Professor Omri Elisha likely didn’t know exactly which public nerve he was hitting when he Tweeted:
"We memorized phone numbers. We memorized driving directions. No one knew what we looked like. No one could reach us. We were gods."
That dryly joking, Gen X-tinged statement of historical fact had a massively outsized response, relative to Dr. Elisha’s modest 1,500 Twitter followers: To date, it has been retweeted or quoted some 16,000 times, and liked almost 122,000 times.
Amongst the dozens of blue checkmarked retweeters can be found a former CIA spy; the archivist at The New Yorker; a well-known civil rights activist; more than a handful of writers, directors, and actors from stage and screen; and at least one self-described Yogaprenuer. To a person I'm sure they understand how tragically tongue-in-cheek the "We were gods" punchline is, but the real throughline, the idea that resonates so clearly here, is that we’re slipping.
I have an iPhone 13 (the camera is insane) with 1,749 contacts recorded, three separate mapping/wayfinding apps, access to a dozen social media platforms (half of which I’m inactive on), and a cellular signal that rarely fails, even in my bunker of a basement office. Long ago, the smartphone off-boarded my need to remember how to get in touch with someone, or how to get to a place anywhere, or find a car to the airport, or recall the name of that girl my HS best friend had a crush on. All things I was once able to do with my meager human brain… At least, that’s how I remember it.
Technically You’re Still Driving
The ever-smarter smartphone isn’t the only device that occasionally makes me feel obsolete. Just about every time I get behind the wheel of a new car, or even read about a ready-to-launch model, I feel a similar tingle. Even ignoring polarizing "advanced driver assistance" technologies that let your vehicle kinda/sorta drive for you, today’s cars offer an almost frictionless experience.
Forget about the really advanced stuff – massive screens full of infotainment and telemetry, changing throttle mapping or suspension firmness at the touch of a button, illuminated grille badges – even the basic implements used to pilot your car have become one-touch-friendly and utterly predictable. Torque-rich turbocharged engines for easy acceleration. Good brakes on everything, even huge trucks. Accurate (albeit increasingly numb) steering. Excellent tires. Longevity (cars last forever).
Despite and because of all of this, the people who care about driving as a pastime and not just a necessity, long for the excitement and occasional randomness of the past. When, it is often inferred, "you needed actual skill to drive a car." When we were "gods" behind the wheel.
I asked my Twitter followers (mostly car writers who pretend to think I’m funny because I occasionally have an assignment to hand out), what auto experiences they had growing up that their kids might never have. I’m no Dr. Elisha, but the hundreds of responses to the prompt shocked me in their number, velocity, and depth of description. I encourage you to read the thread and add to it.
But the important bit, for the purposes of this essay, are the number of answers that imply a misty-eyed loss of skill, ability, or general freedom, even where the thing missed is generally viewed as "bad" today.
"Sitting middle on a crowded front bench with parent shifting a manual between your legs in a small truck." – JR Hildebrand
"Push-starting a car. Using a manual choke. Hotwiring a car. Driving on the Interstate at 14. AM-only radio. No A/C. Changing points. Setting timing with a strobe. Replacing sealed beam headlights. Lap belt seatbelts. Bias-ply tires. Drum brakes. Replacing a speedometer cable." – Dan Carney
"Telling my mom not to push the autoreverse button on the tape deck because it’d make the car go backwards." – Doug’s Cars
It takes real skill to hotwire a car. Your reflexes and car control have got to be well-tuned to make bias-ply tires and drum brakes work for you in an emergency situation. And, so many people have fond memories of riding either packed together on bench seats, or bundled up in cargo areas.
These things that we lost don’t feel less valuable today. What’s more, they give me, at least, a warm nostalgic feeling about my own past, memories, and people I now rarely see or will never see again.
In 30 years will today’s younger drivers get cocky about how well they could text while driving? Perhaps chide their own kids about how soft they’ve become now that actual self-driving cars are the norm? "When I was your age, we were playing The Witcher 3 in our Model X before Full Self Driving was even NHTSA approved!"
Doesn’t feel as romantic as falling asleep in the "way back" with a pile of comic books and your Game Boy, does it? Nostalgia is a slippery thing, that way.
The Future, Still Pretty Promising
Let me level set: Distracted driving is a mega problem that the auto industry, regulators, and individual drivers will have to work together to solve. And yes, kids today largely lack the motor skills that were once mandatory for "good driving" (re: "safe driving"). But have we lost only skill and gained only mindless diversion?
I would argue no, and here’s why.
To start, I’m not positive we were all that great at driving, anyway. In just the way everyone thinks that their hometown makes the best pizza, or their dog is the cutest, we all tend to be a bit solipsistic when evaluating our driving skills. A study of how people rate their own driving skills, published in 2014 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, found that survey participants rated themselves highly but also applied their own standards of driving excellence.
"As predicted, across all experiments participants believed that they were exceptional drivers – but only according to their own definitions of good driving."
Of course I think my Mom was an excellent driver when I was growing up, because I saw her do a handbrake turn on the ice in a Fiero in February. But it’s also true I wasn’t applying critical standards to that analysis as an eight-year-old.
There’s another pesky but resilient stream of data that throws a bit of cold water on the golden days: We’re all dying a lot less in cars. It was big news when there was a spike in fatalities per vehicle miles traveled (VMT being a stat that helps correct for a larger population on the road) over the last two years.
But when you look at the very long legacy of that statistic, it’s easy to see that driving is safer – fantastically safer, really – as time and technology march forward. The 1.37 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2020 is still radically better than it was during the formative driving years of those skillful Baby Boomer highway pilots.
And the truth is we’re only just starting to understand what today’s technology can do to enhance, not only individual lives, but humanity as a whole. A recent study published in Nature Human Behaviour, co-authored by Dr. Anthony Chemero from the University of Cincinnati, posits that using Google Maps is actually better for my brain than remembering driving directions on my own.
Our onboard computers and smartphones, says Chemero, are actually pretty good at doing the kinds of calculating, memorization, and recall tasks that suck up a lot of the brain’s resources. Freed from having to recall which exit I need, my brain is able to focus creatively on different kinds of problems.
"You put all this technology together with a naked human brain and you get something that's smarter." said Chemero to Science Daily, "...And the result is that we, supplemented by our technology, are actually capable of accomplishing much more complex tasks than we could with our un-supplemented biological abilities."
We were gods. Perhaps. But even today, I like where we’re headed.