The Intimacy of Contact

9 12 2009

I was watching Wall-E the other day, which ranks very high on my list of Favourite Films Of All Time.  The reason I enjoy it so much is quite tricky to pin down, because when you attempt to explain the premise to anyone they invariably think that it’s a 2-hour cartoon with no dialogue and a tree-hugging message.  There’s very little I hate more than a film with a message, normally because these messages patronise the audience, hoping they’ll re-evaluate their consumptive and wasteful existence and buy a Toyota Pious.

This particular viewing of Wall-E left me with a slightly different provocation for thought.  Without ruining the film for those of you who haven’t yet seen it (I implore you, it’s streets ahead of whatever preconception you already have), humankind has evolved into amorphous blobs, unable to mobilise under their own power because machines will do it for them.  Quite amusing on film, entirely possible in real life.  But my beef is not with the march of the machines, scaremongering you all into vigilante Sarah Connorism.  I’m a huge fan of science fiction, and the closer to plausible reality the better.  Someone once told me that every piece of kit aboard the Starship Enterprise could, hypothetically, be made.  He was however the type of person who owns a t-shirt claiming that there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who do not.  So I resisted the invitation to watch Star Trek and carried on building Lego.

Cars are a perfect manifestation of the advancement of technology, and their development continues at an alarming rate in the bid to become quieter, more efficient and safer.  And it’s this ‘safer’ bit that I struggle with sometimes.  Until now the car has been a device which relies upon human input to operate.  That’s why the word ‘driving’ was appropriate, suggesting a requirement from the organic bit behind the wheel.  Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t stipulate whether the thing doing the driving was organic or not.  Alas, we now have night-vision, adaptive cruise control, automatic lane-departure warning systems which will actually turn the steering wheel, and so on.  Volvo, the automotive prophylactic, have set a target that by 2020, no-one should be killed or critically injured in one of their cars.  A very noble and bold claim, and having witnessed close-up Volvo’s commitment to safety it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they succeed.  The thing is, will they, and others striving for similar targets, achieve this by simply removing the driver’s remit?  People make erratic decisions a computer would not.  In fact the erraticism is irrelevant: computers don’t make decisions.  They blindly follow instructions, guided only by the breadth of their programming, and can only facilitate conditions they are familiar with.

Land Rover’s quite brilliant Terrain Response system allows you to choose between snow, rocks, snow, sand, mud, soil, earth and snow.  But there is no setting for driving over the feet of people in a bus queue.  Or kittens.  The driver therefore must either choose the ‘best-fit’ from the car’s wealth of driver aids or, heaven forbid, use common sense and adjust their inputs on the wheel and pedals according to the feedback through…the wheel and pedals.  Which then begs the question, what if you can’t feel what’s going on underneath you?  Let me put it this way: you wouldn’t attempt to run on an ice rink.  You delicately ease your feet down with the trepidation of Bambi’s brittle-boned cousin.  And if you fall, you don’t phone Reebok and demand compensation, because that would be ridiculous.

Unless you are classified as terminally stupid, you would be able to feel the slip of a tyre on a wet road.  You are aware of crosswinds battering your slab-sided Berlingo Multispace into the neighbouring lane.  You are probably even aware of the shifting polar of inertia, although maybe on a subconscious level.  But whether you have the necessary skill to counter such a thing is a different case entirely, and that’s assuming you’ve got the reactions of a banker threatened with bonus tax.  Essentially we as human beings aren’t to be trusted.  Give us enough rope etc.

But other industries have faced similar decisions, two notable examples being planes and trains, so it makes sense that automobiles should follow.  Airbus pioneered their controversial Fly By Wire technology in the 1980s, which introduced an electronic barrier between pilot and plane.  The idea basically centres around reading the various data fed from the control surfaces, and can adjust every parameter accordingly.  The pilot was effectively relinquished of physical control over the aircraft, and instead makes executive decisions such as ‘pull up’ or ‘turn left’.  The plane then calculates whether it is safe to follow these instructions, and if so, carries out the command.  This barrier between brain and plane seems perfectly logical, although Airbus had to engineer a ‘force-feedback’ system, giving the pilot something to do and stopping him from putting his feet up and reading John Grisham.  Fly By Wire had its teething problems, a demonstration flight ending in disaster after the pilot demanded a sharp incline deemed impossible by the system.  The plane reduced the incline angle to avoid stalling, and crashed into trees beyond the runway.

The Moorgate tube crash of 1975 showed similar shortfalls in human ability, when a train failed to stop and ran into the walling at the end of Moorgate station.  As a direct result of the tragic accident, the so-called Moorgate Control system was introduced to automatically stop any train travelling more than 10mph if another is present in the upcoming station, or if the station is at the end of the line.

It is horrendously dismissive of me to lament the advent of such life-saving technology, and the reasons these systems exist is understandable and indispensable.  But driving a car is now such a regular and perfunctory task, it rarely summons the attention it deserves.  This I believe is the crux of the whole argument.  If text-messaging, applying make-up or trying to remember the name of the drummer in The Stones are more important than assessing the conditions and controlling our cars accordingly, then maybe we should have our powers removed.  So why in God’s name do we demand that our cars ‘cushion’ us from the vital signs of an impending accident and allow us to bask in uninterrupted comfort?  They only serve to numb our sensory interfaces.  I say give us more feedback; let us feel the wheels slipping, let us hear the tyres break traction, maybe even amplify it somehow.  If every time you drove on a slippery surface the sound of Janet Street Porter being scraped down a blackboard filled the car, it might just stop us thinking driving is easy.  The actor Paul Fix once proclaimed that “The only reason some people get lost in ‘thought’ is because it’s unfamiliar territory”.  Quite right.

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