To Drive – Ep. 201

TRANSCRIPT (by speechpad)

Hi. This is Jaime Escuder and welcome to another episode of None Sense.

I like to drive. I’ve always been kind of fascinated with mechanical things, and engines in particular are really fascinating. I just love the idea of having sort of a powerful thing like an engine under my control. And just the whole sensation of kind of moving through space quickly like that and, again, having that sort of power at one’s command is just a lot of fun. I remember (my mother doesn’t know this), I once went drag racing on the Courtney Campbell Causeway in Tampa just the one time (and I’m a lawyer now, so I think I feel safe talking about this because I know the statute of limitations has passed on this), but I just did it the one time but it was exhilarating and I’m not at all advocating that anyone do this, but the fact of the matter is in my final moments when my life flashes before my eyes I’m just gonna remember the sensation of that. But it’s more than that.

There’s a great deal in the U.S. actually that’s just off limits, if you think about it. All these places we can’t go. For example, where I live in Texas it’s a very beautiful place and it’s wide open with huge expanses, but it’s all walled off and it’s inaccessible to me unless I were willing to, you know, climb a fence or trespass or whatever. And, of course, other countries have different rules about this. Other countries have a lot more leniency with regard to people exploring. In fact, I think Finland is famous for having these rules of like this idea that wandering is allowed. And it’s understood that you can kind of walk the country. It’s your county and you can kind of walk it, and so long as you don’t do damage or even allowed to sort of camp out on private property and stuff.

Well, you know, not here in the United States. We’re not really allowed a lot of places. But the roads are public. You know, the roads are a place where you’re allowed to be. And so I always kind of…even looking at a map, and I’m kind of obsessed with maps, looking at the roads, to me those lines indicate the zones of freedom that I’m allowed to explore in my car. And, you know, it’s a big country, of course, that we live in, but really, if…and I’ve actually met people who’ve done this, if you wanted to, you could explore the whole country. You could explore, you know, Acadia National Park and the great, you know, coasts and shorelines of both coasts, and then the Rocky Mountains and the deserts. And an engine allows you to do that. And so the point is I like driving. And why am I talking about this? It’s because I’ve talked before about artificial intelligence and all this stuff, but it seems to me that one of the things that we’re really desperate or eager or just so focused on developing is this thing called the self-driving car.

In fact, just the other day I read an article about how Google has in fact developed a special kind of computer chip specifically developed to AI called a “tensor processing unit,” which I don’t know anything about other than I’m gathering that it’s a very powerful computer chip. And the express purpose, one of the express purposes of developing these hyper-intelligent computer chips is to allow for driverless cars. So I just want to take a moment to pause and think about…and I think maybe the driverless car thing is a good kind of prism through which to look at this, but to think about what we give up for what we gained. Because I’ve noticed there’s really a balance to everything in this universe and nothing is gained without something else being lost. And sometimes the things that are lost are worth it and maybe the tradeoff is worth it, but I always think it’s a good idea to maybe think about that before we just rush headlong into one thing.

So driverless cars, I think the benefits are great. Right? We know that it’ll reduce accidents, maybe even eliminate accidents. And you can read. Right? You could take a nap. You get in the car and you plug in your sister’s address, you know, who live six hours away or something and then you just kind of chill out and watch the scenery, and that’s fine. Except, what do you give up? First of all, you know, you give up information. So nothing happens in computers that someone else doesn’t know about. And I think that’s something that we don’t…we like to pretend isn’t necessarily the case, we just kind of turn that off. But like, for example, Netflix tracks you. Right? Because they want to know what to market to you and stuff like that. So if you watch a show, Netflix knows. And they even track, I read that…or I heard that they even track sort of when you watch and what you watch.

So for example, you know, I guess that’s okay. It’s not so bad that…you know, I’m a huge fan of nature shows. So I’ve been watching “Planet Earth II” which is incredible. And I guess it’s okay that people know that I’ve been watching “Planet Earth II”. But, you know, maybe I don’t necessarily want people at Netflix HQ to know that I’ve kind of rewound a few times over the naked sword fight in “Altered Carbon”. Right? If I want to watch it, you know, they’re gonna know. Okay. But what about the information that my car travels carry? Maybe I don’t want anyone to know where I go all the time, and maybe I do. I’m not going anywhere inappropriate but it’s just nice to know that when I get into my car, again, and this ties to the roads, you know? There’s a sense of kind of freedom, there’s a sense of possibility.

