In Praise of Bad Driving: Kant’s metaphysics of freedom celebrated by Kerouac’s On The Road

Have we now forgotten how to drive? It feels a little that way after emerging out of Melbourne’s Covid lockdown winter into spring and the promise of freedom. I’m not sure if that explains a lot of the bad driving I’ve noticed since venturing back into Melbourne traffic.

Or was it always this bad and I’ve just forgotten? Maybe the impatience I’m wittenessing in not only others but my own driving is that we all think we’re still in front of our computers where there is less friction and human interaction. Where the only accidents are virtual or the computer crashing.

Queenscliff Rod Run – Victoria, February 2021 – photo, Joel Plotnek

There are lots of reasons for car accidents. But perhaps less reasons for bad driving. Bad driving like good driving is a habit we develop. Habits are cultivated within the environment in which we find ourselves. Whether a habit is good or bad is a value judgement as much as anything else.

And our habits are valued by our culture as much as they are formed from our intent. Ultimately we determine bad driving as unsafe driving. Driving that could endanger lives. Arguably all our road rules and road etiquette are grounded in this one value of self preservation (some might say, self interest). For it is not just lives we are concerned about but our own life in particular.

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who coined the word Enlightenment also rejigged the Golden Rule into the categorical imperative. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you1 was transposed as “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”2 Apart from an ethics of self interest and self preservation, this was a long winded way of saying that our human will should determine our ethics.

Kant was arguing against the Newtonian mechanistic universe in which we become robots determined by our environment – our natural urges, passions, animalistic impulses and drives. Kant’s metaphysics of freedom posited a rational independence in which we exercise free will.

The paradox is that Kant’s metaphysical freedom has conceptually enslaved us through layers of representation that remove us from being grounded in the reality of the real world. Representations are things that stand between us and the real world. Things like cars and computer screens for example.

Matthew B. Crawford in his book, The World beyond Your Head, describes how we have become disembodied from the real world through automated technology that doesn’t require us to think too much about what it is we are doing.

Driving a car is a prime example when compared to riding a motorbike. A motorcyclist is more connected to the road than a motorist in a car. When you are riding a motorbike you have to think and concentrate more on what you are doing. For example, steering is counterintuitive from the way you turn the front wheel to where you look – don’t look at the distractions which is the natural impulse but look at where you want to steer.

The sensorimotor data to successfully ride the bike is inextricably bound up with a host of mechanical contingencies.3 Speed is gauged from the feel of the road from the tyres to the wind in your face. In other words, it takes far more skill and attention to ride a bike than it does to drive a car. The information reaching our sensory receptors is more raw, more tactile and immediate on a bike.

Compare this to driving a twenty-first century car in upholstered plush comfort facing a digitised console decked out with automated features.

I am distanced from the direct sensory experience of the road, encapsulated in a sound proof bubble, absorbed from bumps and potholes, guided by radar sensors, buffered by power steering, with my driving data glowing on a digitised automated console in front of me.

The car I drive beeps if I drift out of my lane and slows down automatically if I get too close to the car in front of me. It can even reverse park without me touching the steering wheel. The speed of my car is mediated through a speedometer that I can digitally enhance and manipulate.

The on board computers and engineering disengage much of my mediated sense of the road compared to the motorcyclist hugging the road in the roaring wind slung over a vibrating chassis.

Crawford sums up this increasingly techno digitised detachment from the real world by a comparison with older more functional technology. “The wealth of information presented by an older, harder-edged, and lighter car elicits involvement; you have the palpable sense that it is your ass that is going sixty miles an hour.”

“Such existential involvement demands and energises attention. This is why driving a light, primitive sports car is so exhilarating. In a variation on the old funk dictum, we might say, ‘Involve you ass, your mind will follow.’ And conversely, ‘Free you ass, your mind will wander.’ … having some skin in the game would seem to be an important safety variable.”4

What this and other technologies that remove us from the friction of a connected physical world amounts to for Crawford is a disconnection, a disembodiment of the world beyond our head. Crawford argues that the world is mediated through our bodies and interactions with others; not through data and automated technology that drives us to greater and greater efficiencies.

“The fetish of automaticity and disconnection can’t be called a ‘technology,’ if we insist that the proper standards of technology are simply those of function. Rather, it is the tendency of a peculiar consumer ethic that has embraced Kant’s metaphysics of freedom. Disconnection – pressing a button to make something happen – facilitates an experience of one’s own will as something unconditioned by all those contingencies that intervene between an intention and its realisation.”5

Our advanced automative engineering has reverse engineered our ethic of good driving. While we ostensibly praise good driving by wiring it into our road rules in the interest of preservation of life and property, we are in actual fact promoting bad driving through our sophisticated car designs which cushion the reality of the road from our sensory experience.

