Latest automations

There is a special feature on the new, self-parking Volvo, which recognizes pedestrians. You pay for it separately. That was the explanation of a corporate spokesman, in response to a video that shows a self-parking Volvo in action. It backs up, pauses for rather a long time, then suddenly shoots forward, running down two “journalists” at speed. (Was their gormlessness, standing in front of the car, the clue to their profession?)

You see, gentle reader, it wasn’t the car’s fault. The owner had not purchased the “pedestrian detection functionality package.” It could see other cars, but not people. Note that it did not hit any other cars.

Even that statement is philosophically naïve. A Volvo lacks consciousness, and therefore cannot “see.” But we are losing our own ability to “see” such fine points; let alone reason from them successfully.

In my own generation, Volvos were endowed with personhood by certain consumer classes: university professors, for instance. Today, what we would have called the “Hal” phenomenon has spread, with cybernetics, and the distinction between animate and inanimate has correspondingly blurred. People who believed in ghosts and poltergeists, in a previous generation, now believe in “artificial intelligence.” They begin to fear computers, not in themselves but for their magic powers. Estimates for when computers will take over the world are published and broadcast frequently.

Yet even the post-modern peasant mind is somewhere ahead of a self-parking Volvo. (As was unfortunately the case for the two in the video, whose injuries have not been disclosed.) The good citizens of Parkdale, I observe, often park their cars without hurting anybody; and can detect objects on the road as small as a squirrel. (Elsewhere in the news: hideous four-car pile-up from a driver who spotted one on a highway.)

Cars do crash frequently, however, and account for more casualties than most wars. In the last decade, as a pedestrian, I have myself been hit twice by them: once on a sidewalk, and once crossing a road on a green light. But I attributed these misfortunes not to the cars, but to the drivers, whose ethnicities and gender I will not mention. Moreover, I become aware of the increasing menace from falling drones and helicopters. We are promised flying cars, in the mass market soon, and won’t that be a treat?

Human stupidity has been with us since Eve and Adam, but is now considerably enhanced by machines. Programmable, computer-operated machines represent another huge advance. A glance at the cover of almost any pop-science periodical will give hints to progress beyond that.

Yet, “Who am I to judge?” as Pope Francis said; and as Hillary Clinton added, “What difference does it make?”

For we must all die eventually; and even the more primitive tribes of Amazon and New Guinea have invented ways to die stupidly.

My objection to “technology” — not some Hegelian abstraction from the Phänomenologie des Geistes, but powered machinery — is of a more practical and, if you will, “aesthetic” nature. It is ugly and noisy and I want it to go away.

Nor do I care whether the machines require depleting carbon fuels. To my mind, the less sustainable the better.

Nor am I a Luddite. For I am not against all powered machines; only about 99 percent of them.

But that includes 100 percent of those which are self-parking.