A Yankee Notebook

October 15, 2017

Smart-Ass Car

MONTPELIER, VT – In the year of my birth Stephen Vincent Benét – who during my adolescence was my favorite poet – published a poem titled “Nightmare Number Three,” an eyewitness account of the revolt of the machines, automobiles that hunt people through the streets, and even telephones, whose cords, like constrictors, wrap themselves around the throats of their victims. Their motive was their disgust at being used for trivial, silly, and immoral purposes. I’ve never forgotten the lesson, and often think of it when I see whole rows of otherwise reasonable-looking adults hunched over tiny screens exchanging unimportant messages with their electronic associates. When, I wonder, will those devices collude (we know they communicate) to destroy the lives and sanity of the people who use their incredible technology for generally pedestrian purposes?

What’s brought this up this week is a twofold assault on my cerebral serenity, which has been relatively undisturbed since I was able to wrap my neurons around the minimum skills required to operate computer programs for word processing, e-mailing, and keeping my checkbook balanced. I was happy – or at least fancied I was – and needed no more abilities to see me through the rest of my life.

But larger life, without my being aware, was moving on and leaving me and my skills in the dust. I can still do my banking with Quicken 2005; my e-mail works just fine (though I still have to remind myself not to respond to opportunities to make millions in Nigeria and Kenya); and I can still compose text – as long as I’m willing to wait, now and then, for the screen to catch up to the keyboard.

This week, in a well-intentioned effort to usher me into the current century, my kids have sent me an iPad full of books and helped me swap my reliable old flip phone for an iPhone, neither of which I’ve figured out how to turn on. So much for that. Concurrently, I’ve been able to upgrade my gas-sipping hybrid to a new model. I’d foolishly assumed that I’d be able to take the various manuals in hand – Owner’s, Navigation System, Entune Audio, Warranty and Maintenance, Warranty Rights Notification, Quick Reference Guide (51 pages) – and shortly assert control of the sleek, unassuming gray beast in the yard. This in spite of having confidently assumed, a few months before, that even at my age I could handle the demands of a leggy, active rescue terrier.

If I’m carrying the proper electronic key in my pocket, the driver’s door unlocks with just a light touch. If the door is unlocked, but I’m not carrying the key, it lets me get in, fasten the seat belt, and try to start it before displaying the note, “Key Not Detected.” Why couldn’t it have told me that before I went all though climbing in? Instantly I suspect it of pedagogical impulses – the ones that motivated Mother and me when our kids were young: “Did you learn anything?”

Before I reach for the brake pedal and On button, it posts a two-line tutorial on how to do exactly what I’m doing. Once it’s activated – you can no longer accurately say, “Once the engine has started,” because you can’t tell – it then advises me to drive carefully and observe all traffic laws. Well, doh! The message goes on to talk about (I think) the fact that reading the dashboard controls and advisories could cause a crash. I’m not sure that’s the gist of it because it flicks off before I can even speed-read it.

A few weeks ago, in a fit of optimistic bonhomie, I punched “Home” on the navigation system and asked the woman who answered (You can talk to this thing!) to get me from Leominster, Massachusetts, where I was, to East Montpelier, Vermont. She decided I needed to go east toward Boston and thence up Route I-93 to Route I-89 at Concord, New Hampshire. I’d rather drive toward Mount Doom than Boston; so I chose instead to go west on US 2 to Greenfield and then up I-91 to White River. But as I approached each exit all along the way, she insisted I get off and go back the other way. I finally said something rude to her, but I’ll give her this: Like Elizabeth Warren, she persisted. Until I finally turned north on I-91. Then she sort of said, “Well, if you’d only told me before this. Follow me.” I tried to turn her off next day, but it took almost a week before I must have by chance hit the button that did it. Haven’t heard from her since.

Last Friday I left Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire and headed home with the sinking sun stabbing at my left eye. It’d been a very bad night the night before, and I was beat. Suddenly on the dashboard appeared an alert: “You need to stop and take a rest.” I was by that time so provoked by the car’s smug self-assurance that I shouted back. “All right! All right! I’ll stop at McDonald’s in Gorham and get a burger and a shake, Will that do you?”

Apparently it didn’t; for in spite of another stop for coffee in Lancaster, the alert persisted, if in somewhat muted tone: “Please take a rest.” But if it was trying to keep me on my toes, it succeeded: I spent the rest of the trip doing all I could to feign weariness to see what symptoms it evaluated in its judgment. I think it was the sensors that record the frequency with which the car approaches the center line on the left and the fog line on the right. But I can’t be sure, and the computer, which is mouthy enough in its advice, refuses to discuss its deliberations.

So the revolt of the machines has come to pass, but not in the bloody homicidal manner of Benét’s poem; rather in a subtle, silent invasion of the senses and a steady undermining of the equanimity of the elderly. Just this morning, when I opened the barn door and approached the car, it said, very distinctly – I heard it! – “Good morning, Dave.”

Photo by Willem lange