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Elks are everywhere
by Thomas Wagner | 9/4/2013
The animals in the forest can breathe: The incalculable risk "human" gets support. Photo © suze / photocase.com

No, we no longer do it without them, without all those tiny helpers who make our everyday lives easier, more comfortable, safer and more efficient, sometimes more colorful, exciting and surprising. Irrespective of where we are, what we do and how we are moving, intelligent systems that assist us are to be found everywhere: at home and on the road, inside and outside, in the office and in-flight, in a train, bus or auto. And I am not just talking about sensor-controlled heating units, fridges that can soon order fruit and vegetables for us, or smartphones full of Apps that supply us with timetables, recipes and weather updates. Automatic transmissions, safety belts, airbags and ESP, even a satnav is long since a matter-of-course standard. Today, the seat massages us, the auto headlights shine round a corner and the relevant assistant admonishes us to stay in lane should our attention waver. If necessary, our wheels brake and if the auto has the right chip it does so in towns without our feet doing anything. In the meantime, we lower the blinds at home. Not that I’ve mentioned any of the other features that assist us if we are too fast or drive up too close behind someone, have difficulties parking, desperately seek a gas station or restaurant. And, and, and ... Being left alone was yesterday.

Is the human-machine interface changing?

Now, ever since time immemorial humans have had a very close relationship to their appliances. So why should things be any different today, in an age of almost total mobility? Anthropologist and sociologist Arnold Gehlen once fittingly described technology as the “big man” – today it encounters us every day in changing guises, be they called “house”, “smartphone”, “Apple” or Internet. While now and then the one or other may worry that the new technologies could not only make the hustle-and-bustle of our lives more comfortable, efficient and safe, but also make things worse, a large part of our hopes for the future rest on such technological solutions. There is no escaping the triumphal march of cybernetics and control technology, of automation and networking. Leaving aside whether it mainly is the “human factor” that causes accidents or makes errors, an electronic system is simply better at saving gas, getting the landing gear out, and adjusting the throttle, or making certain we find a free parking space. One consequence of networking and automation is, however, that our relationship to things is changing, possibly radically. Another is that where trust in technology grows, it may actually get lost as regards our own social skills.

Will in future everything happen automatically?

All the sorts of things that are currently in the process of change can be seen particularly well – alongside the blessings of “smart” technology for the house and pocket, that is – if we cast an eye at new developments in the auto industry. When the 65th Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (the IAA motor show) opens in Frankfurt on September 12, there’ll be countless new assistants on the options lists, things the carmakers believe are indispensable. A good opportunity to study things more closely.

The automobile remains, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “the key Modern technological object”. It continue to be the case that no other object better satisfies our kinetic egos. The only question then is where the combination of independence and automation is going? Are the omnipresenbt electronic assistance systems busy paving the way to a world where drivers no longer enjoy driving? Or are they simply making driving safer and more comfortable?

Will we be omni-connected?

Quite apart from such fundamental questions, one thing is for sure: The new systems first and foremost change the interiors of current models. However much designers work away on the outer appearance, with a seam here or a fold there, however much they elegantly emphasis the face with eyebrows or lashes, and pay aesthetic tribute to streamlining by adding all manner of dynamic lines, lips and spoilers, it is interior design that is starting to change fast.

While fabrics, patterns and materials give the mobile living room a new look, that (depending on your taste and wallet) may resemble more a boat or a lounge, everything else is a matter of interfaces and displays. “Be connected” is the motto. Everywhere that used to boast fine mechanical dials and displays you now find displays and Touchscreens. Built-in or built-on, be it channel selection, engine control, or email downloads, in addition to what they actually display these multifunctional screens all seem to say one thing, and one thing only: I’m here to help!

A brave new world of images?

The brave new world is one of displays. While the automobile has always been a kind of assistance system that expanded our mobile radius, it now seeks to integrate its major rival, the image. And the further the transformation goes, the more the former mechanical bride goes electronic. Which inevitably impacts on the relationship between cars and, as Marshall McLuhan once called it, “social life”. A US newspaper report in the 1950s described the “auto” experience as follows: “It was simply great. There I sat in my white Continental, with a pure silk snow-white Cowboy shirt with lace applique and black gabardine pants. Next to me sat my jet-black Great Dane, imported from Europe and named Dana von Krupp. Life simply doesn’t get better than this.”

Since then, the discontent has steadily increased over the scale to which “autos have become the real inhabitants of cities”. Meaning the final point can be seen on the horizon: fully-automatic vehicles driving you – or at least part of the time, and certainly downtown. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault-Nissan, recently announced a completely automated car: “I commit to present an autonomous auto, a technological revolution, by 2020, and we’re well on schedule.” Internet corporation “Google” and German automotive components supplier “Continental” are, like many others, long since busy developing the requisite technologies.

Do assistants make us lazy?

And we, the users? How do we feel if we are constantly being offered assistance? If we’re no longer trusted to manage on our own? Human beings are not per se perfect. Indeed, we are full of shortcomings. And we know it. Even if our inabilities are a little less dramatic if we take the species as a whole as the benchmark, yet we’re forever having to wrestle with things that we don’t know or can’t do. The one person may always confuse left and right, another may not be able to bang a nail into a wall straight, a third doesn’t know what “phenomenology” means – quite apart from the ability to dance, cut cloth, plane wood, or iron shirts. So don’t we all need help all the time anyway? Shouldn’t we be thankful for all the assistance at hand?

If there were an essentially natural way of helping an individual out of a predicament, by placing a physical assistant of whichever sex at his/her side, then it would soon become clear: It won’t work. On principle. As if there’s something each of us can’t do, then we’ll all need assistants. And who would then be the assistants’ assistants. And who would pay them all?

Thank God we don’t just have shortcomings. We can do a lot. Make a noise, listen to bad music, constantly invent practical things that make it simpler to do what we simply have to do. Meaning we move in a circle on the spot, and that gets us back to technology, machines and appliances.

Let’s be frank: To date, we’ve done OK with all our technical assistants. So let’s see what the auxiliaries and their networked intelligence now have to offer. “Man,” that great comic Loriot claimed, is “the only creature that can eat a warm meal in flight.” Who knows, maybe he’ll soon be able to meet while driving, with no risk, efficiently.