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• Last updated: September 7, 2020

Podcast #619: What Driving Tells Us About Agency, Skill, and Freedom

According to Silicon Valley, self-driving cars are the future of transportation. Instead of owning and driving a car, you can just summon an AI-operated vehicle with your smartphone and have this superpowered computer taxi you to your destination. No more car maintenance, no more traffic, no more accidents. 

It may sound great on the face of it, but my guest today argues that shifting from being a driver to being a mere passenger represents an existential risk in and of itself, as well as a symbol for the potential loss of much broader human values. His name is Matthew Crawford and he’s a philosopher, mechanic, and hot rodder, as well as the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft. In his latest book, Why We Drive: Towards a Philosophy of the Open Road, Matthew investigates the driver’s seat as one of the few remaining domains of skill, exploration, play, and freedom. Matthew and I begin our conversation discussing how freely moving around in our environment is a big part of what makes us human and then explore how shifting from being the drivers of our own cars to the passengers of self-driving cars could result in a loss of that humanity by eliminating agency, privacy, and proficiency. As our wide-ranging conversational road trip continues, Matthew and I take detours into what things like hot rodding and demolition derbies can tell us about mastery, play, and competition. We end our conversation on what driving ultimately has to do with the overarching idea of self-governance. 

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • What drew Matthew to the subject of driving as a lens to explore some broader philosophical ideas?
  • Who’s driving the narrative of the self-driving car?
  • Why the world of the self-driving car isn’t as benevolent as it seems
  • Why don’t we see as many clunker cars anymore?
  • How cars haven’t gotten safer over the decades (and how those features have actually made us drive less safely) 
  • Why humans and autonomous cars won’t be able to truly share the road
  • The surprisingly social nature of driving 
  • What is it like driving a new car versus an older car?
  • What can driving tell us about play?
  • How Matthew discovered “true” feminists 
  • The demise of self-governance

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

A book cover "Why we drive toward a philosophy of the open road" by Matthew B. Crawford.

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Read the Transcript

[music]

 

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. According to Silicon Valley, self-driving cars are the future of transportation. Instead of owning and driving a car, you can just summon an AI-operated vehicle with your smartphone and have this super powered computer taxi you to your destination. No more car maintenance, no more traffic, no more accidents. It may sound great on the face of it, but my guest today argues that shifting from being a driver to just being a mere passenger represents an existential risk in and of itself, as well as a symbol for the potential loss of much broader human values. His name is Matthew Crawford and he’s a philosopher, mechanic, and hot rodder, as well as the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft.

In his latest book, Why We Drive: Towards a Philosophy of the Open Road, Matthew investigates the driver’s seat as one of the few remaining domains of skill, exploration, play, and freedom. Matthew and I begin our conversation discussing how freely moving around in our environment is a big part of what makes us human and then explore how shifting from being the drivers of our own cars to the passengers of self-driving cars could result in a loss of that humanity by eliminating agency, privacy, and proficiency. As our wide-ranging conversational road trip continues, Matthew and I take detours into what things like hot-rodding and demolition derbies can tell us about mastery, play, and competition. And we end our conversation on what driving ultimately has to do with the overarching idea of self-governance. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/whywedrive.

Matthew Crawford, welcome back to the show.

Matt Crawford: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So we had you on a couple of years ago to talk about your book, The World Beyond Your Head, and you got a new book out called Why We Drive: Towards a Philosophy of the Open Road. And it’s about driving, but it’s about a lot more than driving. You use driving as a way to explore topics like freedom, agency, privacy, even self-governance and sovereignty. And what was the impetus behind this book? What got you thinking about driving in these terms?

Matt Crawford: Well, yeah, so, I mean, I open the book with a case that’s kind of extreme, it isn’t sort of every day driving, and in fact, the book is really about mobility in general, and trying to think about that, how that hooks into various, through the elements of human experience. So I describe riding a dirt bike on a trail through the woods, so there’s roots, there’s rocks, there’s mud, there’s steep descents, creek crossings, all this stuff, and I might be going only 15 miles an hour, but I’m at the very limit of my mental ability, it takes total concentration. And when I push it, when I push it a little beyond my current skills or my comfort level and it goes well, meaning I don’t crash and maybe even I get a little glimmer of some new finesse, I feel justified somehow. I feel kind of vindication, it’s hard to describe, it’s almost existential. And in pursuing that feeling, I once had four trips to the emergency room in the course of 12 months, so broken bones, a bunch of them.

