Do you have Google Alerts set to your name? Alex Roy does, and when he received a notification mentioning his name in an article by Patrick McGinty about AVs in The Baffler, he did what anyone would do— he cold-called the author, who happens to teach at Slippery Rock University. McGinty sits down with Alex to talk about how AVs are portrayed in the media and the insights his students can offer on the topic.
Hey everyone, this is No Parking: the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving technology and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy. Now I have to confess, I’ve got Google Alerts set to my name because I am very superficial and I want to know when people are talking about me. A couple years ago, I got a notification that my name had popped up in a column in a really cool magazine called The Baffler. So I clicked on it instantly and the column title spoke to me directly. It was called Driving into the Wreck. Tech writers have their own brand of auto fiction. This speaks directly to me because I’ve been saying for years that writing and journalism around technology in general, but especially autonomous vehicles, is not the best. I made my career trying to improve it. The author of this column’s name was Patrick McGinty, and the column was a series of book reviews about books about autonomous vehicles. I’m named in it and so are my colleagues Kirsten Korosec from TechCrunch and Ed Niedermeyer from the Autonocast podcast we do together. It was a very, very well written column and I agreed with almost everything McGinty said about these books. He has some great one liners and this one is right up top: Pros had out run the product. This is something that’s true about literally all the marketing and all the hype and all the media around almost any technology coming out of Silicon Valley, but especially true around autonomous vehicles. Here’s another one about Tesla, which at the time of the quote was called Tesla Motors, but check it out: Tesla Motors, which has made more autonomy promises than any other and against which the English language ought to file a restraining order. That’s some writing right there. And of course, it is because McGinty is an English professor at Slippery Rock University. He teaches multiple classes there, and I thought “I want to talk to this guy.” So I called him up out of the blue, and got him on the phone. Apparently he was teaching a class about how to understand media narratives. And he had decided to use autonomous vehicle narratives and media coverage for the first one, and what he learned is amazing. So I thought “Mickey, just come on No Parking and tell us how you got into self driving cars, and what you learned from your students.” And you know something, please just roll right into it.
Professor, it’s good to talk to you.
It’s good to talk to you too. Thanks for having me on.
So what ignited your fascination with self-driving cars?
I was in my backyard one day. And I live in Pittsburgh so there’s a lot of activity with driverless cars in the city and I knew they were around. I’d seen news stories about them, I’d seen them around but something about seeing one driving down my alley, which is very rocky and very gravelly and very not not safe in general. Something about seeing one just go 20 feet away from me going down the alley with a test driver piloting it in some way, I just sort of had one of those moments where I was like, “Man, I’m really behind on this.” This is really happening much sooner than I thought. This is in this alley, and this is not a good alley. So that was kind of the inciting incident and because I’m an English instructor and a nerd, I then started wanting to read about it and started wanting to go find more. So it wasn’t just my interest in driverless cars, it was starting to read about it and starting to think that this kind of conversational space is in some sectors kind of empty and in other sectors really evolving. It was sort-of like the Wild West and trying to corral itself into some sort of way in which people can talk across disciplines and within this discipline and make sense to one another. It was almost as if my interest in it became more in how people are talking about it than the technology itself.
What year was this?
This was 2015.
The early days.
Yeah. Well, relatively speaking. And I even went back recently to check thinking I’m sure I missed some stuff. I’m sure I was just looking in the wrong places trying to find stuff about driverless cars, but you can go back and read them, and not just random library database searches like 2014, 2015, and it’s kind of funny to see some of the stuff that’s in in legit places, like legit scientific journals, but it’s written like an SEO prediction based way. And I’m like, “Man, this is kind of wild.” I mean, hey, academics need their publishing credits. I’m not trying to hate on anybody trying to get some work out in the world. But some of that stuff was just thin back then.