If I wanted to on a whim, let’s say I’ve got court somewhere. Let’s say I’ve got court in Pecos, Texas and let’s say out of whim I decided I wanted to keep going because I’ve never been to the northern part of the state or something, or I wanted to go see what it’s like in New Mexico. I could just go. And I guess what I’m saying is just thinking all about the information that we’d giving up, where we go, when. There’s this really interesting moment that I’ve never forgotten in the movie, “Minority Report” which is not a great movie, but where the person…they have self-driving cars and the police issue a warrant for the person’s arrest. And so the car just locks itself, the windows go up, the doors lock and it starts driving itself to the police station. Do you really want to live in a world like that?

And then there’s just kind of the freedom, the freedom of just being alone in a car and doing things that are not monitored. It’s an unmonitored space. And I want to talk about that kind of in two ways. First of all, there is a joy to driving. There is. Cars are amazing and they’ve gotten less amazing as sort of we’ve gotten more regulated, and as I say they’ve gotten less amazing, it’s also probably true that they’ve gotten more safe. But it’s also true that the safer you make something the more boring it becomes.

I remember I kind of fell in love, I was watching the show called, “Victory by Design” which was a series where this guy takes you kind of through the history of different famous automakers like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo and Jaguar. And I just became obsessed and fell in love with Maseratis. And these old Maseratis were just so unsafe. I mean, the early ones didn’t even have like a windshield, they were the old cars that someone had to go in front and crank the engine and the driver had these goggles and it just looked awesome. It just looked awesome. I mean it’s like I would just want to drive one of these cars. And it got me thinking about how much fun it really is to kind of rocket through with the wind and sort of just, you know, it just made me think how driving, it became something that was just really exhilarating and exciting and you have like the 24 Hours of Le Mans and these great races. And, of course, you can go too far, I mean, you know, ask T.E. Lawrence how his addiction to speed panned out.

But, you know, there’s a big difference between that and then just making it sort of like the thing that you throw, you know, these big sort of boxed things that we all have now where you just kind go throw in your kids and, you know, the equipment for the beach and it’s just kind of a way to get from A to B. And the actual travel isn’t something to look forward to. Well, I mean that really becomes the case if you have driverless cars where you just don’t get to enjoy the thrill or sensation of driving anymore. And there’s this other thing, we have to be careful about automating things because things that are automated don’t have…there’s no freedom or liberty for you, the person, to explore, I guess to explore, to deviate.

I recently read something by a guy named Alan Westin who was a law professor at Columbia and who wrote a book in 1967 called, “Privacy and Freedom” and it has some interesting ideas. One of the reasons to read these people and to read kind of books about something that you think you understand, for example, like privacy. When I say privacy I think we all have kind of a general sense of what that means. But one of the reasons to read other people’s thoughts on something that we already considered to be kind of a fully understood thing is it might help us understand things even more in a more substantive, more nuanced way. And I’m gonna get back to the original idea I was talking about Westin. But for example, I thought I kind of had a good sense of privacy but I had never thought about what the states of privacy are or that there’s different sort of gradations of privacy. And one of the things that he does in this book is he breaks it down, the states of privacy into four different ways of being.

So the first is solitude. The second is intimacy. The third is anonymity, which is something I never really thought about, but, you know, if you go out into the world, if you’re on the L, if you’re in a crowded place, at a concert or, you know, something like that, even though you’re in public you still kind of expect to be private in the sense that you’re anonymous in the sense that you don’t expect to be, for example, under surveillance or something. Or if there’s some sort of tracker on your car. So if you go out on the highway, you’re in public, there’s hundreds of cars, thousands of cars on the highway, but you still kind of feel like you’re private because you assume that you’re not being watched.