Now, to ride a bike off road is of course in no way typical of the driving that we do most of the times, so it’s an odd choice of anecdote to open an inquiry that ranges widely over the driving experience, but the heightened feeling of exposure you get on a dirt bike, I think, recalls me to something really basic. And that is that we’re fragile, we have bodies. And there’s a certain risk that’s inherent in moving around by whatever means. Now, if you’re responsible, you do everything you can to minimize that risk, but my hunch and what really kind of spurred me to write the book is that also risk is somehow bound up with humanizing possibilities, and that cuts very much against the ideology of what I call safetyism, where the safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears. And that seem like that’s especially worth thinking about right now, because we’ve got this push for driverless cars, which is part of what I see as a broader kind of shift in our relationship to the physical world, where the demands of competence give way to a promise of safety and convenience. So I just wanted to think about what we’re being asked to give up.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like you’re moving, moving, being able to move on our own free will, however we want with the environment. It makes us human, I think Aristotle even talked about that. That’s one of the features of human beings.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, or even just the difference between animals and a rock, right? Animals get up and move, there’s self-moving, I think is the phrase often for no apparent reason, it just seems to be part of being an animal means having a body and moving around as opposed to being carried passively, and there’s some great psychological research on that difference and the importance of actively moving in childhood development, it’s when you start developing mental map of the world, once you start, you no longer being carried by your mother.

Brett McKay: So I like that you use this idea of the self-driving car because… And this is a theme that you explored throughout the book, is that everyone, everyone’s talking about this is the future. Self-driving cars is the future, it’s gonna happen, but you highlight this survey that says that 70% of Americans actually enjoy driving. So it’s like they don’t even want this thing but we’re told, “No, it’s the future. This is what people want.” So who’s driving this narrative that people want a self-driving car, were they can jus sit and twiddle on Instagram while they get to Whole Foods or whatever.

Matt Crawford: Oh, Brett, it sounds like you’re expressing skepticism about the future has decided it. Are you questioning the future?

Brett McKay: I think I am.

Matt Crawford: [chuckle] I mean, there’s this kind of inevitability that is a big part of the narrative, and I think it’s used to sort of try to demoralize any kind of opposition. So yeah, it’s clear that this is very much a top-down project rather than a response to consumer demand. When they pull people, people still don’t trust the driverless technology. Now, in a sense, there’s nothing new about that. And the science of marketing has been for 100 years in the business of creating new needs. But I think this time is a little bit different, because what we’re talking about is a radical monopoly on how we get around. And I think we’ll get into that in this conversation, it’s because human beings and robots are not gonna be able to share the road together gracefully. So it’s like, we’re gonna have to get out of the way for them.

Brett McKay: And it’s… So it’s gonna be, yeah, it’s got to be either or, it can’t just be… It can’t be a mixture of the two.

Matt Crawford: That’s what’s emerging from the… All the efforts thus far to make driverless cars work in an urban environment.

Brett McKay: And the other thing too, I suppose this idea is sovereignty though, what’s weird about this push for driverless cars, it’s not the state. It’s not cities, states, nations who are calling for this. It’s private companies like Uber or Google saying, “This is what we’re gonna do.” And it’s like, “Hey, I didn’t vote for that.” But it’s like, “Well, no, this is what we’re gonna do.”

Matt Crawford: Yeah. Right. I mean, what we’re talking about is all of the infrastructure of mobility being remade according to the dream of perfect order. That is… It’s really a cartel of tech firms will be, they will make the trains run on time. You can be sure of it, but what it means is that we won’t have any kind of democratic control over the cityscape, because what we’re talking about is the smart city that’s kind of a necessary complement to the driverless car. You’re gonna have sort of sensors embedded in everything, and all our movements through the city orchestrated by an urban operating system, as it’s been called. So [chuckle] that’s a… I mean, for some of us are pretty dystopian picture given how frustrating your current operating system might be on your devices.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so let’s go down this strain of like… There’s so many things you explore with this idea of private companies sort of doing a top down, “This is what we’re gonna do,” making decisions, ’cause they make it sound like they’re doing it for you. It’s like, “Oh, we’re benevolent. We’re gonna help you, you’re gonna be able to do these things.” But there’s always an angle with these guys. And not only are they going to reimagine the cities, but because they control the means of movement, they’re able to get information about you and use that information to, I don’t know, nudge you to do, go to different places while you’re getting shuttled in your little Google car.

Matt Crawford: Yeah. What is Google? It’s… What it is is the world’s largest advertising firm. So I think the idea is, yeah, all of your movements will be surveilled. And as it turns out, your movements through the world are an especially valuable form of behavioral data for composing a picture of who you are, and developing a sort of proprietary science of behavior management. I mean, this is the new frontier of surveillance capitalism. And I think what we’re talking about is the transformation of the car into a device that will kind of answer to the same logic of surveillance. And not only that, but you’re now strapped in there, you’re basically a captive audience. So you can imagine that before… Maybe there’ll be fleets of driverless cars trolling around and you can hail one for free. Well, except it’s not really free because before you get underway, you’re gonna have to sit there and decline all these offers tailored to your unique lifestyle. So, yeah, it’s… There’s definitely an angle.