I remember reading in 2011 that Google had self-driving cars they were testing in California. It seemed incredible. It’s impossible. We know something. I guess it makes sense. It’s inevitable. And then we heard nothing for four or five years until 2015. I saw a headline that I guess Tesla said that they were releasing this autopilot thing, and no one knew what it was or what it was going to be. And Uber saying they were putting in this order for 100,000 self-driving Mercedes with delivery date TBD. And I’m like, these things don’t make sense to me. And also, you talk about an over reliance on metaphor and analogy. I feel at that time in 2015, the metaphor that I saw everywhere was “tomorrow’s already here”. It’s happening faster than ever before. Tell us about what kind of metaphors you found that were red flags.
Yeah. I mean, figurative language is not the worst thing in the world. Similes, metaphors, these things are very helpful teaching tools. They’re great. They help us ease our fears, like saying this new thing X might be scary, but it’s kind of like Y helps people start to get used to a new topic. I’ve peddled this my whole career, like back when I was a teenager teaching tennis lessons. I’d be like, “Hey, scratch your back on your serve and say hey, this isn’t that scary, we can all sort of get into this.” The problem is, at a certain point X is definitely not Y, though. You can’t keep saying, “Well, X is just like Y… driverless cars are just like this, or it’s just like that.” At a certain point, you have to move past figurative language, past sort of simile, past sort of hype.
You know, there’s certainly value in it and this is something I thought about a lot in my class: How to get people interested in the subject matter. You get them to feel comfortable and familiar enough to sort of participate in it. But also make that segway to X is sort of like Y, but it’s not like Y. You can’t just rely on figurative language, on simile, on sort of hype. I remember seeing stuff that would say AVs are the smartphones of the road and all of these comparative things that just don’t really track. It’s sort of like that, but it’s obviously very different from that. So that was one I remember, just that this smartphone analogy, smart cities, smart phones, smart car, just that sort-of parallel construction across a number of different articles, that at a certain point, I’m familiar enough. I’m invested in the topic. I’m interested. I want to know more than what it’s kind of like, I want to know what it is. I want to know what the actual issues are. It’s one thing to say X is kind of like Y but like, your name is not Ally Rocks. It’s Alex Roy. You can’t just switch sort of the similes and metaphors around. A lot of smartphone stuff was kind of the thing that maybe helped me initially kind of think about it. And the more I looked at it, I would think the word smart is just kind of being thrown around. All the time, on everything.
Is there anything that makes you crazier than hearing “smart cities”? Like there were smart cities 1000 years ago through people who were just intelligently thinking about sanitation. And let’s put a street here, let’s make sure that people have a way of getting to the farming territory. Let’s be sure things aren’t too far apart. And none of that required silicon.
Yeah. When I think of that year, I think of my roadmap. I remember those news stories you’re talking about. I don’t go quite as far back as 2011, but definitely all the buying 100,000 of this and ramping up for that. But yeah, something about the word smart in particular was something that I feel stuck out to me as being just kind of a placeholder word, a kind of a nothingness word.
So you talk about the gap between what you call emergent innovation and how the media covers these things. Talk to us about that and why do you think that is?
I mean, and this is not to belittle journalists, writers, anything. It’s hard to keep up with how fast these things move, and also to be expected to condense that information into small, simpler articles, tweets, etc. Part of my interest in this is that I graduated college in 2008, into the housing crisis, and I didn’t really understand much about finance. I had some friends who were going to work in finance, who I’m not sure they really understood what they were going to do. For years, I started just wanting to read every single thing about the financial sector. And it’s wild rereading some of those books and how they really don’t explain what a credit debt obligation is, or what an asset backed secure is. Sort of in these books, and this is Michael Lewis. There’s a book by Gillian Tett that’s good. Good reportage, great quotes. But they’ll start writing about some of these derivatives and be like, well, it’s kind of like if you had a pizza and you cut it into 16 pieces and then two of them went here and you’re just thinking like, “Oh, wait, I don’t have a job because of a pizza?” like what is happening here? So the financial sector was in the financial instruments of the 2010s and the first time I really was thinking things are happening so fast in technology and some of these very bright journalists, years later even, are struggling to keep up. I think it’s gotten much better but it’s still a challenge. On one hand, I’m saying don’t use a simile, give me the nuts and bolts and the nitty gritty. But on the other hand, I’m saying, well, these journalists need to try to condense this into a small format to be digestible to wide audiences. It’s a real challenge. One of the things that really excited me about the driverless car sector is that, I’m sure to many in the driverless car sector, it’s kind of a bummer that things are taking maybe longer than some of those hype articles in the 2010s made it seem like. But from my perspective, I think it’s great that the discourse is getting a chance to catch up to it. That I can teach a class to first year students to actually try to close that gap to where we’re not