New York Magazine

WHAT HAPPENS TO AMERICAN MYTH WHEN YOU TAKE THE DRIVER OUT OF IT!

THE SELF-DRIVING CAR AND THE FUTURE OF THE SELF

If I WERE ASKED to condense the whole of the present century into one mental picture,” the novelist J. G. Ballard wrote in 1971, “I would pick a familiar everyday sight: a man in a motor car, driving along a concrete highway to some unknown destination. Almost every aspect of modern life is there, both for good and for ill—our sense of speed, drama, and aggression, the worlds of advertising and consumer goods, engineering and mass-manufacture, and the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signaled landscape.” In other words: Life is a highway. And the highway, Ballard believed, was a bloody, beautiful mess.

At the time, Ballard was still a relatively obscure science-fiction writer whose novels portrayed a future beset by profound ecological crises (drought, flood, hurricane winds) and psychotic outbursts of violence. His work notably lacked the kinds of gleaming gadgetry that decorated most sci-fi. But by the turn of the 1970s, he had begun developing an obsession with one technology in particular: the old-fashioned automobile. Cars had deep, mythic resonances for him. He had grown up a coddled kid in colonial Shanghai, where a chauffeur drove him to school in a big American-made Packard. When he was 11, during the Second World War, the Japanese invaded Shanghai and the car was confiscated, reducing the family to riding bicycles. A few years later, his world shrank once again when he was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where he remained for over two years. He emerged with a visceral horror of barbed wire and a love for “mastodonic” American automobiles (and American fighter jets, which he called “the Cadillacs of air combat”).

For Ballard, the car posed a beguiling paradox. How could it be such an erotic object, at once muscular and voluptuous, virginal and “fast,” while also being one of history’s deadliest inventions? Was its popularity simply a triumph of open-road optimism—a blind trust that the crash would only ever happen to someone else? Ballard thought not. His hunch was that, on some level, drivers are turned on by the danger, and perhaps even harbor a desire to be involved in a spectacular crash. A few years later, this notion would unfurl, like a corpse flower, into Crash, his incendiary novel about a group of people who fetishize demolished cars and mangled bodies.

Over the course of a century, Ballard wrote, the “perverse technology” of the automobile had colonized our mental landscape and transformed the physical one. But he sensed that the car’s toxic side effects—the traffic, the carnage, the pollution, the suburban sprawl—would soon lead to its demise. At some point in the middle of the 21st century, he wrote, human drivers would be replaced with “direct electronic control,” and it would become illegal to pilot a car. The sensuous machines would be neutered, spayed: stripped of their brake pedals, their accelerators, their steering wheels. Driving, and with it, car culture as we know it, would end. With the exception of select “motoring parks,” where it would persist as a nostalgic curiosity, the act of actually steering a motor vehicle would become an anachronism.

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