Brett McKay: And this idea that also is creepy about this. We already have this to a certain extent with our smartphones when… Even if you drive, you’re not in a smart car, if you have a smartphone with you, Google knows where you’re at.

Matt Crawford: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And because you lack that privacy, it’s like, “Well, are you really free?” Are you really a free human being if you can’t go somewhere without anyone knowing where you’re at?

Matt Crawford: Right. And if you raise that point, what they’ll say is, “Well, you’re free to opt out. Just look at the terms of service.” Of course, there’s kinda of a fork in the end, you don’t really have any leverage. Now you can decline the service altogether. You could get by without a smartphone, right? [chuckle] But the whole world has organized around these things. And so it would take it a genuine kind of counter cultural ordinariness to fully opt out of these things. And the terms of service are very one-sided. I mean, to fully know what you’re agreeing to, you’d have to read sometimes literally dozens of contracts, because that data is packaged and turned into sort of prediction products used to predict your future behavior. And these are traded on a behavioral futures market in real-time, even as you’re, going through the world. So this starts to look like a new form of government more than free market or something like that.

Brett McKay: Right, but it’s a government that you have no say in, basically.

Matt Crawford: Exactly, right. What are you gonna do? Like, throw their bums out in the next election? I don’t think so.

Brett McKay: Another thing you highlight in the book about how governments and corporations have worked to modify the way we move ourselves, and in the process we lose something. You talked about this idea like, you don’t see really clunky cars on the road anymore. And it’s because… Or even in driveways. And if you do, it’s like, “Oh man, it’s on cinder blocks. It’s an eyesore. The homeowners association is gonna send you letters.” But it’s because there’s been this movement within the governments and corporations to this like related Cash for Junkers program where we get old cars off the streets, off the driveways. And they’d say it’s for environmental reasons. But then you’re like, “Well, what’s the angle here?” You always think, “What’s the angle?”

Matt Crawford: Yeah, so… Alright. So it is interesting. This started back in 1990, and the first “cash for clunkers” program was started by Unocal, which is an oil refining company, and it was sort of an experiment. They were facing the need to have expensive retrofits to their refineries to clean up their emissions. So they tried this PR stunt where they said, “We’re gonna destroy… ” Well, it went like this, “Anyone who wants to give up their old car,” meaning before 1971, “We will give you $700 and a month-long bus pass.” And the idea was that it’s the old cars responsible for most of the pollution. And this led to a lot of rust-free Southern California old cars being destroyed. Now, the bigger picture here is that as this caught on in a lot of different states, and it actually created this regime of carbon trading, where all sources of carbon emissions are considered fungible or equivalent.

What it did is that it created a kind of false environmentalism that in fact enforces obsolescence, sort of accelerated obsolescence, getting these cars off the road. Now, when you think about all the energy and material flows involved in creating new cars as opposed to just fixing an old car, the environmental picture is very mixed as to whether this is doing anything for air quality. And I actually was involved in air quality stuff as a physicist a little bit back in 1989, so I was kind of right there as this was going on in Southern California. But the other part of this is there’s this suburban aesthetic of tidiness, and someone with an outdoor inventory of used auto parts is not part of that equation. So I actually got a letter from my insurance company telling me I needed to remove all the debris around my house, as they called it. What they meant is all this, my stash of auto parts. I’ve got all kinds of stuff. And this is a pattern where municipalities often, they’re acting on behalf of real estate interest against established residents, will declare it a nuisance, they’ll sort of harass you bureaucratically to make you get rid of this stuff.

And the reason that’s significant, I think… Well, there are a couple of reasons. One is just kind of at the level of sentiment. When you’re taking care of old stuff, there’s a kind of moral sensibility of stewardship. I mean, sentiment attaches to the things that you’ve had in your life. They’ve been with you through a lot, it’s almost a kind of loyalty to stuff, which sounds a little nutty, but I think it grounds a sense of the continuity of the world. And they can serve as a shelter from the relentless onslaught of the new. And then of course also, this bureaucratic piracy is dispossessing people of the real form of wealth, frugal and resourceful people who might be relying on a parts car or two parked out back.

Brett McKay: And again there’s, yeah, there’s that sense of, you’re not in control anymore. There’s a reduction of your agency or what you’re able to do in the environment.

Matt Crawford: Yeah. I mean, it began with good intentions. So Lady Bird Johnson back in the ’60s sort of agitated for cleaning up the road and getting eyesores out of the way. And for the most part, it was a good idea ’cause there was actually a lot of litter back then. People forget that we had to learn to not litter. And also there were salvage yards that weren’t screened off from the road. So it was a beautification effort. But then it kind of shaded into something a little more ruthless, namely this, “Not in my backyard. No junkyards. No salvage yards,” even though it’s places like that, that are kind of keeping alive the ethic of repair, which is, what could be more environmental than cobbling together a car from salvaged parts that have been cast off that you’re sort of foraging locally? I mean, that’s a pretty positive environmental thing.