just seeing something in the world. Not seeing it and not having conversation but we can see it being tested. We can now, at this point, have more of what I think are really good books about it. We can have some great writers doing some better work about it. We can have courses about it so that things aren’t necessarily running ahead of where the discourse area is. Because it’s hard. I’m from a somewhat privileged perch. Many journalists have to think about sources, have to think about all these different parts of their jobs, how many articles they have to hit per week, per day. All these different parameters that are tough to hit, whereas as a university professor I sort of sit back and craft what I want to think over many years and, and whatnot. But it’s definitely a challenge. And then some of the things about our contemporary media climate don’t make it easier, but it’s something I personally wanted to try to take on myself just to be like, “okay, let’s see if I can take some college students and really try to look at the things that are emerging in the world and talk about them instead of waiting a couple years to have some perhaps tortured metaphors be delivered to us.”
You know, I’m a little older than you. I’m almost 50. I remember as a kid when I was 10 being in Europe on vacation with my family. There was a crash of a Russian plane at the Paris Air Show, which was a big thing. My dad really wanted to go, we didn’t go that day, and there was a crash. In the years that followed, that became a very famous crash. It was a Tupolev T-144, which is the Russian copy of the Concorde. Not long after that, a couple years later, there was a crash of an Airbus and an Airbus was kind of a new thing back in the 70s and 80s. And I loosely remember being, I guess I was 12 or 13, reading and hearing on the news that pilots – American pilots who were really loyal to Boeing – were saying if it’s not Boeing, we ain’t going. The news media were all about how Russian planes, Russian technology was terrible and European planes, Airbuses, just couldn’t be trusted. That was ingrained into me for many years and until I forgot about looking at what planes I was flying. A couple of years ago there was a book by, I don’t know if I can pronounce his last name, William Langewiesche. He writes in The New York and Vanity Fair a lot. He’s a deep dive investigative journalist, like an adventure journalist. He went and interviewed the senior engineer who worked at Airbus in the 70s and retells the story of the birth of automation in planes. He interweaves that story with the story of the Miracle on the Hudson and Sully Sullenberger. I realized how surface level my knowledge as a young person was of emergent technology, or even fairly old technology. The Russians were making plans for decades prior to that crash. Airbus went on to become one of the two big aircraft manufacturers with a safety record as good as or better than Boeing’s today. And yet I grew up only remembering these messages based on what the media at the time put out and that it sometimes takes, as you pointed out, years or decades for an author to reveal the story of the world.
This is skipping ahead a little bit but there’s one day from this class we’re about to talk about that I’ve thought about more than any other since it happened. I walked into class one morning. I think it was November 21. It was the week before Thanksgiving and the classroom was just buzzing. People are talking about some truck, they’re talking about Elon, they’re trading phones. Some people are being defensive. Some people are this, some people are that. And this is an 8am class. I just got up, I went to class, and somebody handed me their phone and they’re like, “You’ve gotta see this cybertruck thing.” That was the morning of the cybertruck reveal and the window smash that spread across the internet like that window shattered into a million pieces and for like a second I was like, this is kind of amazing. These students are telling me about what’s happening. The course is kind of working; they’re dialed in, they know what’s going on, they’re talking about this. But then after sort of debating it and whatever I remember this one student just being like “What does this have to do with what we’re talking about?” Is it a driverless truck? No. Is it driverless cars? No. It was kind of this moment of like, wow, we just got sucked into like the day’s newsiness so fast. We’ve done so much good work all term being rigorous and really developing arguments and unpacking issues and doing all this stuff. And then so fast, like they all knew that things spread like wildfire. I came in that morning and all the students were talking about it and they were all very conversant with it before I even knew what went on. We had to take a step back and be like, “Wow, these things – the loud events, the loud noises – spread so fast.” We know instinctively that this stuff happens – what spreads online, what has the kind of virality – but I was just thinking about when you’re talking about that crash and the types of narratives that emerge. It’s funny how that became a talking point all over AV Twitter that day, or just my classroom or whatever. And it didn’t have much to do with certainly anything we were talking about in our classroom. It was sort of tangentially related and yet it kind of took up all the air in the classroom that day. I think about that day a lot as far as my students knew before I knew what was going on, but also us collectively being like, this isn’t directly related to anything we’ve really been discussing this term about driverless cars. It’s kind of like a truck with a window. It’s kind of related but you are talking about how those narratives spread and which ones get big and which ones are memorable. It’s always important to think of what’s echoing loudest throughout an immediate echo system, and then how that reverberates across the years. You’re talking about, but it still takes you years to unpack it.
