In September, California’s governor Edmund Brown signed the bill that legalized autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars. Doing so wasn’t just about space-age headlines but a response to the findings of initial research by companies such as Google, which suggest computer-controlled drivers can be safer and more efficient than humans.
Some might see such developments as the machines taking over, but the rest of us should be able to embrace this example of technology making efficient use of our time and resources. Here’s the proof… Nissan recently unveiled early developments from its own autonomous vehicle research program. One part of the technology uses sensors and cameras to understand the spatial terrain around the car and respond accordingly, so drivers can’t mistakenly move into too-small spaces, bump into unseen objects, and won’t have to correct driving lines. The second key innovation is the replacement of all the mechanical components between steering wheel and front wheels with electronics, for a much quicker, more responsive, and driver-aware experience.
Back in the early 60s, Marshall McLuhan wrote an essay called The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis. In it he surveyed the new boom in consumer electronics in America over the previous decade and identified a new archetype: the gadget lover. McLuhan wasn’t overly enthusiastic about this emerging obsession, seeing it as a way for consumers to offload the information overload and psychic stress of modern life. The gadget was kind of cyborg extension of the individual that helped them cope by putting them into a kind of trance (narcosis). Though the gadget lover sang the praises of the latest gadget for its innovations, he or she actually, unwittingly, loved it because it reflected his or her own interests and personality back, like a mirror.
We often want help, because we like to do things more easily and quickly, to better manage our resources and activities. We invest ourselves and our personalities in our technology – that’s when it becomes interesting and relevant. We like technology to help do more useful and fun things, to make boring things less painful, to save us time, money and misery.
People have become accustomed to having hardware and software working for them, and the internet has made everybody accustomed to having their say and expecting solutions at speed. If we love gadgets and software, it’s precisely because we know they reflect our lives. We’re not the deluded slaves of new gadgets, we’re their impatient masters. New technologies give us more knowledge and control than we are used to. If I go to a firm like 23 And Me and pay $299 (£185) to get my genes analysed, that’s not because I want to outsource my identity to machines – it’s because the information they give me from a saliva sample will help me learn all sorts of interesting things, from past ancestry to future health problems, that I couldn’t have accessed before.
Put technology to work for people and you’re already taking steps towards that inspirational near-future aspiration: creating an operating system for our lives.