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My Car and I. Who’s in Control?

Jul 26, 2023

Stuart Sutton





Control is the essence of driving: If you lose control of the car, you crash. I’ve learnt this the hard way.

The relationship with the car is complex. The more I think about it, the less I’m convinced my actions fully control it. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the car controls me.

No piece of technology is passive.

Cars do have forms of agency. Agency, as in the ability to initiate change.

This agency means it engages with me as I engage with it.

Its alarm going off isn’t a passive act. It’s a call to action, prompting me to engage. In that moment, the car isn’t just an object. It becomes an agent that shapes my decisions and behaviours.

In ways, the car doesn’t just do my bidding. Or just fit into my plans. In ways, it reshapes them. Perhaps in ways I’m not even aware of.

We’re uncomfortable at the thought of machines that control us. Sci-fi often plays on this fear.

They interact with the world. They shape our environment, body, identity, and experiences. They’re ingrained deeply in our social behaviour.

Yet, we still like to think we’re in control.

After a long history of human-centric thinking, we may need to reconsider our tech relationships. Who controls who?

We need multiple perspectives to shift our understanding of technology.

I’m using 13 different ways to consider my relationship with my car here. There are infinitely more than 13. (13 is my lucky number.)

The car’s more than a tool. The car disciplines your engagement with the world. It moulds you, your mind and your body.

To master the wheel is to learn the car’s controls. And quirks. It’s a craft learnt through training and tests.

To drive in the UK isn’t simple. There are many, many rules. Highway codes. Regulations. And a series of unwritten rules of the road.

The car defines the rules of engagement, the courtesies and rudeness allowable within the bounds of highway architecture.

It’s about learning to stick within the lines — literally and figuratively.

You don’t learn to drive. You become a driver.

The car transforms my connection with the world as I cruise down the motorway.

The car transforms into an extension of myself.

On a fundamental, existential level, the car becomes part of me. It has become an essential part of my cognitive framework.

It alters my senses and changes my feel for speed, distance, and time.

This integration of man and machine redefines and refocuses my understanding of the world.

The car and I exist in a relationship that’s more than just transactional — it’s symbiotic.

I rely on the car for many things.

It’s not just a convenience but an enabler of my modern life.

In return, the car demands I attend it. It doesn’t simply operate. It requires upkeep.

We’re locked in a cycle of mutual dependency. The car extends my capabilities. It gives me speed, mobility, and a sense of autonomy.

At the same time, it relies on me to remain operational to thrive in its mechanical life.

If I don’t meet them, there’ll be repercussions in my life.

The car is a complex ecosystem of needs and interdependencies.

This is an amplified version of the extension relationship. The line that separates me from the car can sometimes vanish, especially when the speedometer needle ticks upward.

It’s not just my control of the car. At speed, the relationship turns organic and synergetic.

I don’t think: accelerate, brake. They…happen. This deep sense of interconnectedness makes us indistinguishable. In these moments, it’s more than just driving. There’s a calmness. Almost religious.

It’s as if our separate identities dissolve to form a new hybrid being of meat and steel. One with unique senses and responses to the world. We interact with the world in ways we can’t alone.

Sometimes, I talk to the car. I treat it like a person, like a companion.

We live together. And we go out into the world together. I talk to it. It talks back.

Sometimes, we don’t see eye to eye, particularly on which gear is needed.

But when the skies darken and a storm hits, turning a journey dangerous, it’s not merely getting me from A to B. It’s getting me there safely, fighting through rain, sleet, or snow.

My gratitude isn’t just a polite nod to a helpful appliance. It’s heartfelt. Thanks to a trusted partner who has seen me through thick and thin.

Our relationship isn’t purely functional, one of use. It’s emotional, nuanced, and, in many ways, inexplicably human.

My car isn’t just a luxury. It’s a necessity of my daily life. My functionality is tied to the car.

It helps me juggle work, commitments, family visits, and errands.

I’m dependent on my car.

When it’s unavailable, my world shrinks. What was once a quick drive becomes an arduous public transport journey, or worse, an impossible feat.

But this dependency is not just physical. It’s psychological, emotional, and social.

I need my nice car to validate myself. The brand, the model, the condition — all of these are signals to the outside world about who I am, or at least who I aspire to be.

And when it’s unavailable, my usefulness shrinks.

The car empowers and constrains me. It shapes my life and choices in a tightening loop of reliance.

My car is a prism. It bends and refracts how I interact with the world.

Each trip becomes a story in its language of distance, speed, and fuel efficiency. A tale told by instrument binnacle.

The car doesn’t just transport me from one point to another. It’s a middleman that actively translates, negotiates, and even dictates the terms of my existence in a motored world.

Traffic signs, road furniture, and other cars are elements in this mediated reality. I react to them, but the car’s limitations and affordances shape my reactions.

The story of my driving is never just my own. It’s intertwined with countless other stories told before.

From the invention of the wheel to the freedom promised in car ads, these cultural texts colour my perception of being in a car. Some I’m aware of. And some operate on a subconscious level.

As I navigate winding rural roads, motorsports and car ads are in the back of my mind.

It has to be jazz on dark, rainy nights, driving through the city. Like I’m in a scene of a 50s film noir. The ambience becomes a character in my driving experience.

And it’s not just about the glamour or the excitement. Even the nitty-gritty aspects of driving — like fuel economy and car maintenance — are framed by a societal narrative.

