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Technology has without a doubt improved society — the convenience, the efficiency, the ease with which we communicate, the endless information we have at our fingertips. Yet there are holes in the technological umbrella under which we find ourselves.
Like most everything in our world, there are negatives associated with each positive. Technology has desensitized us to the world around us, reduced the importance of face-to-face communication, taken away a measure of accountability, and in many ways made us observers of our world instead of active participants.
I see this in countless places. But maybe I see it most in the death of the manual transmission.
On the top 10 list of Robert’s Most Significant Life Moments, my 16th birthday is at the pointy end. It was the first step to enjoying true freedom. Unleashing a teenager to a vehicle is risky, scary, and dangerous. But it is necessary.
I have always loved driving. I love cars. I love trucks. I love anything with a steering wheel. At the same time, I am hopelessly ignorant of how vehicles operate. I cannot, with any measure of intelligence, discuss the intricacies of engines, gear ratios, the differences between different year models of the same vehicles outside of their physical appearance, or any other such compontentry.
But I love driving. I love changing gears. I love having as much control over my vehicle as possible.
I learned to drive a stick when I was 15. My mother had a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle with a four-speed. As my 16th birthday neared, each afternoon, I would back the VW out of the driveway all the way to Gaskin Avenue. The I would drive to the end of the driveway (less than 100 yards), stop, back up, and do it all over again. Time after time, day after day, I performed that exact same exercise. It taught me starting, stopping, and, of course, finding reverse in a temperamental German car.
One day, I decided to grab second gear. I had forgotten that the brakes didn’t work very well. I backed out a little farther into Gaskin, popped the clutch, and accelerated. I found second gear about parallel with the laundry room window.
My shift was flawless. But once I shifted, I immediately had to slow down. I hit the brakes. Nothing. I downshifted. That helped but I was running out of concrete. I grabbed the emergency brake and pulled. The car started slowing down but it was too late. The car rolled into the azaleas at the end of the driveway. Thankfully, no one saw it and no one ever said anything about the giant gap in the azaleas that remained until Mom and Dad moved a decade later.
Before Zean, my younger son turned 16, I taught him to drive a stick. I actually bought a car with a six-speed specifically to teach him. Heather thought I was crazy. So did Zean. Begrudgingly, he learned. Now, he is in an ever-shrinking minority of teens who can drive a manual.
Driving has always been an experience to me, not just an activity. With the right vehicle, under the right circumstances, the driver and the car work together as one. The driver gives the commands, the car responds. The car does nothing without the driver telling it to.
That’s not the way driving works now. New cars speed up, slow down, shift (or, in the case of electric vehicles, don’t shift), dim the lights, brighten the lights, and, with regard to an increasingly more popular option, completely drive themselves. Drivers are becoming systems monitors as opposed to operators.
In short, driving is becoming an observational activity instead of a participatory one.
In a way, that’s what is happening in our society as a whole. We would rather share, like, and comment than we would call, meet, and talk in person. We call people we’ve never met or talked to our friends. We sit back and react instead of getting involved. The bubbles in which we live create a lack of accountability, one fueled by the perceived anonymity and lack of face-to-face interaction of the Internet.
Technology has opened up a world of possibilities. At the same time, it has closed many more. We are becoming passive observers as opposed to active players.
Despite being more connected than ever, we are losing our connection with the people and the world around us.
It’s something I often think about while I’m driving — shifting gears the whole time.