It seems to me as if it must be genetic, like encoded in us as human beings to share bad news. Because by sharing bad news, as ancient hunter gatherers, you’d avoid predators. You would know that a crop might be bad. Somebody who’s experienced the terrible storm hears the sound of thunder in the distance and warns everyone to get to shelter. That instinct lies within us and is amplified and accelerated by modern media. It’s like a cybertruck isn’t autonomous and yet that he is releasing a truck is as important as anything else on the news that day. So how did your class about autonomous vehicles start? And how did the Oral History Project begin?
The oral history project began because I didn’t want to just dive into this course about driverless cars talking about driverless cars, which sounds maybe counterintuitive. I really wanted to start talking about the history of innovation and really kind of just deflate it. I was teaching this class in 2019, which is still kind of fairly hypee, at least as I was preparing the course in 2018 and 2019, things were maybe at a higher pitch. People are still trying to hit these 2019, 2020, 2021 timelines that are sort of still hanging out there in the universe. I kept thinking of how to deflate some of the rampant skepticism, some of the hype, some of that. Trying to just take a step back and say a lot of this is fairly similar to things that have gone on. It’s new, it’s different, it’s worth discussing. But how do we sort of ground ourselves in other historical trend lines, other sorts of technologies that have been properly hyped, properly anticipated, overly feared, overly hyped, under hyped? How do we start making sense of, not just this technology, but all technologies? What can we learn from the past? And I wanted to do it as an oral history project. To be clear, this project was way too busy. In retrospect, this was their first big project. There’s way too much stuff going on. I had them interviewing older people they knew – grandparents, great grandparents – about these 20th century technologies. I had them doing research in library databases, all trying to stitch together quotes that sort of told the lifespan of a 20th century technology to try to get them to say, “Okay, what can we learn from other technologies?” How can we go into this discussion about driverless cars properly calibrated not too high and not too low? I sort of hoped we’d get a good mix of projects that would not have people be too excited about driverless cars thinking they’re coming tomorrow or to blanket skepticism about it.
Probably the best part of the assignment, and they did all sorts of terrific things. Some of them I’d never heard about, some of them I never thought that much about. But one of the best things about having them do an oral history project was getting them to talk to people older than them and then these people continuing to be part of our class. I had grandparents reaching out to me being like, what are we reading this week? Or people who’d say their uncle wants to know what we’re doing. I had, for the first time in my career, parents following me on Twitter, which was kind of bizarre. I’m not a big tweeter. Don’t go there getting your hopes up. But I would maybe say something and some parents would be like, “Haha, you’re hilarious.” Thanks, Dad. Good to hear from you. So the oral history project was a way to get people talking about this technology before it launched with both my students and any population they could come into contact with and just have those conversations happening. Some things went well with it. Some things I would do differently, but that was kind of my idea for it in initiating that project.
So what’s your balloon theory that I’ve heard so much about?
