Cruise Control

One-handed operation.
Buttons to control your life. (via Mark Doliner)

I was at a wedding earlier this week, and since it was down in the wilds of Wexford, I opted to hire a car to get me there and back. As a result, I had the chance to play with one of those driving options that I’ve never really tinkered with before: cruise control.

It was an odd experience. On the way there, I switched it on, then off again after a few minutes, as the motorway to Wexford is only a motorway in parts. On the way back though, late at night and neither overtaking nor being overtaken between Gorey and Dublin, my speed changes all came courtesy of a switch on the steering wheel.

When I drive, I drive manual, because it’s what I’m used to. The few times I’ve driven automatic, I’ve had to adjust to the idea of having a hand and a foot rendered more or less unemployed. Cruise control removes the need for the other foot. It’s terribly convenient, seductively easy to get to grips with and absolutely nothing like driving a car.

Of course you realise, this means metaphor time.

Convenience is the way of the world. We’re buried in gadgetry that’s designed to smooth every possible step between our desires and their fulfilment. From the toaster and kettle in your kitchen, to the latest iPhone or Google Glass, where you only have to whisper your momentary whims to have them answered.*

It’s not a wholly bad thing. Dial this desire to make our lives easier back to where it began and you’ll find yourself kicking the sharpened rock out of the hominid’s hand as it tries to turn an animal skin into something wearable. And yet, and yet, I resist it.

I’ve written before about how Apple’s iPads have all but disappeared: they’re magic slates, on which appear a dazzling array of entertainments and utilities, designed to enhance our lives. Clarke’s Third Law comes into play here: we can still identify the iPad and its ilk as technology because we have to plug it in to the wall to charge, but its identifying marks are gradually disappearing.

It’s civilisational cruise control of a sort. We create the items to ease our way through the world, thereby in theory freeing ourselves up to achieve all sorts of other things. Yet along the way, the vast majority of us forget or never learn how things work. From technology to politics to business, we’ve become accustomed to thinking that so long as someone understands it—someone whose job it is to understand it—then it’s their responsibility to deal with it. All we have to worry about are the results. We flick the switch to get from A to B and think no more about it.

I’m far from perfect on this score, and it’s impossible these days to understand how everything works. Yet it’s worth making the effort to grasp the principles of the forces that move us, and have some ability to roll up one’s sleeves and shift them when the need arises. So I’ll keep on driving manual, and when I’m in a car with cruise control, I’ll think twice about flicking that switch.

*Incorrectly, usually, but at least they’re trying.

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