Brett McKay: So you started off talking about, this conversation talking about you riding your bike, your dirt bike, and exploring the intersection of risk and safety and sort of the existentialism and what it means to feel alive, but you have this whole section in the book talking about the history of car safety. And cars are a lot safer than they were, say, 40 years ago. I mean, what are some of the stuff that’s happened that we kinda take for granted and how cars have gotten safer?

Matt Crawford: Well, the biggest improvements came with seat belts, and then airbags, that was the low-hanging fruit, and it was a massive increase in the safety of the car. And then there’s traction control, there’s anti-lock brakes and now automatic breaking. And these are slightly different in nature. They help at the limit, in a panic situation, but they can also have a slight de-skilling effect where you’re no longer sort of getting familiar with the behavior of the car at the limits.

And it was interesting, there was a study of automobile safety way back in the ’70s that discovered that some safety improvements in the car lead us to drive less safely. And the idea is that we have a risk budget. If we’re getting more safety from the car itself, we feel like we don’t need to drive as like as safely. It’s kind of a messy picture when you consider the effects of safety improvements in the car itself on driver behavior. And certainly now, with the sort of partially automated driving, you’ll see videos on YouTube of Tesla drivers going down the freeway, reading a newspaper or something. Of course, the fine print tells you you have to be ready to re-assume control at any moment ’cause the automation really isn’t at the level you can just trust it to take care of things, but you know, that’s not realistic to expect people to do that. They’re gonna get interested in something else.

Brett McKay: Well, the other thing too is with the way with those sensors that tell you if you’re drifting into another lane. Yeah, what happens is it’s a safety feature, but it can actually make you less safe because instead of paying attention to your environment, you’re paying attention for the signal that says you’re about to mess up. And they found this also in airplanes. As airplanes have gotten more automated, they found this with pilots, instead of actually focusing on what’s going on in their environment, what their automation does is it trains them to just focus for the signals to let them know that something’s wrong.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, they call that task inversion. Instead of paying attention to what the plane is doing, you’re just listening for the little chimes and beeps, but then another problem is that sometimes it’s chiming and beeping at you so gratuitously that you just tune it out. There’s a whole literature. It’s called the Human Factors literature on this problem with airplane pilots. And now, we’re starting to develop a similar literature for driverless cars, but I think we need to get a little bit into the logic whereby human beings and robot cars are not gonna be able to share the road. Should we get into that?

Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s get into it. Let’s talk about that.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, there was this one incident where a Google car came up to an intersection and it was a four-way stop. And so it stopped and it waited for the other cars to come to a complete stop before it went through, but of course, that’s not what people do. And so the Google car just froze and got sort of paralyzed and melted down, I mean, software meltdown. And what the chief engineer who was in charge of this project said he had learned from it is that human beings need to be less idiotic, by which he meant, of course, they need to behave more like robots. And that’s an inference that comes very easily if you think that the mind is basically an inferior version of a computer, namely following the rules. That’s the picture of reason that they have here. That reason consists of following rules and we don’t do it very well. But what do you see at an intersection? Well, you see people make eye contact, maybe one person waves the other through in those ambiguous cases of right of way.

There’s almost a kind of body language of driving. Here’s a form of intelligence that is socially realized by people together. They’re cooperating. They’re working things out on the fly. It’s a little bit improvisational. It’s a little bit messy, but for the most part, it works just fine, but that kind of social intelligence is very hard to replicate with machine processes. The conclusion is, well, either humans need to become more like computers, which is not gonna happen or we need to clear the road of the humans to make the machines operate smoothly according to their own kind of method. That’s the basic problem, just to… Artificial intelligence and human intelligence are just, they’re so different in kind that they don’t play very well together.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and that idea that driving is a very social thing. Even though we don’t think of it as social ’cause we’re sort of in our little bubble, but the other problem that you talked about that the automated cars are having is that every community has their own social norms for driving. In Pittsburg, I think you talked about in Pittsburg, there’s the Pittsburgh left turn at daylight, there’s someone… If you’re in unprotected left turn and there’s a car going straight, the car going straight lets the left turn guy go first. And that’s only… It’s like a Pittsburgh thing, but a Google car would be like, “No, it has to be the same everywhere.” It doesn’t allow for bottom-up sort of governance.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, and it’s interesting. There’s a whole new kind of thing emerging in cognitive science that emphasizes that the human mind is exquisitely good at predicting other’s behavior and it’s a kind of circular thing where we mutually predict one another’s behavior. And social norms help to anchor our expectations of what others are gonna do and that makes that task a little bit easier. When you think of how exquisitely fine-tuned human mind is for predicting each other’s behavior, it starts to seem a little bit gratuitous to replace all that with rolling supercomputers, basically. If you look at an intersection at Rome, Americans are often horrified. They travel to Rome and they come back, it looks like chaos. Of course, they would also kind of admire it ’cause it’s such a… It’s just such a different way of proceeding and so it’s very improvisational. They’re not really following any kind of rules, at least not any rules that would be apparent to you or me as a visitor, but here’s the interesting thing, the traffic fatality rate in Italy is actually lower than it is in the United States.