Sometimes, the narratives create a cognitive dissonance between what I feel and what I think I should feel. News stories tell me what a responsible driver looks like. Or a motor show tells me what a good owner should do.

These stories add nuance to my driving life.

My car is where personal, cultural, and commercial narratives converge. Intertextuality turns a simple drive into a complex web of interconnected stories.

The car, despite its promise of connectivity, is also an isolator.

Traffic jams expose the paradox: Despite usually being choked by cars, motorways are lonely places.

I turn up the music, lean back into the seat, and for a moment, I could be in a spaceship, light years away from human civilisation.

The car’s interior is a sanctuary, an enclosure that keeps the world at arm’s length.

Even when I park, the disconnect lingers. I take a breath before I open the door. I relish the last moments of isolation.

The car allows me to hover between connection and detachment. But the scale may tip. Perhaps each drive nudges me closer to a reality where the outside world becomes irrelevant.

The car is an observer, a data-collector.

When I drive, it’s not just me watching the road. My car watches me.

And it isn’t passive surveillance. The car judges me silently.

The car’s silent judgement may echo louder than I realise.

Every data byte is part of a narrative it constructs about me.

And this data narrative doesn’t stay confined to the car. It joins a vast pool of information. Perhaps it’ll influence broader systems. Insurance rates. Traffic planning. My car’s observations become part of a larger tale told by numbers and graphs.

And it’s not just the data. Every scuff on the alloys. Every piece of rubbish I’ve left inside. Every scratch, scrape, or bird poop.

All these create a feedback loop affecting my self-perception and how the world perceives me.

My car’s building a profile. My car tells stories about me. It’s a story I’m unaware of but one that exists, nonetheless.

Being in the car alters how I see people — other road users and pedestrians.

I’m nice usually. But on the road, not so much. In the car, empathy slowly evaporates.

It starts with begrudged etiquette. I begrudgingly let people in. Offer lazy thank-you waves. Forced nods.

On the road, I become less tolerant. I project unwanted aspects of myself onto another, who then embodies the rejected traits and becomes a target for attack.

Within my car, upon my throne, I pass judgment like a mad king.

I’m impatient. Rude. I swear. A lot. I mean a lot. My frustration is loud and fiery. Emotions heightened by the anonymity my car provides.

In the world behind the wheel, the lines between human and inhuman blur. The world is stripped of humanity. Or at least I am.

The Greek version of the word machine is makhana or mēkhanē, which suggests a tool or cunning device. I like that.

Here I am, behind the wheel. I steer. I accelerate. I brake. I’m the master of this domain. I’m the one in control. I’m the one calling the shots…right?

But what if the car has its own ideas? What if it’s all a bizarre, ironic strategy on the car’s part, this show of false complicity?

There are moments when I feel like the car resists my input. The engine revs too high. Or too low.

I can’t shake off the feeling that my car enjoys these little acts of rebellion.

My car has this seatbelt-tightening feature. It’s just a little too aggressive.

It subverts my sense of mastery. It cast doubt on this simple, ego-soothing idea that I’m in control.

In a world where we consider ourselves the controllers of technology, the car controls me in numerous subtle, ironic ways.

It’s as if the car chuckles to itself. It’s as if maybe, just maybe, the driver isn’t the only one in the driver’s seat.

The idea that the things in the world lack agency is improbable.

However, a more radical thought gnaws at me. What if my car isn’t just resisting my control? What if it actively subverts it? What if it contains an evil genie that grants twisted versions of my wishes?

Technology is never what it seems.

In a Heisenberg-esque manner, when technology is pushed by analysis and meaning, it changes.

The more I think about the relationship between myself and my car, the more I question my audacity to understand or model anything.

That uneasy feeling I get. That’s the car’s way of reminding me: Beware the evil genies of the world, for we don’t just lurk in lamps but in every complex system you dare to think you command.

In the introduction to his notorious novel Crash, J. G. Ballard says, “If every member of the human race were to vanish overnight, I think it would be possible to reconstitute almost every element of human psychology from the design of a vehicle like this.”

In that haunting line, Ballard captures the essence of the car as more than metal, rubber, and glass.

It’s like a cast of our world, complete with all the nuances, contradictions, and dark corners of the human experience.

However, to view the car solely as a stage for human action is a grave mistake.

Don’t assume that the car is inert and passive. There’s more to reality than the human-centred perspective. Technologies are always more than they appear to be. They continue to operate outside our perception.

As it sits on the driveway, it’s interacting with the world. Even in seeming stillness or silence, the car exerts influence.

My actions or intentions don’t totally control my car. It has activities and intentions of its own. It can have effects and impacts beyond my immediate interaction with it.

No piece of technology is passive. It has an agency. Agency, as in the capacity to act. As in the ability to initiate change.

Its agency extends beyond the obvious, often quietly dictating the terms of our interaction in ways I don’t fully comprehend.

And it’s this agency that defies my attempts to control or reduce it to mere machinery.

I ← car → worldI ≈ car → world(I ↔ car) → worldI ∩ car → worldI ↔ (car ∩ humans) I ⇒ (car ⇒ functionality)I → car → worldI ⟲ car ⟲ world I × car ↛ worldcar ↔ data ↔ I ↔ world (I ÷ car) → (others — human)I ↶ carI ⇠ car