Freedom is Messy

2016-11-18

The recent statement by Elon Musk that skeptics of autonomous vehicles are effectively killing people has set me to thinking, especially in conjunction with my current reading of The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr. Given that 40,000 or more Americans die each year in car accidents, Musk certainly has a point. Yet when I extrapolate this line of argument forward to a wide range of human activities, I start to wonder where our freedom and humanity will go. Eventually we might hear similar arguments against human doctors and nurses, human teachers, even human parents. We humans are messy - we get tired, we make mistakes, we go astray, we are imperfect. Yet we can be ethical, we can be caring, we can learn from our mistakes, we can inspire each other to live up to our ideals. To what extent will we lose what makes us human if we cede all activities to machines? Will we become mere pets, doted over (we hope!) but never taking initiative, never doing anything dangerous, never doing anything interesting? Last year I heard Steve Wozniak argue that becoming pets of the machines would be an ideal life; I strongly disagree.

Speaking of freedom, right now I'm also reading Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas. So far it's an engagingly written account of the lengths to which one person will go for greater personal freedom - not just freedom from debt, but freedom for living a more authentic life in the midst of our often inauthentic culture. Mr. Ilgunas owes much of his thinking to Henry David Thoreau, so I'm curious to see what lessons he draws from his odyssey.

And speaking of Thoreau, last night I finished writing the first, rough draft of The Upland Farm: Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life. At 10,000 words or so, it is perhaps more of a prose outline than an actual book at this point. In line with my usual practice, I plan to let it sit for a few weeks and then devote some dedicated days to improving it toward the end of the year. Thoreau, too, deeply valued freedom and authenticity, and I shall attempt to do justice to his distinctive outlook on life in the final version (still planned for publication in time for the bicenntenial of his birth on July 12 of next year).

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