Now, if we had driverless car, from an aerial view, an intersection might actually look quite a bit like the Italian intersection because you wouldn’t have to have stop lights, right? The cars would just mutually adapt and find their way through, but at this point, it starts to look like we wanna spend billions of dollars in order to recreate the flow and efficiency of an old-world intersection, which it seems like a failure to appreciate that human beings have already solved this problem, and they’re pretty good at it.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about… Let’s get a little bit more… We’ve been talking sort of big picture, the societal stuff, but let’s get a little down to the more personal. So one of the things you talk about how cars have changed, the experience of driving your car has changed, and you talk about the difference between this Hot Rod 60’s VW Beetle Bug that you worked on yourself and the way it drove, between the high performance in Audi RS 3. When you drove those two cars, what was the difference? How does it feel different to drive a modern car compared to an old car?

Matt Crawford: Well for one thing, an old car lets you know right away if you’ve done done something wrong. So there is more than one occasion when I almost rolled the Bug and… It’s crude, it’s very direct mechanical connection to the road, which always makes it exciting to drive. You’re not insulated from the road by all these forms of electronic mediation that dampen out all the fuzzy information that’s usually coming into the seat of your pants from the road. With a car that’s really light and primitive and everything is direct mechanical connections, after a while, it starts to become almost like a prosthetic. In other words, it kind of disappears from your awareness and you’re just feeling the road.

So think about the process of learning to play ice hockey, where initially the stick and the puck is all very awkward and obtrusive and you have to look at the puck, but eventually, as you become more skilled, the stick essentially becomes an extension of your own body and you can feel the state of the puck through the stick, and so the stick just disappears and becomes a transparent conduit for both your intention on the puck and for sensing the puck. Whereas in a modern car, when everything is passing through electronic mediation, it means that the only way you can stay informed about the state of the car and the state of the road is through various representations, you get these chimes and little bit of text on the dashboard. So I had a Scion xB and for the first five years, I had no idea why it was beeping at me when I went around the corners kind of fast. And finally I saw there was a little tiny bit of text that said, “Stability,” meaning that the stability control was kicking in, and I didn’t even know I had lost traction ’cause I just couldn’t feel it.

Brett McKay: No and I’ve… When you mentioned that, when you talked about it the book, I was just trying to think back when I have driven an old car. I’ve had that same experience and I’ve driven an old truck without any power steering, without any anti-lock brakes. At first, it’s very disconcerting ’cause you’re like, “What the heck is going on?” It doesn’t feel… But then after a while, you start, like you said, you start to feel the road. And then when you’re in a modern car, doesn’t feel like you can feel the road, you feel like you’re just sitting in a car and guiding it with the steering wheel. It’s a weird difference. It’s hard to explain, it’s a subtle thing, but there’s definitely a difference.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, and the windshield almost starts to seem like one more screen, and it can’t really compete with all the dopamine candy coming through your other screens, and so obviously, as cars get more boring to drive, more abstracted, this is definitely contributed to distracted driving ’cause there’s just not much to engage your interest, ’cause you’re… In an old car, it’s your ass that’s going 60 miles an hour, you’re not cocooned in 4,000 pounds of plushness with the elevated tank-like enclosure. Cars have gotten so heavy and so enclosed. If you get in that car from the ’80s or earlier, you’d be shocked at how much visibility we’ve given up. It’s like all glass. So now back-up cameras are required since 2018, and it makes perfect sense that they are required because we’ve given up so much visibility and peripheral awareness.

Brett McKay: So yeah, the new cars give you, like lull you into a false sense of security, so it allows you to, “I can look at my phone because… ”

Matt Crawford: Yeah.

Brett McKay: You don’t have to pay attention, you’re not getting any feedback from the road. But what’s interesting too is that while car companies have made cars safer and taken the road from the driver, what they’ve had to do is they’ve had to artificially inject things back in.

Matt Crawford: Yeah. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: So that it feels like you’re driving a car. I forgot which one. I think it was a BMW. The engine is so quiet, or even like an electric cars, when you turn it on, they’ll have an artificial “vroom” sound so it feels like you’re driving a car.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, so BMW and a few other car-makers, they actually pipe engine sounds into the cabin through the sound system. So it’s like they’re trying to remedy this abstraction with basically a falsification which is a curious sort of dynamic.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about… You took a deep dive into hot-rodding culture. This is something you do, you geek out on cars and modify them in the way you want it, and in this chapter, you got really geeky trying to explain some of the technical aspects of hot-rodding, but you do it to make a point, and you talk about that it’s getting harder and harder to actually… For individuals to modify a car the way they want to than it was, say, 40, 30 years ago, what’s changed?

