Nothing ventured, nothing gained

We came across an awesome interview from the Unherd podcast with philosopher Matthew B Crawford, who is a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia. He was formerly a motorcycle mechanic and has used his love of motoring to write, as he describes, a “meditation” on self-government, agency, and community. He sees driving as a perfect metaphor for current cultural changes – automation and ride sharing in the transport industry mirror the march of the new technocratic social order. Both threaten to render us “passengers” in our own lives. 

The danger that Crawford highlights is an idea he calls “safetyism”. It is the subject of his newest book “Why We Drive” and he lays out the ideology of safetyism as: the safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears. While there is nothing sinister about wanting to eliminate risk or keep people safe, going off the beaten path is often what freedom looks like. Crawford warns that if our desire to be safe is left to “colonize” every human activity, it has an infantilizing effect on society, under the cover of “equality”.

We justify our desire to keep everyone safe by pointing to “the least competent among us” –  the most inept motorists make self-driving cars necessary, see? Yet Crawford argues that a free society only remains viable if we extend to each other the benefit of the doubt. Esteeming someone better than yourself is a gamble, but it is one worth taking to reach a grown-up society of free citizens.

Crawford cites reading about a Waymo car that waited at an intersection until all other cars had gone through. Reflecting on what went wrong, the Google engineer in charge of the trial concluded that humans just need to be “less idiotic.”  That’s if you regard the human mind as an “inferior version of a computer.” Thinking this way misses the “social intelligence” of people and how they interact.

Compare that story to Crawford’s experiences in Rome and in London where, at busy intersections, drivers wave each other through, and work things out together. He draws a contrast between following rules vs following the “flow”, which grows out of a community where people respect each other enough to let them try things. He concludes that this is not something that can be mandated from the top, down. 
Crawford has previously written on the value of working with your hands and also on the rise of entities that profit from “harvesting” our attention.  He sees all these things as connected – automation robbing labor of its dignity, the distracting drain on our attention from media, and now, the desire of big tech and government to put everything on training wheels. Retaining our agency, taking control over these aspects of our lives, is pivotal to vocation, marriage, family life, and freedom. 

While the naysayers will make accusations that he is “clinging to the past,” Crawford is not a technophobe.  He just asks that people consider the “adequacy of the status quo” and question the assertion that “The Future” is inevitable, as Progressives say. As Rev Fisk might put it, “Cui bono?” In this case, it’s not about nostalgia for a past era, but satisfaction with the present that Crawford is defending.

Noisy elites today seem to want society to exist as a neat “bundle of sticks”, all cut to size (see SMChill July 25th), yet communities are more like trees, as Pastor Fisk pointed out. While the powerful will use their wealth, influence and cancel culture (perhaps “cultural Leninism?”) to make us care, humans are not robots and freedom doesn’t come as a flat-pack. 

Leave a Reply