And then the fourth state of privacy, and I’ve gotten off on a bit of a digression, I’m gonna come back to my idea about why I don’t like driverless cars in a moment, but this is something I had never thought about. But as an introvert, it really spoke to me. The fourth kind of privacy is what he calls reserve, which is kind of the right to sort of not reveal everything about yourself even when you’re in public and not anonymous. So for example, I’ve been accused of being a little bit aloof in life. I don’t like going to parties or big groups and stuff, and I just hate it when people come up to me and start interrogating me about, you know, the details of my life. I just don’t…I don’t want to share. All right? I’m a private person. I only share that stuff with very limited number of people and I hold a great deal in reserve. And so that is an important form of privacy and a state of privacy that I actually live in for much of my time because I mean I have a public job and I go to court and, you know, it’s all public and stuff like that. But so much of who I really am never gets seen because I hold a state of holding things in reserve to be incredibly important to me and for my personal happiness and feeling safe in the world. So just even thinking reading this book it kind of made me realize that it made me understand things about privacy and frankly things central to my own personal identity and the way I chose to be in the world. That helped me appreciate myself more, appreciate how I function.

And here’s another thing that I do and that I think we all do, and this relates to driving. And here’s his idea. He calls it “permissible deviations.” And this is what he says. He says, “A form of emotional release is provided by the protection privacy gives to minor noncompliance with social norms. Some norms are formally adopted which society really expects many persons to break. This ambivalence produces a situation in which almost everyone does break some social or institutional norms, for example, violating traffic laws, breaking sexual mores, or smoking in restrooms when this is prohibited. Although society will usually punish the most flagrant abuses, it tolerates the great bulk of the violations as permissible deviations. If there were no privacy to permit society to ignore these deviations, most persons in the society would be under organizational discipline or in jail or could be manipulated by threats of such action. The firm expectation of having privacy for permissible deviations is a distinguishing character of life in a free society.”

In other words, we have to know in order to feel fulfilled, in order to be happy, that there are times in our life or things that we can do or moments where we may “deviate” from what is expected of us and not get caught. There’s a road called 1776 in Texas. And, of course, I see that number and because despite everything I still somewhat like the idea of America. It makes me happy to think about the courage of the people who declared independence in 1776 and I try to overlook their racism and misogyny and just horribleness. I see that and I think freedom. And maybe, maybe I like to hear the sound of my V6 a little bit.

And when we automate these things, you know, when our lights come on and stuff like that, I mean just every little thing, we deny ourselves the emotional release of permissible deviations. And it really is important. I know we like to pretend that, you know, we’re all law-abiding and just we just do everything exactly right and we…no, no. Our humanity trumps the constraints that we feel are necessary to preserve our lives. For example, here’s a little thought experiment. And I want to leave you with this because it’s a little bit scary, but honestly, I want you to think about this when you think about all the wonderful conveniences and if only I could just have someone else do this for me or something else do this for me.

Imagine that it were possible to sort of input the criminal code into every person’s DNA as they’re born. So every state, you know, every state has a different…they call it something different but there’s a set of laws, right, that you’re all expected to follow all the time. So imagine that we could, and they’re often called “criminal codes.” So let’s say that when a person is born you could implant that into their DNA such that it becomes physically impossible to violate a criminal law. Now, on the one hand, wonderful, right, no more murder, no more sexual assaults, no more theft. But imagine if it was physically impossible to speed, to roll a stop sign, to jaywalk. Honestly, imagine what it would be like if it was impossible to permissibly deviate.

Those deviations, those things that we do in our private moments when no one is watching, and I’m assuming that we’re not like, you know, killing people and eating them in those moments, but just sort of living our lives the particular things that we like to do, whatever they are, you know, like eat a whole pint of Chunky Monkey in one sitting. And these deviations they don’t necessarily have to be just legal deviations but just sort of things that we might think as certain people in society might not approve of. Those things, if you think about it, that’s so much of where the enjoyment of life comes from.

So that’s my thought on self-driving cars. Also I know it’s been…as I wrap up here, I know it’s been a bit if a while since you’ve heard from me. I don’t like to talk unless I feel like I have something to say. And so I think that’s kind of the promise I’m gonna make myself and to you. I had wanted to and, you know, I meant it at the time when I said it, kind of have a regular schedule with regard to these podcasts, but I’m gonna give up on that. And you’re only gonna hear from me when, you know, the spirit moves me.

Having said that, I hope your 2018 is going pretty well so far. And just so you know, even though I am gonna be somewhat sporadic here, I am trying to also be somewhat semi-professional about it. So you can find more information about the podcasts and some also written essays of mine, etc. on my website, jaimeescuder.com, and if you feel inclined to leave a review on iTunes or wherever your favorite podcasting source is, I certainly would appreciate it. As always, thanks for listening and drive safely.

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