Acton Institute Powerblog

How Cars Can Keep Us Human

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Does technology have its own moral code? And if so, does it influence ours? Why agency and action are essential to remaining fully human.

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Truck drivers are cowboys. I work at a food warehouse. Truckers show up with 40,000 pounds of primal-cut beef, equivalent to maybe 50 head of cattle, driven from Nebraska, by a team of horses, bit, bridled, and reined by internal combustion. I don’t actually spend a lot of time around these guys, but it’s pretty clear they don’t belong to the golf and tennis club set. They love freedom over middle-class conformity, and even though I am not one of them, I get it. Cars, trucks, open roads—what American doesn’t get it?

In his newish book Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, Matthew B. Crawford considers why. Based solely on the cover, you figure it’s a book about cars and a love of driving, but in fact it’s a philosophical anthropology (at least by Crawford’s reckoning). It’s about the intersection of freedom and technology and what it means to be human in a rapidly changing technological society. The main question is whether technology expands or diminishes our freedom. Crawford’s answer is, well, yes.

Humans, like all animals, are made to move through the world under their own power and volition. In this realm of auto-motion, freedom involves “a disposition to find one’s way through the world by the exercise of one’s own powers.” As a piece of technology, a car traditionally is “a kind of prosthetic that amplifies our embodied capacities.” People are made to move under their own will and power, and a good car amplifies this capacity. Driving enables us to do what we do, only better.

In theological terms, we’re talking about “natural liberty,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith calls it (WCF IX.I). Crawford’s account of natural liberty emphasizes agency. Agency is the ability to act. It means doing things yourself. Doing things yourself is dignifying; it confers value and worth. When I mow the grass, I am satisfied. Cars amplify our agency. In the chapter “The Motor Equivalent of War,” Crawford describes sitting right seat with drift-racing driver Forrest Wang. In drift racing, cars proceed through turns in an exercise of controlled skidding. It’s the upper limit of agency. Control is nearly and deliberately lost, but so carefully and skillfully executed that it’s virtually an art. It’s agency, in automotive fashion, at its most sublime. As Nietzsche said, “joy is the feeling of one’s powers increasing.”

This pairs well with the traditional Protestant notion that economic growth and the technology that comes with it expands human freedom and agency. Secularists call it progress; we call it “the creation mandate.” Tony Reinke exemplifies this view in his book God, Technology, and the Christian Life. In an interview with Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt on the Mortification of Spin podcast, Reinke explains: “I can see God’s glory shining in the smartphone which gives me tremendous power to connect and serve and love other people.” Freedom is about how we use technology. When we don’t use it well, it’s our fault. “There’s heart issues that I need to work through.”

But Why We Drive is not satisfied with this straightforward account. Technology may enhance our freedom, but it can also destroy it. The problem is more than just “heart issues.” The problem is technology per se. It threatens our freedom when it no longer enhances our agency but removes it entirely. This is the moral problem of self-driving cars. We become passengers, dependent where once we were free. I doubt that watching a robot mow the grass would be as satisfying as doing it myself, and doing it well. It’s technology, sure, but it’s not agency, and it’s definitely not liberty.

Underpinning this analysis is the idea that technology is not morally neutral. It always has a moral orientation. Crawford explores this in the chapter “Automation as Moral Reeducation.” As an artifact of ethical beings, technology, like any other artifact, has an ethical bearing. This reminds me of a point Karl Marx made. According to his theory of historical materialism, societies are distinguished by their means of production. These means of production, say agrarian or industrial, generate a form of social consciousness. The point is that our consciousness, the way we envision and imagine the world around us, is formed by forces outside ourselves, especially by available tools, techniques, and technologies. You don’t have to be a full-fledged Marxist to recognize the truth of this. Folk wisdom captures it in the saying, “To the person holding a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” (If you don’t believe me, give your kid a hammer.) The tool forges an imagination about the world and what is to be done in it. Put differently, there’s more to technology than what we do with it; there’s what it does with us.

This is a critical point that Protestants commonly miss, perhaps due to an overly high view of natural liberty. When it comes to our relationship to God, we know He alone is sovereign. But out in the world, we tend to have an overly generous idea of our freedom. We are not as free as we think. At first, technology like automation appears liberating, especially from monotonous and repetitive tasks. But the automation of virtually everything changes not only what we do in the world, but how we think about that world. It changes how we imagine the world and our role in it, just like the hammer.

Christians must rethink the moral significance of technology. Technology can violate our freedom in a number of ways. Thinking about it takes time, however, and nowadays, as a result of technology (ironically), there’s not much of that. Consider an all-to-common predicament. We know that the design philosophy of social media and smartphones is rooted in an addiction model. (On that topic, Crawford recommends Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schüll.) Should churches promote these particular forms of tech? After all, both faith and addiction are forms of dependence. Is that what churches are pushing, addiction to God? Facebook is forming a moral consciousness in its users (and “user” is the right term). What exactly makes up that consciousness? I doubt it’s the moral consciousness of the Gospel.

This book is hard not to like, especially when you consider Crawford’s wry tone. It’s one part Tocqueville, one part parts manual, and one part Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Just reading it feels like you’re getting away with something, like you’re taking back a bit of intellectual agency. Think passing on a double yellow line or carrying four ounces of shampoo through TSA. It feels transgressive. It feels … free.

John Halsey Wood Jr.

John Halsey Wood Jr. holds an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, an M.A. from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University in historical theology. A Fulbright Scholar (Netherlands, 2007), Wood is also the author of Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper’s Struggle for a Free Church. Presently he is director of purchasing for Wood Fruitticher Grocery. Follow him on Twitter @halsey_wood.