Making change

One of the most confusing things to attempt is self-evaluation. It might be easy to think that if there’s one person we’re intimately familiar with, it’s ourselves, but when it comes down to it, we realize how hard objectivity is in such situations. Ego is such a loud voice in our minds, it’s hard to hear the little things which might be much more accurate.

Thus, I cannot honestly say how much of these changes I can take credit for, and how much might have come from outside sources that I have subconsciously discounted, but here it is anyway. There are two major changes in attitude that I have undergone recently, and overall, I credit them to my embrace of critical thinking. If this seems dramatic, it’s because of the recognition that changing one’s mind is sometimes hard, especially when it comes to values and ideologies, or anything that we have a strong opinion of, really. Admitting that we were wrong is difficult enough, but more, I have strong suspicions that we have an inherent function within our minds that promotes a firm stance, avoiding indecision and delays; we like to make our minds up once, and then consider this was adequate thereafter. We all know people that are unbelievably stubborn, and it probably has a lot to do with both of these traits. But don’t ask me where I fall on the spectrum myself.

The first item is space exploration. I was born in the mid-sixties, and grew up in the heyday of the space program, following it avidly. I had the toys, and later the model kits, and in fact there is an unbuilt Apollo upper stages kit, dating from 1971, waiting for me to tackle it in the other room right now. When I lived in Florida, I was only 50 klicks from Cape Canaveral, and local cable TV had a NASA channel which would show live launches and operations, and when things were slow, film clips taken from the ISS as it orbited, a very pleasant visual to unwind with. Unsurprisingly I suppose, I also grew up with National Geographic and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, so exploration is rooted rather deeply within me. However, I suspect it’s rooted deeply in everyone, because we as a species have very strong tendencies to explore, and this is possibly a survival trait that brought us through numerous climate and environmental changes, the same kind that may have hastened the extinction of other species that were ill-equipped to handle the new conditions and had no drive to find other, compatible habitats. This is only speculation – it would be very hard to prove what influenced us thousands to millions of years ago – but the drive to explore is undeniable.

While the examples seemed to have lessened a bit now, there are still plenty of people saying that our future is in space; mankind’s destiny is to expand outward, colonizing other planets, and no small number of people are wondering whatever happened to the moonbases we were promised by this time. If there’s one message that is virtually unchanging, it’s that we will eventually exhaust our resources here on Earth and have to seek more opportunities off planet. And up until only a few years ago, I was right there with them.

But here’s the first factor: space is incredibly, undeniably hostile to us. Those space suits aren’t that bulky for fashion’s sake. Space lacks everything that we need to survive, save for the sun’s radiation, and of that it has too much. No planet within reach has any of the conditions we need, nor could they be added or created without an astounding amount of effort, and even then it would be in little bubbles rather than anything even the size of a small town.

That bit about “within reach” is key, because that’s factor two: getting around inside our solar system takes a lot of energy and time; this is multiplied by thousands to millions when we consider outside of it. Even with theoretical energy sources, traveling to another star system would take many decades, but probably a lot more like centuries. This is where all of the science fiction regarding putting travelers in stasis, or having massive city ships, comes from, as well as all the stuff about wormholes and extra-dimensional space and so on.

Quite a few people would argue that these are hurdles we will overcome eventually – we humans can do a lot if we put our minds to it. We will figure out how to create a small self-sufficient system with lean resources, how to limit population growth on century-ships, and even how to cope with bone-density degradation through weightlessness and not going stir-crazy in a small ship. But the funny thing is, if we solve the first set of problems, we don’t even need to tackle the second, because we won’t need to expand to the stars anyway. The planet we have right here is perfect for us, because we evolved on it, and it’d be a damn sight easier to keep in in working order than to try and recreate it elsewhere when it’s broken. This “can do” attitude is wielded with abandon when it comes to traversing space, but somehow not when it comes to staying home. Interesting, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong – I think space exploration is a worthwhile pursuit, and a moon colony would boost this commensurately. But I can no longer consider the idea of humans expanding outward to other planets and/or systems to be even slightly plausible, and I think this is a blind spot that a lot of us have.

The other item that I ended up reconsidering drastically is driverless cars, and so I need to introduce a little background for this as well. I am not at all technophobic, and in fact embrace a lot of the electronic achievements that we’ve been making over the past half-century. But I’m skeptical over the promises that have been made, since most of the pie-in-the-sky predictions have never come to pass, and progress has been significantly slower than we would have liked. But more to the point, humans are a remarkably fast and versatile thinking system, able to absorb and react to unexpected circumstances in milliseconds, and driving is one of those situations where reacting to the unexpected is crucial to avoiding accidents, injuries, and death. Computers haven’t been coming up to speed very well at all in such regards, and the thought of leaving control of a motor vehicle entirely up to a program is worrisome; it doesn’t take much to go wrong, and the frequent updates for any given bit of software does not instill confidence in our abilities to make stable and trustworthy electronic systems.

