The Capitalist Assault against Individuality

Google’s Brin: Individual car ownership needs to go | CNET

What’s the difference between Google and socialism? Not much.

A long time ago an excellent mathematician and member of the Southern California Federation of Scientists (whom I had the privilege of knowing very well) had made the shocking argument that by eliminating automobiles and levying a tax that is equivalent to approximately half the average of cost of individual car ownership, it is possible to fund a complete fare-free transit system that can pickup everyone within 100 yards of their residence and drop them off within 100 yards of their place of work with less than a few minutes of waiting time and use a lot less gas than having a million cars on the road daily.

In fact, he was not the only one. Numerous “idealists” had crunched the numbers and demonstrated expanded bus service could be a much more efficient transit system,

financially and energetically relative to individual car ownership. They were never taken seriously, however. With the Cold War still fresh in our memory banks, they were dismissed as “pinkos”, closet socialists, avowed communists or scientists too naïve about the intricacies of capitalism, but they were never proven wrong or inaccurate in their estimates.

The strongest argument against this thesis was that people want to express themselves through their possessions, especially through their cars, and they want to have the freedom to go anywhere at any time. This need for personal expression has driven marketing for over a century, and it was first described by Thorstein Veblen in his prophetic delineation of the Leisure Class. His theory serves as the foundation of modern marketing. Simply put, it states people in the “leisure class”–those with substantial free time and disposable income–will want to express their individuality through the things they do and the objects they choose to possess. They will become individual brands, and companies have capitalized on that need to be unique.

This is why people drive hot rods, and others like to dress up their iPads, and yet others insist on wearing ugly clothing, and yet others feel the compulsion to spend outrageous sums on luggage. The classic battle between Alfred P. Sloane and Henry Ford confirms Veblen’s theory. Ford insisted that nobody cares about the style or the color of the car. Reliable black, reasonably priced autos were all that people wanted. Sloane demurred, and successfully grew General Motors to perhaps twice the size of Ford motors. Ford’s defeat was so resounding that the company ultimately caved and started offering other styles and options at different price points.

It is hard to imagine what the car industry would be without all the innovation it made in styling, engines and powertrain solely to generate sales, i.e., for the sake of marketing. Nobody needs a 400 horsepower engine with a 6-speed closely spaced manual (or automatic) transmission that propels the car and the driver to 60 miles per hour in less than five seconds. Nobody needs that, but life without the 1967 Corvette Stingray would hardly be the same, whether one owned one or not.

And, that’s why the good scientists at SCFS were foolhardy in their ambitions. They couldn’t see the speed with which progress is achieved in the capitalistic system’s exploitation of human desire. The abolition of car ownership is a fool’s errand.

Unless the fools in question are the billionaires who are shilling their own automobile guidance system.

The billionaire’s version of transporting people in identical metal boxes is a lot better than the left-leaning academic’s version of moving people in identical metal boxes. Money apparently confers more authority to these men than all the centuries of experience of the dedicated mathematicians and public servants.

The most salient aspect of the Google position on autonomous cars is the fact that it ushers in a definitive, devastating end to the century of innovative product design and engineering in automobiles; and end to Veblen’s theory. If the Google vision for transportation comes true, then we will never, ever see another classic like the 1967 Corvette Stingray, or the Ford Mustang, or the Ferrari Testarossa, etc.

Even if the car manufacturers somehow managed to preserve their brand identities in autonomous cars, what would be the point behind having an autonomous Corvette if all one could ever do in it is watch it navigate a perfectly safe course at an optimal speed determined by a decision tree inside some nested algorithm on the clouds that Google operates.

Just like everyone else!

That’s the lamentable point in this argument. The car will cease to be a personal choice, a toy. One will never be able to slam one’s car into gear and to peel out. One won’t ever have the option of opening the throttle on one’s muscle car and  passing the freeway traffic as if it were standing still and earning oneself a reckless driving arrest. The autonomous car initiative is the death of the automotive mystique. There will be no more innovative engine designs (like multivalve cylinders or rotary engines). As the Google founders imply, there will be a general transportation fund into which everyone will pay dues in exchange for unlimited access to nondescript automobiles whose software and hardware are constantly upgraded by Google, according to Google’s plan, so that the cars operate more efficiently thermodynamically (more efficient engines) and navigationally (better routing algorithms).

Will automakers tolerate such an outcome? Will people? Will “traditional” cars be banned from the roads once autonomous cars have become a majority on the road because humans deviate from Google’s optimal driving patterns and cause traffic jams?

Brin and Page are talking like responsible public servants who have seen and calculated the benefits and efficiencies of centrally operated public transportation systems. The level of conformity that the Google proposal demands from the average citizen, however, is infinitely greater than the bus system proposed in the first paragraph above.

The technology in the Google proposal will track the movement of every single human being. One summons a car with a smart device. The car will then use the same device to sense once the passenger has embarked. De rigueur, the Google car’s position is tracked meticulously to optimize traffic. Consequently, the whereabouts of the passenger are known exactly at all times even if their device is turned off, and Google’s penchant for storing and mining data for patterns will ensure that the passenger’s daily, weekly, monthly and even annual travel patterns are well known with a quantifiable statistical certainty. With the bus proposal above, one simply embarks and disembarks whenever desired.

None of this is meant to dispute the benefits or the merits of autonomous cars, but it is meant to represent the system for what it is: socialism, writ large. It makes no difference that the central authority is Google, instead of the government. This fact makes the scenario worse, arguably.

All cloud computing is, in fact, socialism. More on that point to follow.

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