Why We Drive image

Why We Drive

“Safety is obviously very important. But it is also a principle that, absent countervailing considerations, admits no limit to its expanding dominion. It tends to swallow everything before it…Those who invoke safety enjoy a nearly nonrebuttable presumption of public-spiritedness, so a stated concern for safety becomes a curtain behind which various entities can collect rents from perfectly reasonable behavior…Infantilism slips in, under a cover of democratic ideals.”

Over the past decade Matthew Crawford has produced a powerful trilogy of books exploring embodied cognition. Shop Class as Soul Craft (The Case for Working With Your Hands in the UK edition) argued for a reappraisal of skilled manual labour, showing why such work is both more satisfying and more intellectually demanding than many white-collar occupations. The World Beyond Your Head examined how we can recover genuine individuality in a world where we are increasingly commoditised. And in Why We Drive Crawford uses our interaction with motor vehicles (as well as being an academic philosopher he runs a motorcycle repair shop) as a framework for exploring questions of personal responsibility and freedom.

Why We Drive was published last year, so must have been written just before the coronavirus pandemic broke, but its relevance to the cultural impact of covid (as in the quote at the top of this post) is obvious. The pandemic – or, more precisely, the response to the pandemic in the form of lockdowns and all the other NPI’s we have endured – have accelerated and empowered the technocratic vision for how our societies should be governed. The world is facing Big Problems but the technocratic answers, even when presented by people as apparently genial as the likes of Bill Gates and Tony Blair, seem to have more than a whiff of Big Brother about them.

The appeal to safety is an especially important plank in the technocratic takeover. This has been very clear in the way that anyone questioning lockdowns, facemasks, and all the rest (even though the effectiveness of such measures is certainly debatable), have been shouted down as covidiots and conspiracy theorists – even when they are distinguished academics at Stanford or Oxford.

With infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths as low as they now are in the UK it is not reasonable for us to have to wait until June 21st – and possibly beyond that – before we are no longer breaking the law if we dispense with the masks and hug our friends, but it is this very unreasonableness that creates the space in which the technocracy can consolidate its power. As Crawford puts it, “A proliferation of rules provides a sheen of rationality, but it is in the gap between the rules and reasonableness that officialdom feeds.”

Why We Drive raises arguments that are relevant and important in relation to covid but the framing narrative of the book is around driving and the issues raised by the rush to build driverless cars. That we should move to a world in which cars drive themselves is sold on the grounds – again – of safety: that human beings are inherently a danger to themselves and with computers in control commuters will be in safer hands. Crawford shows why this is a very questionable assumption. A second reason given for why we should relinquish the wheel is that this will be more convenient for us – no longer will we have to undergo the wearisome task of driving but be chauffeured wherever it is we need to go. Apart from the fact that many people actually enjoy driving, Crawford asks some bigger questions: why, for example, is Google – which is essentially an advertising business –  investing so much in developing driverless cars?

Crawford paints an alarming though all too plausible picture of a near-future in which our autonomous car won’t set off until we have swiped through a certain number of adverts, in which the route it chooses for us is determined by how many purchasing options can be presented to us on the way, and in which rather than ‘winning back the time’ of our commutes we are distracted by whatever it is that big-tech wants us distracted by.

An autonomous car may hold some genuine utility for you, but their purpose is not to make the car better for you, and ask for money in return. Autonomous cars may increase the efficiency of traffic and its safety. But their development is not driven by such public-spirited concerns.

The freedom to move through physical space, to travel, is an essential definition of freedom itself. This is not only some romantic dream of the open road (a dream that is rarely realised in the congested UK) but about the ability to make our own decisions and go where we want to go: to wander. I think this is one of the reasons for the growing popularity of cycling – especially among middle-aged men. There is an appealing immediacy to the technology involved: direct contact with the ground with no insulating safety features or electronics. The bike also provides an opportunity for no one else to know where you are. Being out on my bike without my phone and with cash in my pocket rather than a debit card makes me untrackable. It’s only a small taste of freedom but it feels almost subversive in our surveillance economy. It is independent rather than constrained, adult rather than infantilised: which is why dictatorships have always sought to control travel.

The alternative is the technocratic vision. This might look safer and more efficient, but will it bring us more freedom?

We may accept technocratic competence as a legitimate claim to rule, even if it is inscrutable. But then we are in a position of trust. This would be to move away from the originating insight of liberalism: power corrupts.

That power corrupts is not only an insight of liberalism but a spiritual principle. There are ‘authorities and powers’ who always want to seize and manipulate earthly authorities and powers. No matter how benign or well-intentioned the motives of the founders of the likes of Google and Facebook, power always attracts corruption.

Crawford says of the technocratic vision,

Those who aspire to direct human affairs invariably believe themselves to have solved the Universal Calculation, and seek to make it effective in the world by morally disqualifying the various perspectives and projects of individuals that may be rival to the Impartial Point of View. Today, we are to understand that getting human beings to stop driving their own cars is not the project of those particular people who stand to make a lot of money from such a transformation, it is a project demanded by Morality itself.

So the technocracy works through safetyism and moralism masquerading as the route to human freedom and happiness while actually constraining and demeaning us.

What of the theological angle in all this?

Well, the insights of embodied cognition should reinforce for us the essential physicality of our faith. Human beings are not spiritual software temporarily inhabiting an inadequate hardware platform. We are embodied souls, created in the image of God, who need to express our spirituality through our bodies: gathering together, singing, sharing the bread and wine, laying on hands and praying. We are Christians, not Gnostics.

We should also be alert to the dangers of allowing the technocratic vision of safetyism to define how we minister. This is very current. While I have every sympathy with churches that have to rent premises there are still too many churches with their own buildings – some with very large buildings – that are not yet having in-person gatherings. It is hard to see how such timorousness will allow the pastors of those churches to ever again call their congregations to any kind of gospel courage. It is as though they have chosen a spiritual equivalent of the driverless car. They are being driven somewhere, by something, and are no longer at the wheel.

True Christianity is earthy, physical, and requires courage. There are a lot of aromatic hydrocarbons in Why We Drive and no indication that Crawford is a believer, but some of us could do with revving up the engine and inhaling the fumes.


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