And this lulls us into a world inside our heads which dulls the friction of reality outside our heads. We praise bad driving by designing cars that promote distracted driving – even though this is not our intention.

Our automated cars, distraction technologies and virtual realities create frictionless, mind-less-of-others, self absorbed souls.

As Crawford puts it, a “more fragile kind of self that is posited in contemporary ethics and fostered by contemporary technology. The freedom and dignity of this modern self depend on its being insulated from contingency – by layers of representation.”6

Covid has turbo charged this fragile self by removing even more friction with the real world beyond our heads. Covid forced us to live inside our heads more than ever.

Our advanced automative engineering has reverse engineered our ethic of good driving. We promote bad driving through our sophisticated car designs which cushion the reality of the road from our sensory experience.

Much of Melbourne was shut down for six months over six lockdowns between 2020 and 2021. In lockdown we could only venture outside our home for essentials – essential shopping within 5 kilometres of home and essential health care within curfew daylight hours. Most of us were restricted to working and studying at home.

What happened to us in that time? Our world become frictionless. No travel by car or train to the office and back home. You rolled out of bed and wandered into the next room to work in front of a screen. Shopping was click and deliver. We could shop at local supermarkets but for most other retail therapy we stayed home and binge shopped on line.

And contact with others beyond our immediate household was fractured to speaking through masks, phone calls and on line meetings. Many of us became more productive because there was less friction. Instead of 2 or 3 meetings a day, you could now hold half a dozen. We worked longer because we had more time stuck at home. Some of us loved it. Many of us came to loath it. Life morphed into hyper reality glued in front of screens and machines, communicating in clicks and beeps.

Then suddenly we are released from our virtual realities. We navigate back into a real world filled with people bumping into us, queuing in shops, jamming the roads, getting in the way. It’s party time. Time to celebrate and be human again.

But part of us remains turbo charged from the hyper de-sensitised digital reality of screens and machines. Our fragile selves became more fractured. I think it helped breed an increased impatience. Covid didn’t bring this about. It was already brewing in our consumer ethic driven technology. Covid just ramped up the acceleration of virtual reality, disenfranchising our souls from the friction of the real world where we are grounded and connect with others to find ourselves.

Being grounded is the necessity of having to put up with other humans – the imperfections and neediness of others demanding my time and attention. Technology helps remove this human friction of skin on skin, by mediating our human exchange with images, language, money – all artificial representations of the skin in the game, blood, sweat and tears of personal exchange – the ecstasy and agony of our earthed souls.

Who is this distracted frictionless soul behind the automated wheel? This post Covid apocalyptic road slowly filling up with a roar of speed and rush as the economy sputters back into gear? Where is it taking our collective souls?

Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, On The Road (1957), invented a genre of road trip odysseys. In our rear view mirror we see a celebration of freedom in the freshly minted teenager represented by automobiles and the open road. It reverberates in the self determination and identity of macho heroism from American Graffiti to later apocalyptic themes in Mad Max and Zombieland.

Such freedom refracts in the irony of human identity unchained from the sun where God is dead (Nietzsche) and history ends (Fukuyama). Our poets sang it in the eighties with R.E.M.’s It’s the End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (1987) and Talking Heads, We’re On A Road To Nowhere (1985). Life on the road searching for meaning in a meaningless void. A void divorcing us from creation, the world outside our heads.

A void veiled by a virtual hyper matrix made out of plastic representations from technology and money. The twin Baals of our age. Sacred cash cows. It breeds an irony; a self aware agnostic state of mind that recognises its despair but hopes for its salvation in inflated idols. It also breeds psychosis, an inability to discern reality from delusion which accelerates into schizophrenia.

Kerouac streams this schizo-consciousness when he writes. “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”7

Kerouac exhibits an earlier drug induced virtual reality preceeding video games and on line portals into alternative worlds of shopping, false news and streaming movies and TV shows. The evolving alientaion of the human soul that still believes in self fulfilment through empowerment. But it comes at the cost of distraction and disconection from each other.

But coming out of Covid lock down I am more inspired by the hopeful lyrics of Bruce Cockburn in his ode to grounded humanity in Making Contact.

Step outside.. take a look at the stars
Catch a glimpse of the way things are
Making contact…

Smell of fresh sweet oil on skin
When you move on me like the tide coming in
Making contact…

So many ways to understand
One for every woman and man
Been that way since the world began

I hear the drumming of surf and I have to dance
Stepping to the rhythm of circumstance
Making contact…

I feel so huge… I feel so small
I feel so good I want to swallow it all
Making contact…

Making contact
Swimming in an ocean of love

Making contact
Swimming in an ocean of love

  1. Matthew 7:12
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative
  3. Michael B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2015) p. 56.
  4. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, p. 80.
  5. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, p. 80.
  6. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, p. 69-70.
  7. Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 2, Chapter 8

Photos by Joel Plotnek


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