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The common thread in our consolidating systems of social control
In 2009, one of Google’s self-driving cars came to an intersection with a four-way stop. It came to a halt and waited for other cars to do the same before proceeding through. Apparently, that is the rule it was taught—but of course, that is not what people do. So the robot car got completely paralyzed, blocked the intersection, and had to be rebooted. Tellingly, the Google engineer in charge of the autonomous vehicle program said some years later that what he was learning from the experience was that human beings need to be “less idiotic.”
Let’s think about that. If there is an ambiguous case of right-of-way, human drivers will often make eye contact. Maybe one waves the other through or indicates by the movements of the car itself a readiness to yield, or not. It’s not a stretch to say that there is a kind of body language of driving, and a range of driving dispositions. We are endowed with social intelligence, through the exercise of which people work things out among themselves, and usually manage to cooperate well enough. Tocqueville thought it was in small-bore practical activities demanding improvisation and cooperation that the habits of collective self-government were formed. And this is significant. There is something that can aptly be called the democratic personality, and it is cultivated not in civics class, but in the granular features of everyday life. But the social intelligence on display at that intersection wasn’t visible to the engineers, or didn’t seem salient. This, too, is significant.
The premise behind the push for driverless cars is that human beings are terrible drivers. This is one instance of a wider pattern. There is a tacit picture of the human being that guides our institutions, and a shared intellectual DNA for the governing classes. It has various elements, but the common thread is a low regard for human beings, whether on the basis of their fragility, their cognitive limitations, their latent tendency to “hate,” or their imminent obsolescence with the arrival of imagined technological possibilities. Each of these premises carries an important but partial truth, and each provides the master supposition for some project of social control.
This essay was originally delivered as the 2023 First Things Lecture in Washington, DC.