Five years ago I sat around a table of Google executives at the company’s Mountain View headquarters in California. They took turns explaining the virtues of their prototype driverless car, in which I had just meticulously navigated the streets of nearby Palo Alto.
The coming revolution in automobiles, they suggested, which the car no doubt represented, would make transit more efficient, smarter, safer and far less prone to human error. Moreover, in transforming drivers into passengers it would free them up to do “more productive”, “less stressful” things (by which the Google VPs no doubt meant: “Give them more time to stare at their phones”).
At the end of the session, questions were invited. Mine was this: “Do you ever think you might be massively underestimating how much many people actually enjoy driving?” The question was met with the genuine surprise of individuals who had become inordinately wealthy believing people mostly dreamed, like them, of “efficient tech solutions” – and wanted nothing more than to have more time to look at their phones.
Matthew Crawford’s thought-provoking, full-throttle inquiry is the pimped-up, 350-page version of that question. It gets under the bonnet of one of the more insidious assumptions of the artificial intelligence revolution that we are currently living through: the seductive idea that most people desire ease, passivity, “frictionless” interactions with the world of objects.
Crawford, a research fellow in culture at the University of Virginia – and a man who is currently “restoring and radically modifying” a 1975 VW Beetle using his principle of “folk engineering” – would beg to differ. He makes the case that “technocrats and optimisers seek to make everything idiot-proof, and pursue this by treating us like idiots. It is a presumption that tends to be self-fulfilling; we really do feel ourselves becoming dumber. Against such a backdrop, to drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and I suspect that is why we love to drive.”
This is not only a petrolhead’s complaint against rule-making officialdom (though Crawford reserves a special place in hell for the bureaucratic scalpers who install traffic cameras); it is also a vivid and heartfelt manifesto against the drift of our world, against the loss of individual agency and the human pleasure of acquired skill and calculated risk. It asks its readers to beware tech billionaires bearing algorithms.
Crawford’s first, bestselling book a decade ago was an argument for practical accomplishment, The Case for Working With Your Hands; 10 years on, that case becomes a rallying cry for steampunks everywhere. Not since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has someone better articulated the soul-enhancing possibilities of tinkering with tools, making useful stuff work well. He quotes Nietzsche at one point: “Joy is the feeling of one’s powers increasing.” A well-constructed tweet will never provide the satisfaction of a reconstructed gearbox.
From the white noise of our current culture wars, Crawford also identifies a division that may well come to greater prominence: between drivers (and makers and doers of all kinds) and the intelligent machines that are about to supplant them. He sees a premonition of this in so-called populist protests, which are often at root an argument about shifting attitudes to road travel: the yellow vest movement in France was prompted by a decrease in speed limits and an increase in fuel tax, policies imposed by President Macron and his city-dwelling Metro users. In Germany, the equivalent protest against “metropolitan elites” employs the slogan “Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger!” (or “Freedom to drive for free citizens!”).
Such emotions, Crawford suggests, should not lightly be dismissed; our vehicles are part of our identity because they represent one of the few areas of life in which we still exercise some control: “These [political] movements are partly a response, at once spirited and rational, to a creeping colonisation of the space for skilled human activity.” He describes his own experience of that skill in a lifetime of adventures on the road – the successes and failures of coaxing junkyard engines to life, the lost camaraderie of Sunday morning mechanics – and sees in its demise a wider metaphor of our relation not only with machines, but with power. “We seem to be entering a new dispensation. Qualities once prized, such as spiritedness and a capacity for independent judgment, are starting to appear dysfunctional. If they are to operate optimally, [we are told] our machines require deference.”
No doubt, as Crawford understands, there are environmental arguments against our attachment to the combustion engine. His book, however, remains a powerful (and enjoyable) corrective against that wisdom that suggests the unchecked march of all-seeing tech monopolies – ravenous for data, trading attention for distraction – is essential to human progress. In the past two decades, we have already given over much of our ability to navigate the world to black-box algorithms; as that journey accelerates into a smart machine future, we would be advised to look out where we are going.
• Why We Drive: On Freedom, Risk and Taking Back Control by Matthew Crawford is published by Bodley Head (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15