A machine can do it for you. Illustration courtesy of Michel Royon/Wikimedia Commons

Recently, a medical professional and I were trying to determine whether our cars are alive or not. The car, we agreed, seems to have “a mind of its own.”

It sounds alarms for reasons that are not immediately clear, locks doors of its own accord and flashes engine light warnings, whose meanings even mechanics can’t always divine. A Turing Test — whose basic tenet is: If something behaves like it’s thinking, then it’s thinking — might find the car is conscious. I don’t know.

Of course, the car is not “alive” in the natural way we think of trees, cats, crows, spiders, amoebas and humans as being alive. Whether the car could not be alive, but still be conscious, is too alarming to contemplate.

But what you can contemplate is why the car does what it does. In other words, why are the car’s arcanely inaccessible computers programmed to do what they do? The answer is pretty simple, in a way: Car computers are a late development in the last roughly 250 years of labor-saving devices. Everything the car does is supposed to save you some kind of work, either manual (you don’t have to press a button to lock the door!), or mental (you don’t have to remember to lock the door!!). All this makes perfect sense if you don’t think about it, as Stephen Colbert wisely propounds. If you do think about it, though, it’s kind of disturbing.

Let me explain.

In a previous lifetime, I used to be a college teacher. A topic many students were very interested in to start every semester was: Things We Shouldn’t Have to Do. For example, every class contained members who took it for granted that Students Should Not Have to Attend Class. Some argued that Students Should Not Have to Read the Whole Book. Others thought Students Should Not Have to Take Final Exams. A widespread belief was that Students Should Not Have to Write Too Many Papers in One Semester (“too many” defined at the discretion of those seeking to write the fewest papers). Students Should Not Have to Cite Sources. Students Should Not Have to Meet Deadlines.

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When I taught online classes, a startling number of students assumed that Students Should Not Have to Follow Conventions of Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation in Online Postings, and reminded me, sometimes quite sternly, of this primal pedagogical fact. (One online student scolded me for violating the precept that Online Students Should Not Have to Read. This was in a literature class.)

In classrooms, we settled most of these issues by directly discussing the overall topic Things We Shouldn’t Have to Do (But We Will Do Anyway). In most discussions, it was often revealed that hardly anybody seems to believe they should have to do anything.

Like, you shouldn’t have to crank windows up and down when the car can do it. Or, you shouldn’t have to slice bread. Or, you shouldn’t have to read a map because a GPS app can do it. Or, you shouldn’t have to remember anything because that’s what computers are for. (True story: A school superintendent some years ago explained to students uncomfortable with her cost-cutting plans that history classes are unnecessary because any historical facts that might ever be needed can be looked up on the students’ devices.)

The world is full — or empty — of things you don’t have to do any more. Someone has already invented, or is in the process of inventing, a labor-saving device for practically everything humans do, starting with the first lawn mowers in the 18th century up to washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, water pumps, chainsaws. I’m not saying these things are bad in themselves, but maybe it’s gotten out of control. Computers are the ultimate labor-saving device that one day will literally think for you, and to some figurative extent, already do.

HAL 9000-sounding voices on the other end of phones make it possible for no one to have to speak directly to each other. Not only should we not be saddled with locking our own car doors, or reading maps, or turning ignition keys, but eventually computers might relieve us of any activity, including brain activity. You could just lie there and do nothing, while everything, including thinking, is done for you. It will be great! You won’t have to do anything!

At this point, I usually noted for the students that this final fantasy of 100% saved labor would be kind of redundant, really, because nature already has a permanent solution to the whole problem of doing and being. A state in which all activity has ceased — including responsiveness, memory, consciousness and brain process — makes up the Harvard Medical School Committee’s definition of death. Perfect, natural, unwrinkled state of doing nothing. The whole problem of being and nothingness solved for you.

What dreams may come while in this state may give us pause to stop and wonder what all this labor-saving is actually doing. But such mentation could lead to what is known colloquially as “thinking too much.” I recall students who, without realizing it, put more mental energy into avoiding the assignment than they would have put into doing it. I’m offering no judgment on this, but merely summarizing the exact irony of it.

I do not like the car conspiring to lock me out.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” will be available soon from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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