This morning while riding my stationary bike, I noticed the lights of a car parked in a drive across the street turn on and the engine began running. I had not seen the driver get in the car, but I was not an observer of everything going on in the early morning, so I continued my ride. The car continued to idle, and after some time I saw the driver come out of the house and get into the car. A heavy frost covered the windows of the car which the driver ignored, and with the skill of a NASCAR driver, he backed out and roared up our little road. Puzzled, I then looked next to me at Mary Ann’s car and realized that his car, like hers, had a back-up mirror, so the frosty rear window did not need to be cleared, and he was unencumbered of that inconvenience as he entered his warmed car.
I’m reading Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head (On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction), and the seemingly insignificant event of the driver preparing his car while inside his house, reminded me of one of Crawford’s astute observations:
“In walking off the field of our shared moral and aesthetic life, we cede that field to corporate forces.”
Cars that can be remotely started, locked, and unlocked are not new, in fact I have one. And there are many more innovations with cars and all the other machines in our lives. The laptop that I am writing on will correct a mistake or underline it in red or blue. For such a poor speller as I, that is an embarrassment saving feature. However, I do not solely rely on the feature because it, like me, is not foolproof. Next to me on the book shelf is a dictionary, and it is worn from use. In fact, when I was searching for the title word of this essay, I found a word I had not known before where comtrol should have been: Comstockery is after Anthony Comstock and is the overzealous censorship of literature, art, and the theater because of alleged immorality. I then Goggled comtrol, but the only word on my screen was control and while the information was correct, I was not searching for it. However, by looking in the dictionary I had the option to read several words on the page where I thought comtrol would be and found a novel word for me. What a delight.
Comtrol is a blended word that I made up while riding earlier this morning, but I wanted to be certain that is was not in use. So far, I have not found it anywhere. It is a blend of company and control, and I think it describes perfectly what our culture has allowed to happen as we, to paraphrase Crawford, have walked off the field of many areas of our lives and given control to companies, such as automobile makers who tell us we only need to look at a camera inside our car to back up. Convenient, certainly, but good? I’m not sure.
By our acquiescence to companies, we are losing our individuality and our responsibility. I recently read an article about a young driver who ran off the road, hit a guardrail, and was killed. Her distraught father is suing the state because of its unsafe guardrail. Sad? Of course, as is any loss of life, but the guardrail did not go into the roadway, the driver ran off the road, hitting the guardrail. Whether the rail was a safe design or not, it was hit by the driver. Where is her responsibility?
Ford advertises the advantages of mirrors for young drivers. Commercials with parents teaching their children to drive show Ford cars being safer because of side, rear, and front mirrors that warn the driver of pending danger like an oncoming vehicle. I pity any parent who thinks her child is safer while driving because of a mirror in the vehicle. Depending on a mirror will probably lead to a young driver meeting Mr. Mayhem.
My point is not to endlessly list recent technologies, but to examine how we have walked off the field of our moral lives granting control to Orwell’s “big brother”. We have allowed our lives to become products of companies by allowing our convenience to override our individual responsibility. We text to friends instead of talking with them. We order on-line instead of going to a store where we might have to have conversation with a sales person. We order our meals from a company that decides what we will have for dinner. Our cars send a text to our cell phones alerting us that the oil needs to be changed. We can “earn” a college degree or graduate degree without ever attending a class. And more, more, more. All of which gives us the sense of control because in all these examples and others, we become isolated in our own heads as Crawford writes with no personal interaction with others. Not only do our lives become hidebound as we walk along, eyes on the screen, our external environment looks as if it has been made by a cookie cutter. Look at the new or renovated buildings in Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta, or so on. Hear the piped-in music in many public places. It is all the same, and we, like so much in our environment, are in danger of losing our individuality to companies which have been deemed as having the same privileges as people by the Supreme Court. And to whom do we complain when we object to the music being piped in at the airport or restaurant or mall? No one individual because it is “they” who decided, and “they” are never there.