Stand Up, People!

9 September 2015 Fiona Scott-Norman

Stand Up, People!

The future is coming. In November, South Australia will host the nation’s first driverless car conference – and the international consensus is that within 10 years cars without drivers will be commonplace. Our cities will be transformed. Humans, meanwhile, will be permanently relegated to the passenger seat, infantilised into passive meatbags able to text, drink gin and watch cat videos/porn on the way to work.

Okay, that’s not how these technological advances are being framed by a breathless media, but then I think car tech jumped the shark quite some time ago. Vehicles now come with myriad systems that alert drivers to the existence of pedestrians, walls and other cars. You know what else alerts a driver to the existence of solid objects outside of the car? Looking out the goddamn window. Checking your mirrors. Paying attention. You know, the bedrock skill set that used to be required for driving a fast, heavy vehicle.

That plastic brain we have? Our ability to change up our thinking and learn? It cuts both ways. Get a machine to take over a skill set from us, and those capabilities are erased like footprints on a beach. Driving requires a spectacularly high degree of concentration, responsibility and coordination. That’s a good thing, people. In our quest to make every aspect of life 100% risk-free, we’re forgetting that we are astounding. Humans are Terminator-grade adaptive machines, and we operate best when we’re challenged and forced to function at a high level. We do not need to make things ‘easier’; we are helicopter-parenting ourselves out of existence.

I have personal trainers, and I let them push me to do squats and lunges for one reason. So I can get up off the toilet when I get old. I watched my parents lose the ability to balance, to walk, to stand up – to be able to do anything, really, except inhabit their Jason Recliners – and it freaked me out. As a potential future it should freak everyone out.

There’s a reason why standing desks are proliferating and why you’re reading stories claiming that ‘sitting is the new cancer’. Our bodies are designed to move, stand, lope and squat, not plonk 12 hours a day on our arses. Inventing the chair, it transpires, has been a disaster. We’re ruining ourselves in the name of comfort, and I say this as someone who could win gold if sitting were an Olympic event and I had a book in my hand.

It’s well acknowledged that we’re in the midst of the sixth mass animal extinction. What’s less front and centre is that we’re on the brink of an unprecedented skill extinction. Languages are falling like flies, but we’re also at risk of losing handwriting, driving and the ability to flesh-meet. A club-owner friend has joined some dots and noted that dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr are killing live venues. Why go to a band or bar, and interact, when you can pick up by swiping right on your phone? You don’t. You adapt and use the technology that makes it easier.

EM Forster wrote a science fiction short story in 1909 called ‘The Machine Stops’. In terms of accurately predicting the future it makes George Orwell look like a Magic 8 Ball. It’s set in a world where people live underground in small personal cells, and are interconnected only through technology. They’ve lost the ability to live above ground; they have online communities and find personal contact distasteful. The ‘machine’ feeds them, keeps them alive, keeps them stimulated. Every need is met, so when the machine stops, they’ve forgotten they even made the damn thing, let alone how to fix it.

This is the thing, right. What happens if we outsource everything to these tremendously helpful technologies, and are left with a skill set that could be matched by a block of medium tasty cheese? When, heaven forfend, the power eventually goes out?

We’ve observed that animals in zoos need an ‘enriched’ environment to be healthy, happy and to demonstrate ‘species-typical’ behaviour. We hide their food so they have to look for it, introduce predator or prey scents to stimulate them, give them puzzles to solve and unusual objects to challenge them. We make them exercise and think, because it’s good for them. And yet increasingly we do the exact opposite for ourselves.

Ten years. And we’ll be stiff-jointed passengers in our ‘cars’, sniping on social media, swiping left and bored out of what’s left of our minds. This should freak everyone out.

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This article first appeared in Ed#492 of The Big Issue.