And with all that said, I am finding myself more and more in favor of driverless cars. The key distinction within is that, while humans can be remarkably adept at handling unexpected situations, this does not mean that we always are. I live in a state where turn signals are somehow considered optional, unnecessary from either a courtesy, safety, or effort standpoint, and the bare ability to remain within the driving lane seems only slightly more important. Pretty much every time I’m on the road now, I see someone doing something stupid (and I imagine that the same might well be said about my driving as well, at least at times – I know from experience that I shouldn’t be in conversation when I’m looking for the next turn.) Driving is less and less considered an activity that requires careful attention and effort, and more a chore that gets in the way of being someplace or doing something else. To say nothing of the impatience and frustration, the teeth-gritting agony of having to slow down and go wide around bicyclists and pedestrians, much less coming to a full stop at intersections.

But there’s something that’s worse, and it’s that we’re a betting species. We play the odds constantly, whether it’s over the chance of a cop actually catching us breaking the speed limit or that there won’t be someone in the oncoming lane right at this very moment. And we’re stupid enough to believe that if it hasn’t happened so far, this trend will continue. Not to mention, I can do something stupid right now because everyone else is supposed to be following the rules – we will count on, actually bet on, other drivers not being as dumb as we are. It sounds ridiculous when it’s phrased this way, but you know how often it really happens because nobody phrases it that way in their head.

And that’s a very important factor, because a driverless car will never try to justify its actions, will never have a line of programming that says, “Just this once.” It won’t get impatient, it won’t drive angry, it won’t fucking hit the road saying, “I’m not that drunk/high/pig ignorant of consequences.” It will never fumble for something that fell under the seat, much less concern itself with texting friends inanely. All of the good driving habits that we have ever been taught will not be things to remember, or stuff used only on the tests and never again thereafter, but part of the program – not rules, but akin to physical laws; there is no option for breaking them.

Moreover, if some of the advances proposed so far come to pass – and there’s no reason to believe they won’t, since they’re not that difficult to accomplish – driverless cars will be far more aware of the surroundings and environment than any human driver. Knowing someone is within the car’s blind spot will be automatic, relayed by short-range IR “radar” or even constant proximity ‘announcements’ from every vehicle; there will be no blind spots. Sudden braking can produce a warning transmitted to every other vehicle in a wide radius behind, and all reaction times to unexpected events will be faster than human and not subject to variation or distraction. Riding in a driverless car may well be quite different from the way we would normally drive, because they will certainly err on the side of caution and won’t take any chances, but who cares? No one would need to be looking at the road anyway.

I’m not unduly optimistic: there will be failures of the system, and accidents, in some cases ones that could have easily been avoided by an alert human driver. But let me suggest an exercise. Right now, within a 30-kilometer radius of where you sit, how many human drivers are doing something incredibly stupid? Or to try a different perspective, how many of the fatal accidents that occur every day have come solely from failure of the mechanical aspect of the vehicles? And of those, how many could have been avoided by the driver utilizing the correct response to the situation? Taking stupid out of the equation will greatly reduce the number of roadway injuries and fatalities that occur. Full stop.

But we have a different perspective on leaving control to machines. If and when a failure occurs, we see it as avoidable, something that humans would not have done, or could have prevented. But that’s true of the vast majority of accidents out there, and not to put too fine a distinction on it, even mechanical failures are mostly human at heart (heh!); improper programming or the failure to anticipate such-and-such situation, poor quality control or inadequate materials for the task. These cars aren’t going to be assembling themselves, even if the factory were completely automated. Yet the idea of relinquishing control is uncomfortable, sometimes galling, and more so if we consider the idea that these lowly machines could do it better than we can.

This is where I credit such changes in attitude to critical thinking. The drive to explore, and the insecurity over relinquishing control, are emotions – traits that worked to help us survive, but not necessarily a rational consideration of the factors involved. “I don’t like it,” isn’t by default a rational response, and in far too many cases it’s just the opposite, a reaction based on thinking biases, or assumptions, or preconceived notions. But critical thinking, and most especially the process of debate, provokes us to examine the responses, to build a case for our standpoints, to know ourselves – at least a little bit.

And there’s another factor. As mentioned above, we don’t like admitting that we’re wrong, and like it even less when someone else does it for us – we see it as losing a competition, as silly as that seems. But we can do it for ourselves, internally, by simply arriving at a better solution; we’re wrong, but we’re also right for correcting ourselves, you know? Much better than someone else beating us to it.

Does that make this post one ridiculously long humble-brag? Probably, though I’d like to think it was still making a point about examining one’s values. But what the hell – you’re the only one reading this anyway ;-)

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