Culture

Our Robot Overlords

Traffic at a terminal at LaGuardia Airport (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Gypsy cabs, robot cops, and the human condition.

Waiting on a taxi at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, I ran into a robot cop.

Perhaps you’ve seen these latest innovations in law enforcement. The NYPD robot looks like the offspring of a union between R2-D2 and one of those covered trash cans you see in national parks, and it makes an incessant and annoying whirring sound that has nothing to do with the operation of the machine — it is a generated sound effect that some consultant, no doubt highly paid, believed to be high-tech sounding. The robot does a few things: It gets in your way, it provides as prop for tourists to take pictures with, and it contributes to the panopticon of surveillance that now encompasses our public spaces, taking audio and video.

It is marginally less useful than the average American “public servant,” which is a kind of remarkable negative achievement.

Flying into New York, you’ll have some time to contemplate the robo-cop, because you will wait approximately forever for a taxi. That’s New York for you: There are robots at the airport, but it is damned near impossible to take an Uber or Lyft like an ordinary civilized person, while the line for a taxi stretches to the horizon before doubling back on itself.

Getting into and around New York gins up a pretty good case for anarcho-capitalism. The highly regulated airlines and airports are nightmares of fecklessness and bristling with hostility. (Except for Swissair, where the check-in and boarding process was conducted with stereotypical brisk efficiency. The Swiss tourism bureau’s motto should be: “Everything Works. Bring Money.”) During the busiest part of the afternoon (especially rainy afternoons) the yellow taxis all but disappear from the streets of Manhattan, owing to a shift change scheduled at the worst possible time of day. Uber and Lyft are much more reliable in those situations.

But what you really want is a gypsy cab. (I assume we’re not supposed to say “gypsy cab” any more, but that’s what they’re called, damn it.) We ran into a snafu that required us to get from Midtown to City Hall and then back to Midtown (but on the other side) in an almost impossibly short period of time, and it was pouring rain. There were no taxis to be had, but an off-duty black-car driver pulled up to the curb with one of those cash-only propositions they make from time to time. We explained our situation. He smiled and quoted us a sobering tariff. We paid it, happily, and the gods of punctuality were propitiated at the expense of seven or eight minor moving violations that hardly made a ripple in the vast wine-dark sea of rush-hour traffic on a rainy day in New York.

I am writing this column from Italy, which has a reputation (as Europe generally does) for being more tightly regulated than the United States. And perhaps it is. But if it is, that regulation is so tightly woven into the fabric of society as to be nearly invisible. Our itinerary here involved driving across a considerable piece of Italy and a slice of France, too, and the two things that have really stuck out from the driver’s-eye perspective are that Italy’s roadside spaces are considerably more attractive than those in the United States (not only in places where the beauty of the landscape is overwhelming, but also on ordinary stretches of road in the Roman exurbs, where some Italian Lady Bird Johnson must be looking after them) and that one sees so few police cars and so few traffic stops. The Italians are said to drive like maniacs (and they sometimes do) but there is an order to it. The Italians may have had 63 governments in 65 years, but they know what a passing lane is for — and, if you don’t, they will help you to understand.

The more people are inclined to follow the rules, the less rule enforcement you need. The more people know what they need to do, the less they need to be told what to do. (I write that in the knowledge that Europe has traffic cameras, and that I’ll probably be getting automatically generated speeding tickets in the mail for the next six months; that’ll be another column.) That was the basic cultural theory of America: that our Anglo-Protestant forebears were so deep-dipped in the Protestant work ethic — and so constantly mindful that they might be called before their Maker at any moment to make an accounting of their lives — that they didn’t need a king bossing them around. They bossed themselves around, like enlightened people do — that’s classical liberalism in a nutshell.

They had a wider and richer conception of sin. We are very heavily tilted toward the “Thou Shalt Not” in our own time, and give insufficient attention to the “Thou Shalt.” This has some unhappy consequences. As Megan McArdle has argued, the fact that our sexual ethics have been almost entirely reduced to the issue of consent has robbed us of an ethical and moral vocabulary for describing — and complaining about — other aspects of sexual encounters that make us unhappy, as though coercion were the only conceivable wrong. (Funny how our progressive friends swing so wildly between libertarianism and Stalinism, depending on the subject.) There is more to the question of how we treat other people than “Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder.”

Our Puritan forebears were not worried only that they would go to judgment with some positive offense on their permanent record (murder, adultery, invoking Satanic powers to Goody Brown in spectral form and pinching her mercilessly in retaliation for her unseemly pride in her knitting) but also that they might have lived their lives with insufficient prudence, thrift, husbandry, and sobriety. They were concerned about what their lives said about their relationship with their Creator in the here and now and not only about what would happen at some future moment of eternal judgment.

The cartoon version of Christianity (and of religious mandates more generally) is that believers are like fearful children who creep and cringe and sneak so as not to provoke punishment from the magical father figure in the sky — who is always watching, always making a record, always keeping score. That kind of superstition, we are told, is outmoded. “We are responsible for ourselves, now, and we know right from wrong,” says the enlightened atheist. “We don’t need some magical sky father watching over us to keep us in line.”

Of course not. We have robots for that.

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