Matt Crawford: Well, it’s a mixed picture. There was sort of the first golden rod of hot-rodding… Or sorry, golden age rather. That went from after World War II right up until the ’80s. And then electronic engine management made things a little opaque under the hood for the typical shadetree mechanic, but then an interesting thing happened. The internet happened. And now, you have these technical forums devoted to all these different kinds of car and people have figured out how to pack the software and turn it to elicit purposes. This is actually what I would call the second golden age of hot-rodding. People are getting crazy at horsepower of engines these days. One thing that when you go really deep like I’m… This bug I’m building right now is so… It’s gonna have, let me put it this way, five times the horsepower it was designed for, which means you have to rethink every aspect of the car. And the thing is, you can’t just look for available parts. You’re often… You’re mixing parts from many different manufacturers and you’re sort of cobbling things together and what that means is that the parts numbers that are used for inventory are not gonna help you ’cause what you need to know is like the actual dimensions of something and can I make this fit and that’s very hard to find on the internet.

You often end up just making the part yourself if you have the machining and wielding capabilities because it’s just easier than hacking a bureaucracy where you don’t know the part number you just need… You try to go to a parts counter and describe what you need and you’re not gonna get it anywhere.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you talked about how… You just sort of explored this idea that knowledge in a weird way, it feels like it’s democratic, but we’ve also made it more medieval in a lot of ways where only certain like high priests of, say, gearhead like car parts, like actually know the dimensions of a particular gear or whatever, whereas before, because you have… You can assign a part number to something, anybody can just say, “Oh, part number… ” You could just put anybody there, but if you really wanna know that how big it is, you had to call three different people to finally find someone who knew the size of this part you were looking for.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, there’s also this sort of opposite thing where the world of parts numbers only makes sense within some company, within their bureaucratic parts inventory system, whereas when you’re talking about… So that’s a kind of form of priestly authority, right? You have to go through the bureaucracy, whereas if you can express something in universal units of measurement, then you’re talking about a form of knowledge that’s accessible to anyone with a few basic measuring tools. And it’s interesting that that’s the ideal of knowledge that we get from the enlightenment that we should get out from under the authority of priests and trust our own eyes and our own instruments and that’s kind of the dynamic I see with gearheads, they’re not depending on the bureaucracies that want to provide things ready-made, they’re going all the way back to basics and measuring stuff and making stuff and figuring it out.

Brett McKay: And this also kinda speaks to this movement you’re seen with not only cars, but tractors where you’re not really buying a tract… This happens, well, I guess with John Deere as sort of the big example, you’re not really buying a John Deere tractor anymore, you’re leasing the right to use the software. And so it’s hard. It’s becoming harder and harder for farmers to fix a tractor themselves and just use a part from another tractor because the terms and agreements of you when you bought that John… When you thought you were buying a John Deere tractor don’t allow that.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, there’s been a movement called Right to Repair. Have you heard of that?

Brett McKay: I have, yeah.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, so the idea is that a lot of the car manufacturers are claiming intellectual property rights over the diagnostic software, which means that unless you work at the dealership, you’re not gonna be able to fix it or if you’re an independent shop, you have to pay a huge rent basically every month in order to have access to that updated diagnostic software. Then, it really does feel like it doesn’t belong to you, that you’re just allowed to use it for a while. And that’s a very different picture of ownership and I think people aren’t very comfortable with that for a good reason ’cause it… I don’t know, to be fully master of your own stuff gives you a kind of feeling of independence. And in so many areas of culture, including material culture, we’re kind of sliding into this passivity and dependence, which doesn’t sit that well with the democratic personality as it has existed thus far, the spirit of self-reliance and the spirit of self-government.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah. A perfect example of that and instead of owning physical books, you own books on your Kindle. You think you own them, but in the terms and agreements of Amazon, they can delete that for whatever reason they want if they want to. Yeah. I thought one of my favorite sections is when you explored this idea of play and you used drifting. You used demolition derbies, soapbox derbies to explore this idea. And we typically think of play as just sort of light and frivolous, which it is, but you used these driving sports to highlight the fact that play can be very aggressive and competitive. Can you flesh that out a bit for us?

