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Google rule the roads ok?

8 June 2011 No Comment

From the Google blog:

‘Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.’

Despite the other laudable aims here, I can’t help but think, ‘free up people’s time for what?’.

‘So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard.’

How can an automated car also be manned? An automated car doesn’t need a man surely. What they really mean is ‘passengered’, ‘carried’ or ‘made obsolete. Manned is not a new verb of course although it does imply a relinquishing of control. It also sounds more sophisticated than ‘sat in’, a little like ‘piloted’ and something we attach more often to the function of a spacecraft. In short the very use of the verb adds futurism but disguises disenfranchisement. But I digress.

Google goes on:

‘Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centres, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.’

As a devotee of D. H. Lawrence I cannot help but despair when reading this sort of thing. I get the same reaction when I see someone using a Kindle or other sort of reader. My first reaction is, That is a pretend book, something doing an impression of a book. It’s as if we have had to electronically dissect and re-render a perfectly good product, for the sake of what? These guys at Google with their algorithm-first attitudes have been busy for ever creating an online version of reality, of everything from sex to gambling, to letters and to driving.

It is this kind of super-rationalist control freakery which leads us by turns away from experience. In some respects there is no greater complement you can pay a thing than copying it. But they sound very smug with their invention – driving – which is in fact just a copy. And if as Google profess their aim is to prevent traffic accidents and reduce carbon emissions, then their intention is to do this by having drivers relinquish control of their vehicles. Computers or numbers know best.

A final thought:

‘The cars are the descendants of vehicles from the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition that ran from 2005–2007 that focused on developing drone vehicles for use in combat and featured teams from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, among other schools.’

‘Drone’ is another very powerful word at the moment, conjuring images of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and the latest drift towards disconnected warfare. I’d rather people fight hand to hand and i’ve always had a problem with unmanned drones as they seem to remove responsibility, to move towards the virtual and the computer-generated.

Like our Google cars the drone may remove risk. But what do we lose in terms of connectedness?