My son had to come up to the Bay Area from LA the other day to take care of some personal business. Instead of flying and putting up with the security and the Covid risk, he decided to take his newly acquired Tesla 3 for the drive. When he arrived, he was just raving about the Autopilot experience. He programmed the percentage of speed that we wanted vs. the speed limit, set acceptable following distances, and other factors. Then he jumped into the car and basically took his hands off the wheel for four hours, listened to music, texted his friends and business associates and arrived at the time he programmed. What could be simpler?
I started my "adult" career by landing a copy editor's job at a car magazine in the early 80's, when computers were mainframe lab specimens and cars were, well, cars. You know, with manual shifters, balky air conditioning, single-digit fuel economy and God save us, an occasional Opera window. An AM radio could be an option and the idea of Apple Car Play, subwoofers and onboard spatial sound processors was about as realistic as a "Beam me up, Scotty" transporter. There were no air bags, crush zones, or accident avoidance sensors such as those that saved Tiger Wood's life yesterday. If you got into any kind of serious accident, chances were good that you were going to get hurt, if not killed. In that context, it is just astounding how far the technology has come. And how far from physical reality we've fallen.
By far, the most rewarding and challenging car I ever drove while at the magazine was the CEO's red Aston Martin DB-6 Volante Convertible. There are few cars in history more beautiful, but with its manual steering and brakes, it was a real handful to drive. I almost put it into a wall within the first five minutes and wondered how the hell anyone drove this car at real speed. But there is was: a perfect example of the intense physical relationship between man and machine. It wasn't until years later when I lucked into a Porsche 997 Coupe that I fully appreciated the rewards of really having to work for it--having to be fully present when you drove a car, sensitive to steering input, pitch and yaw around turns and the yowl of a perfect engine at the redline. Because like the DB6, if you're not fully engaged with a 911, it will drive you--into the wall, off the cliff or into the weeds. That's why so many Porsche Turbos end up in the boneyard. For me, that sense of engaged presence is what makes it all worthwhile.
A former client of mine was one of the first in LA to have bought a Tesla 85. I hopped in, put it into gear and it took off like a fast cloud. Zero to 60 in a blink and a half. "Holy shit, this thing is quick! I said to him. But thought to myself, completely inert and even more soulless that some of the most soulless econoboxes. It was a moving spec sheet, not a vital experience. You can sneer, "OK Boomer" and call me a Luddite or a hopeless romantic, but Teslas, while they become more ruthlessly efficient, have redefined the driving experience as total functionality. Aside from watching the scenery silently rush by, it's like driving an iPad.
It's no accident that Tesla came from Silicon Valley, where the gestalt of man/machine singularity is steering literally trillions of dollars of innovation and intellectual energy. The rough idea is that our brains, even our souls, can be translated into code and through that transition, we'll achieve immortality. Other than extreme narcissism, it's hard to fathom why this is a good idea. It's the surrender of our "inferior" biology and humanity to a vastly more efficient and infallible set of ones and zeros--as if precision execution is the ultimate goal of mankind. It's unity by default. As we become more dependent on seemingly helpful apps like Google Maps and Spotify, and as AI becomes the command and control of our species, we become more stupid and enfeebled.
A case in point:
Since I was a kid navigating my bike through our neighborhood, I have developed incredibly strong visual memory. I rarely get lost. If I've been somewhere one time, I can usually find it again, even years later, in cities that I rarely visit--with the strange exception of Phoenix, where everything is a beige strip mall on a grid. When I drive with Google Maps yakking at me, I go blind. I stop taking in the environment and looking for visual cues, and wait for the voice to tell me, "In two miles, take Exit 24..." If I have to go to that location again, I have no idea how to get there and have rely on my digital tormentor. It pisses me off. But there are no maps, no one gives directions any more--they just give you an address knowing full well your phone will tell you how to get there. In those moments, I'm completely disconnected from physical reality. I may get around more efficiently, but I'm not better for the journey.
That disconnect from physicality has crept into almost every aspect of our daily lives--the isolation of Covid has accelerated it even more rapidly. The choice and immediacy of shopping on Amazon comes with the brutality of likes and product reviews that have all the discipline and credibility of an angry mob. You have to know what you want to buy and choose among competitive products--not to mention checking with crowd to see if you've made the right choice. In a store, it's not so linear. There are random acts of shopping--something emerges in your line of sight that you never thought you wanted and a surprise discovery and happy purchase is made. The cold delivery of recommended products served up by some algorithm is no substitute. It just isn't.
This is especially true in streaming music. Having the entire catalog of western music at your disposal, neatly organized by genre, playlist and AI-generated soundalikes should open the door to tons of new music and discoveries. For me, it's just the opposite. I'm overwhelmed and stay in my lane and listen to the artists I typically listen to. Finding a new artist or genre to explore is rare. When music was distributed physically, album covers not only defined generational aesthetics, they encouraged discovery. Again, it was line of sight, being physically present to spontaneously seek out new things.
This has reshaped and impoverished our culture in almost every aspect of our lives. Our dialog, if that's what we want to call it, has become so coarse that if it were to take place physically IRL, someone would have lost a molar or two. This reality disconnect or "alternative reality" as the Capitol mob would have it, is a clear contributor to the rage of the January 6 insurrection. Like it or not, we all have monkey minds that, overly repressed and stimulated, are going to act out.
There's no place where that is more true than Silicon Valley itself. I've traveled the world and grew up in New York for Chrissake and never seen a community that is more entitled, self-absorbed and passive-aggressively rude. It's what happens when the coin of the realm is programming and making gobs of money. The crusade to code everything, to reduce every aspect of our lives to 1/Zero, On/Off, Pass/Fail is either an inevitable biological adaptation to an increasing toxic world that cannot support us physically or a technology-driven suicide pact. Either way, we're mutating in ways that despite the overwhelming wealth of the technology sector, make us far poorer as human beings.