Matt Crawford: Yeah, play. I rely a lot on this Dutch historian who wrote a book about play as the basis of civilization. So he says that to dare, to take risks, to endure tension. This is the spirit of play, so it’s a mix of hostility and friendship combined. So he found this in sport, in ritualized combat, in competitive dances and stylized insult trading and boasting matches, think of the rap battles of the 90s, right? He talks about the human need to fight, and he connects that to the need of man to live in beauty. And I wanna read a passage from him ’cause it’s just so great. This is Huizinga. He says, “We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols. They invite one another to play by a certain ceremoniousness of attitude and gesture. They keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or not bite hard, your brother’s ear. They pretend to get terribly angry.” I love that, and I think if dogs playing resembles human play, we could just as well say the opposite, that human play expresses the animal spirits in us, and as such, I think it stands against the ideal of rational control that’s become so pervasive in contemporary culture.

And play in this way, I think, answers to a very basic need, but it’s expressing this part of the soul that sits uncomfortably with the contemporary taste for order. So it’s subject to censure as irresponsible on safety grounds, or because it’s competitive as a threat to the ethic of equal esteem. It doesn’t sit very well with egalitarianism, ’cause it’s basically a thirst for distinction among the other players. So it’s like this closed circle, it’s inherently exclusive that stands apart from the rest of society. You see something like this in the movie Fight Club, which really revived this idea of a basically masculine form of play that can be violent. And motor sport sort of exemplifies that, I think it’s almost like… Well, I have a chapter called The Motor Equivalent of War, where I’m seeing the war like energies get channeled into motor sport.

Brett McKay: It’s interesting that aggression of play, it’s just aggression, it’s not about dominance, oftentimes, it’s not about… You’re not trying to destroy the person but you want to aggress against them ’cause it gives you something to push against and allows you to feel like you’re a person, really.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, I think we kind of confuse the will to distinguish yourself from… We confuse that with the will to dominate others. And so the thirst for distinction gets a bad rap because it looks like the will to tyranny. And I think the irony here is that it’s the effort to clamp down on play is itself a kind of tyrannical need to control everything. And you see that, you know, for example, in affluent progressive schools where you have these playground minders who are on the lookout for signs of trauma to the fragile cells that they’re busy cultivating.

Brett McKay: Yeah, in a weird way, like clamping down on that competitive spirit and trying to make everyone feel safe and equal, in a weird way, you can actually end up disrupting the social order and you get chaos.

Matt Crawford: Yeah, ’cause… Well, Huizinga points out that play is the origins of social order, ’cause think about it, games have rules. You have to submit to the rules of the play community, so these rules are not just emanations from your own will. So he finds the origins of institutions historically in the sort of competitive play fields. And it’s interesting, at one point in the book, I speculate about maybe this clamp down on play has some kind of connection to phenomena like the mass shooter, where here you have some kid who is not able to find any way to make a name for himself, to distinguish himself, but through this eruption of infantile rage, that strikes me as the opposite of fighting and playing where you’re coming up against the civilizing influence of other people who push back against you, it’s radically solipsistic.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you did one diversion, I thought was interesting, you go to something that’s called a hare scramble race, and inadvertently, you were able to see… You met the true feminist.

Matt Crawford: Well, yeah, Hare scramble is a race through the woods on motorcycles, and so before it gets into the woods that the start is in a big open pasture and once you get into the wood, it’s very hard to pass, so the start is really crucial. They’re all trying to get to the first corner first. And it’s a free-for-all, there’s wheelies off the line, people going down in the mud, and there’s no authority figure to appeal to, to say, “Oh, false start or foul” It’s just a bunch of grown-ups doing it for themselves. And that was attractive about it to me, the sort of absence of bureaucratic sort of supervision.

And I was struck that there was quite a few women at these races, and some of them are super fast, and so this is a kind of rednecky crowd, and it seemed like there was an unforced ease of gender relations going on here that was interesting. The women just show up and race. There isn’t some entity making sure there’s gender equity in the sport. They don’t think of themselves as overcoming oppression, they just find their satisfaction in meeting the demands of the craft and it’s interesting. There was one woman, she was not a racer but her son was. So she looked a lot like Roseanne Barr, and so her teenage son is all suited up before a race, but he’s got this hesitant look on his face, and I hear her bark, “Quit being a fucking vagina.” [chuckle]

And I had never heard this expression before, I was a little taken aback, but I think it was maybe a saltier version of this saying that Plutarch records among the Spartan women where apparently they would say to their sons going on to battle, “Come back with your shield or on it.” He relates another thing where the Spartan army had gone out to fight and they got routed and now they’re running back to the city, and the mothers of the city, they close the gate against them, and they get up on the wall and they lift their skirts, and they say, “What are you doing, trying to climb back in here?” And the army goes back out to fight and prevails. So in all of these, it’s like the women are demanding strength of their men, man up. And the sociologists tell us that that’s fairly typical in the working class, that the women prefer their men to be manly, whereas an upper middle class society, both men and women adopt more feminine norms.

