Ghost In The Machine

Watching how people drive cars is a study in their true nature.  In a car, much like being online, people feel anonymous and powerful.  They are less fearful of physical response and more likely to be adversarial, aggressive and greedy.  After driving a couple of thousand miles in the past week down and up the crowded east coast of North America I’ve a clearer idea of just how confused we are in this era of human/machine symbiosis.

Internet Disinhibition

Last night as we pulled into a parking lot after a long day of driving, a man backed out of his parking spot without so much as a shoulder check and almost t-boned us.  When we yelled for him to watch out he became incensed and started screaming back about how it was our fault that he almost ran into us.

This was an interesting reaction.  Had he walked into someone on the street he probably would have apologized and backed off, but in his car he immediately went on the offensive, like a small dog barking at someone from behind its owner’s legs.

People do this online all the time, it’s called flaming or trolling.  They shoot their mouths off without fear of consequence.  Technically this is called the Online Disinhibition Effect; an abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions because people feel insulated by their anonymity online.  They experience the same false sense of empowerment while driving.

There seems to be a dishinhibition effect whenever people identify themselves through technology.  This is very odd because human beings are almost always the weakest link in any vehicle being driven or computer being operated.  That they hide their inferiority in the power the machine is truly perverse.

We drove miles out of our way to get off the crowded,
angry interstates

Driving out of Virginia Beach on the worst designed freeway I’ve ever been on we were stuck in stop and go traffic for the better part of an hour while people blasted up the clearly marked merging lane to pull in at the front of the line.  Their behavior was what was causing the slowdown, though they were the ones most angered by it.

The police ended up pulling up to the front and ticketing people who were driving up the shoulder to further slow down the flow of traffic.  People weren’t just making use of  the merging lane, they were pulling out into it to pass everyone else and further compress traffic.  In their cars these people are immediately willing, in front of a large audience of their peers, to ignore everyone’s best interests in order to serve their own ends.  I recently saw a link to self-driven cars and how they will be arriving soon; they can’t arrive soon enough.  Human beings aren’t capable of acting in everyone’s best interests, machines are.

I’m about to return to the classroom and teach students how to make effective use of technology in their lives, but there is virtually no examination of the effects on human psychology by these technologies.  I see it every day when students do inappropriate things online and are then astonished that they are reprimanded for it – they are used to online spaces being a free-for-all, the wild west.  Where they actually are is in a virtual place that is recording their every action.

Whether it’s on the road or online we increasingly identify our selves and our abilities through the machines that enhance us, but the motive power of a car or the communication reach of online tools are not ours to claim, we are merely the ghosts that inhabit and direct these machines, and many people do so poorly without any idea of what they are, how they actually work, and (as a result) how to make them work to best effect.

Humility, civil interaction and a clear sense of our limits seem to be the first victims of our increasingly virtual sense of self.  That so many of us, especially younger people, are wallowing in these delusions does not bode well for the future.  Technology should offer us insight into our selves, instead we are using it to hide our deficiencies.