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Can you run? | Sam Debatin | Mon 24 Oct 2022 12:01:26 AM EDT

I have been driving a lot of new cars recently. I go out of town for work on a regular basis, and on longer trips its usual for my company to rent me a car. Being rental cars, they are generally 2-3 years old at the most, and tend to be solidly in the middle of the car luxury spectrum -- not BMWs, but also not the bottom of the barrel either -- your higher end Chevys, Toyotas, and Fords. Standard upper middle class cars if you will, a mix of crossovers and full size SUVs.

I also recently purchased a 2004 VW Golf. Manual transmission, 2 liter engine, 4 door. It has cruise control, power windows, air conditioning, both a tape and a cd player, motorized mirrors and of course adjustable seats. I am extremely satisfied, and short of writing a product endorsement of a nearly 20 year-old car, it will suffice to say that I don’t plan on buying a newer car any time soon. At the time, this car was considered to be on the upper end of consumer cars. Not a luxury car by any means, but certainly if you could afford a new VW you are not doing too poorly for yourself.

I have always driven older cars. This recent “upgrade” is from the perspective of having driven a 2002 Saturn SL for most of my driving life, as well as a 1984 Ford Ranger pickup that currently sits motionless in my mother’s driveway. All that is to say -- my perspective may be a little skewed, but hear me out.

Granted, the Golf relative to its time is a higher end car than most of the rentals I have been driving. And yes, the rentals are subject to more abuse in their 10,000 mile lifespan than most cars are in 50,000. However, every new car I have driven, regardless of brand or quality, has had the same couple of features and limitations. First -- limited visibility. It has been almost a decade since a sedan, hatchback, or SUV has had any kind of acceptable baseline visibility. What have manufacturers done to compensate you might ask? Fill the car with all kinds of blinking lights, indicators, and autocorrectors to stop you from veering wildly into another object. And this is all well and good -- all metrics point to cars becoming safer, quieter, and more fuel efficient. But what do we really mean by these metrics?

Safety means fewer accidents, fewer deaths and injuries. Of course, that is a desirable outcome. Auto related deaths are far too common, too many people have lost a loved one to car crashes. Quieter is a nice outcome as well, as it means less noise pollution, less fatigue on long drives, and generally points to a more efficient machine. Which generally new cars are -- per horsepower, car engines and design have become far more efficient in the last 10-15 years. These are merely quantitative outcomes however, and I am not interested in those. And this article isn’t really about cars...

In recent months I have been asking myself a question in response to safety-related quandaries: can you run from it? For example:

And in a more abstract sense, the following examples hold true as well:

Essentially, the question is do you have personal agency to avoid the danger to your own body, mind, and well being? There are obviously no clean cut answers to most of these. Snakes are clearly something you can run away from, but what about schizophrenia, or genetic disease, or diminishing air quality? What about the germs??? The idea that our world is becoming increasingly sterilized is not new, nor is it even particularly controversial as to whether or not it is happening. It is not uncommon to hear people actively wishing there were more opportunities to sanitize their hands, while simultaneously lacking the comprehension that ethyl alcohol (the ingredient in hand sanitizer) does not wash their hands, but simply kills any lifeforms present. Perhaps the latter is an example of a lack of education, but what is education if not an attempt at promoting agency?

While this article is not about cars in particular, I would like to return to our rental cars as perhaps the most pervasive example the removal of agency. Self driving cars have been in the works for years, and while truly autonomous vehicles are still a ways off, many of the features have trickled down into mid level consumer cars. I have driven cars in which the steering wheel self corrects when trying to change lanes and where the car brakes while in cruise control if the car in front of me slows down. More concerning are the features that are meant to substitute for our own senses and intuitions -- flashing indicators alerting you that you are drifting lanes, lights in the side mirrors that alert you when a car is in your blind spot, and myriad patronizing beeps and burps all letting you know you are driving too long, slow, fast, or fuel-inefficient.

A recent article in The Atlantic praised the merits of the now-dying manual transmission. Author Ian Bogost argues that the end of the manual signals not just a dying niche market, but the end of one of the few remaining machines that we are able to “feel operating.” Driving a manual -- and driving in general -- is a learned skill, and one of the few we practice in our daily lives. That can be a hard line to walk, however. I have seen countless memes or other media characterizing and ridiculing manual drivers as nothing but prideful in an arcane skill, wanting to drive manual for no other reason than to lord it over other drivers and proclaim how life altering it is.

Agency comes from practice and familiarity. A lifelong musician is able to express his or herself not through some miracle from above, but because of the long and arduous relationship with music as a skill. This isn’t to be confused with pure physical technicality of course, as emotional intelligence and expression is itself a skill to be practiced, but rather an indication that with familiarity comes freedom. In the same way that we feel more free to communicate around our closest friends having already built a relationship to reference, the practice of a skill promotes agency.

And so I ask again, can you run? With self driving cars ever on the horizon, and a generation of GPS-reliant drivers, the answer increasingly seems, no. The GPS seems innocuous and is of course at times incredibly useful, but with overuse shrouds people’s perception of the world. Without any need to read road signs and instead follow blindly the direction to “turn left,” you become less attentive to the world as a whole. The world is presented with the expectation that something out there will come to your aid should things not go as planned. I myself have had moments in which, when looking for something I lost, think for a split second to reach for my phone to google where it might be. A couple of years ago that thought was ludicrous, although now with the introduction of AirTags and other such personal tracking devices, it may not be so far fetched. How feasible is running if you need the validation of a how-to video first?

I fear for what this does to our collective sense of political and personal drive. On the one hand, it damages larger social movements simply by virtue of discouraging participation on the whole. Those who don’t know how to use their voice will begin to fear their voice, and thus never use it. But in a more sinister kind of way, it legitimizes short term solutions to systemic problems. Those who fear are more likely to lash out in unproductive ways, in ways that alienate others and seek to radical change with no foresight. Diplomacy, compromise, and by virtue democracy are impossible without a people who are believe in agency over safety, who are willing to go out on a limb and suggest to stand for something without the fear of creating a situation in which others may not feel comfortable. A people who are used to being able to retreat, to find something else to rely on, become dysfunctional in the face of opposition -- something that is radically important to a progressive society.

Lest this begin to sound like your aging republican uncle telling you to make something of yourself, let’s take a step back. This is not all personal, much of this is systemic. Returning to our metaphor, a bomb is generally something you cannot run from. However, while a bomb is a deadly and horrifying weapon, there is still is some room for error, the ability to by some fluke become caught under a piece of rubble and dig your way out to safety. Improbable, but possible. A nuclear bomb on the other hand is absolutely inescapable and would likely cause the destruction of humankind. There is no running in this scenario, and that is in no way your own fault. This is an extreme example, and there is little to be done as a person living in Ohio about the number of nuclear weapons in Putin’s arsenal, but similarly people can hardly be blamed for losing some of this agency in something like driving -- what other option do they have? It is nearly impossible to buy a car that doesn’t offer these coddling features. Short of the impracticality of driving an old car, like I have chosen to do, there is little choice in the matter. But in the areas where we do have some semblance of control, we should seek to squeeze every ounce of agency we can from them. Learn a new skill, become facile with tools and repair work, learn to cook. And really practice -- learn what it means to have a deep relationship with something, and realize that there are far scarier things than trusting yourself. It will make the world richer for you. Perhaps we can’t run from the systems that seek to strip us of influence, but we can at least choose not to hide.