So that struck me as quite a contrast to the more polite precincts of society where the meritocracy, where you’re dependent on these institutions and gold stars to sort of keep moving forward, and there’s this kind of propaganda program of girl power and female empowerment that doesn’t seem to work very well ’cause it creates these very fragile young women and a kind of sexual paranoia on campus where it’s all about trying to protect their feelings. So it’s just the contrast was really striking and it was a nice picture of a community working things out for themselves that I think it kinda do well to keep it in mind for a critical perspective.

Brett McKay: That Roseanne Barr lady who demanded strength from her son, she herself was a strong lady. You’d probably wouldn’t wanna mess with her.

Matt Crawford: Right, right. Yeah, so it doesn’t really look like patriarchy, it looks like matriarchy, that’s funny.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Well, this idea… So I wanna hit on this really quick, this idea of these races that you go to, they’re often self-governed, there’s not some corporation putting them on. It’s just people getting together and doing it, and you talked about how you’re seeing less and less of these these days because people have forgotten how to self-govern, like that idea, the Tocqueville. I saw an American… Americans can get together and they do things together without some government or some entity telling them to do that, we’ve lost that in a lot of ways.

Matt Crawford: Yeah. So yeah, I’m gonna read a little passage from Tocqueville here. So as your listeners probably know, he was this French guy who came to America, traveled around and reported what he saw back in the 1850s. He writes, “Children in their games,” he’s talking about Americans “are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined.” So he’s marveling at Americans habit of self-government and the temperament that both requires and encourages it from a young age. He writes, “The same spirit pervades every act of social life.” Now, it used to be that Americans had a lot of voluntary associations, things like volunteer fire departments, fraternal organizations, mutual insurers, trade associations, labor unions, where they had the habit of this kind of the town hall meeting in New England.

But at some point, that way of life, more or less collapsed, and there’s a Harvard political scientist who documented that in a book called Bowling Alone. We still have voluntary associations, but they’re now usually run by salaried professionals, not the members themselves. So I describe this desert race out in Caliente, Nevada where the same families have been coming, participating in this race for generations, and so at the drivers’ meeting the day before, they’re kind of going over the terrain, they’re going over of land use issues because they have this relationship with the ranchers that allowed them to do this and with the town, and this phrase kept popping up in the drivers’ meeting was “Use your head.”

This isn’t like a certified safe experience, this is being handed to you. You’re out in the desert amidst the rattlesnakes, use your head. And it was sort of a bracing idea that you would use your head, and that this community would be self-governing in this way. And it’s funny, the spirit of it. It’s not like these are kind of vandals wrecking the desert, they have a very keen awareness of kind of stewardship. Not only for the desert itself, but for the relationship with the townspeople, this is an activity that gives meaning to these families over a long period of time. So, they’re basically taking care of something, and fully invested in it and fully responsible for it and for themselves, and that struck me as a very much what Tocqueville was describing.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you said that we’ve lost that, ’cause now we have organizations that just tell you all the rules, take care of everything, and it’s convenient. But in the process, you’re like de-skilling yourself in a way that allows you to govern, or take part in democratic process.

Matt Crawford: So, self-government, I think you can think of that in at least a couple of different ways. One is just self-command. So, self-government can mean the ability to skillfully control your car, the ability to temper your impatience with other drivers, the ability to keep your attention directed to the road, in the face of multiplying distractions. And on the other hand, self-government is a question. When you’re talking about who gets to decide? What sort of regime of mobility we’re gonna have? And these two different senses of self-government kind of imply one another. So, for example, if we’re so distracted behind the wheel, that we’re already driving as if our cars were self-driving. I think that suggests we need some benevolent entity to step in and save us from ourselves, by automating a task that we’re no longer capable of doing for ourselves.

So, my book is an attempt to kinda defend everyday practices, and the forms of intelligence that are on display in them. If you look closely, and say that in fact, we’re pretty good at cooperating and improvising, when we’re left kind of to our own devices. Now, this is not simply a libertarian argument, because one thing that’s most impressive to me on the road, is the kind of social trust that you see. And that’s not a concern you see much articulated by libertarians. So, for example, if you’re leaned into a blind curve on a two-lane country road on a motor cycle, it becomes very clear that the road is a place of mutual trust and I think that’s one of the most interesting things about it. So, I guess, I’m trying to understand this fragile thing while it still exists, in sort of little pockets of daily life like driving. And maybe such pockets can hold clues that could guide our hopes for the renewal of social trust more broadly.

Brett McKay: Well, Matthew, where could people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Matt Crawford: Well, the book is called the Why We Drive, and it’s just out, and it’s sold wherever fine books are sold. Yeah. So, check it out.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Matthew Crawford, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure

Matt Crawford: Yeah, thanks for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Matthew Crawford, he’s the author of the book, Why We Drive. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere, you can find out more information about his work at his website matthewbcrawford.com, also check out our show notes at aom.is/whywedrive where you can find the links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast, check-out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives with thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium, head to stitcherpremium.com sign up, use code manliness at check out for a free month trial. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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