we drive ourselves, is one that leads “to the atrophy of the human.”

Be it for work or leisure, driving demands an active engagement with our environment. Crawford emphasizes that we are “doing something” when we drive, and that something is “problem solving,” which requires physical and mental engagement with reality. An embodied investment is demanded by the car, it is a tool that functions as an extension of the driver’s body. This initial investment congruently allows for an engagement with our surroundings—the curve of the road, inspiring a Michael Schumacher(-ish) approach; or the sporadically moving car, proudly displaying a “new driver” sticker, which begs a more cautious response. For the experienced driver, this engagement occurs seamlessly and is, at its core, a playful conversation “with a reality that pushes back against us.” This element of play is unavoidable in all aspects of life as it “answers to a very basic need . . . and may be the most serious thing we do.” Crawford highlights the “imperishable” importance of play, which lies at the core of his anthropology, in his discussion on the world of motor sports. The inexorable connection of violence and beauty displayed in the daring events of race car drifting and dirt bike racing rings of a life emboldened by an acceptance of finitude and highlights the important role of risk in human action. As the book makes clear, it is this somewhat brash side of play that is rejected absolutely by the “ideal of rational control that has become so pervasive in contemporary culture;” a drab and cautious culture.

Driving as play opens a horizon of embodied experiences and an avenue by which we can escape our “overdetermined world.” As Crawford notes, in driving we reject both the “disengagement from bodily tasks” effected by the burdensome system of bureaucratic rules and regulations that increasingly seep into our private lives, and the unavoidable influence of technology that outsources human agency to impersonal machines. The modern luxury vehicle with its automatic gearshifts, wi-fi capabilities, and lane-assist functions is, as Crawford notes, a penultimate exemplar of the logic that justifies the total automation promised by future self-driving models. Within the framework of this logic, safety, comfort, and efficiency are myopically considered from a position that assumes technical intervention to be both good and inevitable. Insofar as safety is concerned, mechanical analysis and automatic intervention—evident in features such as cruise control, automatic breaking, and lane departure assistance—are implemented at the expense of human knowledge and skill. Crawford argues that while these features tout injury prevention, they necessarily introduce complacency and decrease the attention given by the driver to his task. Self-driving cars serve to perpetuate this overwhelmingly parched existence consequent of modern “manufactured experiences,” which “are offered as a substitute for direct confrontation with the world.”

Crawford’s observation that our lives increasingly find themselves under the purview of modern technocracy can be easily agreed to, and his invocation of red light cameras and Google Maps’ “street-view” substantiates his claim well. As technology increasingly insulates us from the world, Crawford warns that “ultimately it is we who are being automated, in the sense that we are vacated of that existential involvement that distinguishes human action from mere dumb events.” For proof of this, one need look no further than artificial intelligence, which in itself betrays a mechanistic understanding of human reason. The logic of these automated systems ignores the type of being man is—an ekstatic creature, who craves a playful life and a touch of risk; it assumes, instead, a commodified, artifactual being in need of risk assessment and mitigation.

Activities of work and leisure are losing (or have lost already) that glimmer of play and risk which once made them enticing. Play reminds us not simply to exist in this world, senselessly seeking the mirage of technological progress (the product is never finished, and the next update is always better), but instead to engage with the world. This engagement, relieved of algorithmically rendered safety features, is not free of risk: a turn or two might be missed, a scratch incurred, or speeding ticket bestowed. But we can no more separate life from risk than we can success from failure, and it is often thanks to those missed turns that we discover a shortcut home.

Life, much like driving, is often unpredictable; it is chaotic, frustrating, and brash (for those of us, at least, who experience the occasional bout of road rage). While these tumultuous elements are undeniably challenging, more is demanded by these moments. We are called to respond to life and engage with reality, and in this response, we must be willing to risk something. A life devoid of these challenges, or of cars we drive ourselves, is one that leads “to the atrophy of the human.” We are called to a more human life and must demand it. The radical difference between a self-driving car and a self-driven car, as it is presented by Crawford, hinges on an adequate anthropology. An anthropology that looks beyond the bland uniformity of technological advancements to the reality of the human condition—where beauty and passion are not found without risk.

Molly Black is currently a graduate student at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.

Posted on March 27, 2024

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