Prone to Wander

Tiny Little Thrills

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 11.28.23 AMA few weeks ago while wedged between hundreds of other cars on MoPac in famous Austin traffic, I got to thinking about how lovely it would be to have a driverless car.  Sitting in traffic feels like such a waste of time when you’ve got places to be, people to see, work to do, books to read…

They say that Google’s got a driverless car, and that it’s only a matter of time now until I can sit back, relax, and let the computer take control.

Ahh… sounds nice.

For those of us with limited public transportation options, it sure would be nice to be getting sh*t done on your way to work, class, or home – all while your car drives you where you want it to go, avoids collisions, and obeys the traffic laws.

Hmm.

Something made me pause in the middle of my August-heat-and-traffic-addled daydream. In the not-so-distant future, whether I am the driver of my vehicle or not, do you think I’ll still be able to go over the speed limit, if I wanted to?

Interesting.

It’s really not a very big leap to imagine that the computers in your future car might someday prohibit you from breaking the law, even if you grabbed the wheel and really tried to be bad. And it’s not a very big leap beyond that, even, to imagine a future world with machines all around you that will be busy protecting you from all sorts of things that could hurt you or get you into trouble – not just your car.

Will our machines someday guide and guard us so much that life starts feeling a little bit like going bowling with the bumpers up?

Sure, it would be reliable and safe, and we’d hit the pins every time. But it requires no decisions. And it’s really, really BORING.

Ugh.

I have a hunch that all humans secretly need the satisfaction of knowing that if we really, REALLY wanted to, we could totally hit the gas and throttle that engine up to ninety. Maybe we’d only do that in secret on a deserted open road… but still.

Advertising agencies the world over know this bit about our psychology already, and they are masters at exploiting it. Think of every flashy sports car ad you’ve ever seen. It’s that secret little edge that all those predominantly middle-aged men sit up and pay attention to – the idea that they too, if they wanted to, could be a little bit volatile or dangerous in a world that may have tried to subdue them into corporate, suburban sameness.

Maybe those tiny little seemingly mundane choices we make every day – like whether to speed or not to speed – are actually thrilling to us in tiny little ways. Even if we rarely cave in to the whisperings of that little red devil on our shoulders – maybe it’s the realization that we have the power to make our own choices that gives life a little edge – a little thrill.

Perhaps with every one of those daily little choices we make, we are reminding ourselves that our choices matter. They have real consequences in a world that is not always safe. Our choices can be dangerous. Perhaps we’re zapping ourselves with little doses of adrenaline all day as we remind ourselves that we choose our own adventures.

Suppose, for a moment, that someday in the future we lost our sense of control over these daily, seemingly mundane little choices between right and wrong. What would the implications be?

I happened to bring up these crazy ideas over margaritas to a friend of mine who has a pretty strong pulse on emerging technology.

He nodded emphatically. “It’s already happening,” he said, pointing to a tiny black square on his chest.

At first I thought it was some kind of James Bond-esque camera, which was a little unnerving. But he explained that it was basically just a tiny little chip that could accurately detect whether he was sitting up straight. If he forgot about it and slouched, it would give him an uncomfortable little Pavlovian buzz. Apparently it was much more unpleasant than the margarita buzz, because his posture was impeccable all evening.

Incredible.

This tiny little unassuming thing that looked like a nerdy boy scout pin was policing my friend’s physical behavior. And while this particular wearable’s purpose may be fairly innocuous, the implications could go further. Maybe it’s not very far beyond the scope of our imaginations to think that a combination of wearables, cameras, biomodifications and nanobots may someday be able to guide and shape a surprising number of things about our lives – whether their intended purpose is to care for us, change us, or watch and police us so that we don’t get out of line.

As my friend and I talked further, we wondered aloud about what the implications might be on our psychology if we began to exist in a world with so many enforced guardrails. If everything becomes safe, in-check, and under control in daily life, will humans miss all those tiny little thrills and come to crave a new way to get a fix? And where would we turn?

One obvious answer might be virtual reality.

But can a virtual life satisfy? Can it fill the gap? And if virtual thrills don’t pose as many real-life consequences and dangers – will our appetite for thrill seeking increase? Will it become addictive? And what impact would that have on our mental health? On our perceptions of ourselves? On our real human connections? On our perception of life and death and the roller coaster of all of the good and bad things we are supposed to experience in between?

Sure, at the end of the day, this is just a nerdy daydream about driverless cars and human nature.

But maybe there’s something to think about. Maybe I should think twice before putting even the mundane everyday choices on autopilot. Could I lose something subtle but important if I do?

Who knows?

Excuse me while I pass someone going way too slow on MoPac.

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