Yeah. As I said earlier in this conversation, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, similes, analogies. Let’s not overuse them.” Now here I’m like, “yeah, let me feed you an analogy of mine about theory.” It’s related to what you were just talking about: some of our human nature about how we talk or spread bad news. Many people I know, when they hear about a new technology, some people just almost subconsciously start hyping it, wanting it, pre-ordering it. Sort of blowing air into the new thing. They want it and they don’t even have it yet. They haven’t touched it. I have many friends like this, whether they’re loyal to some brand or something. They want the thing. They’re already sort of participating in the hype cycle almost subconsciously. Other people like to just tear down and doubt things. It’s dangerous. My mom always thinks everyone’s going to need a procedure or surgery in 10 years because we don’t know the unintended consequences of ABC, whatever new thing. This idea that a lot of us, subconsciously, are either just blowing air into the new thing or sucking air out of it real quick without even really looking at it, observing it, talking about it. And to be clear, I’m a pretty cautious person. I would make a bad roboticist. My sense is that as a roboticist, you kind of have to stretch the balloon out. Try to blow it out, try to do different things, try to find more of what that is. I grew up next to a rocket scientist who works at Carnegie Mellon. He was always riding gyro-overs that went to Mars on the back patio and doing crazy pogo sticks. He was always getting injured and always having these injuries in our backyard. For him, that was part of his career. And he’s also doing things more hands-on experimentally from a more discourse perspective, or a more conversational perspective. Before I’m putting air into something or sucking all the air out of something, I’m just trying to sort of look at the balloon. Hear what some other people have to say about the balloon. Talk about the balloon. Think about what it could do. Maybe I’m too cautious, but conversationally, linguistically, culturally, I’m just kind of slow in that way. Other people are different. But I think that was kind of one of my ideas. I wanted to go into this class, let’s try to slow down the process of blowing all our hype into this idea, or suck all the air out of it. Let’s just try to actually talk about it for a while.
But it seems like the best balloon metaphor is, if you want a balloon to last, just tie it to something you trust, like a chair. If you let it go out the window, it’s really cool until it pops.
You know, aside from the history and their words tied to some of the things we’re doing in the class, that’s maybe a different metaphor for how to think about the balloon theory, too.
So I’ve been checking out this Twitter account called “pessimist archive”, and this guy gathers headlines from the 18th and 19th century that are the biggest pessimists in the media like riding a trail will make your head explode and reading books will make women infertile. You’ve got to stop elevators or they absolutely will cause brain damage in young children. So, what are the examples of the craziest, I guess, technical optimism or pessimism that you’ve seen as part of your oral history project? Because these kids are obviously coming back with examples.
You know, there was a really good one about washing machines. Which at first you think like, washing machines? But a few injuries around washing machines got really publicized. We’re talking about 30s and 40s but somebody’s hair getting stuck in one and stuff that got people really nervous about washing machines. But then gradually over time, they use less water, they’re safer. They’re more regulatory. Now I don’t think anybody really thinks twice about a washing machine. There were also some great quotes in that project about particularly older women like grandma’s talking about how it radically changed their life. It opened up more time in their days. This new technology, and some of their grandparents were nervous about some of the injuries around washing machines, but ultimately it opened up their days to something else. One student did one on the Virtual Boy, a Nintendo console in the 90s. I legitimately did not, I mean, I would have I thought I would have been up on this. But the Virtual Boy was a huge console that was sort of like very early VR. But it started causing lazy eyes and in pre and under seven years old kids and it only lasted like a few months. So that was one where people were like, super excited about this. Maybe some listeners remember the Virtual Boy. It’s one of those things where when you Google it, one of the first things is “Does the Virtual Boy cause blindness?”, which is never a good sign for anything. And then another interesting one was self checkout machines which are automated for a lot of the, I don’t know, hyper consternation or worry or up and down opinions on them, they do just seem to kind of exist. They have a role society has not cratered, nor have they become completely ubiquitous. It was kind of an interesting project for them to present a lot of the really optimistic perspectives and really negative perspectives and how then it kind of just wound up as being a thing that’s in a lot of stores that some people use and some people don’t, it was kind of an interesting project in that way.
It’s funny that I generally don’t like them. The fact that you can choose, and there’s no price difference between them is weird because I wonder what it incentivizes. I guess people self-select into: got to get out of here, do it myself, I’m faster. And then there are people who self-select and try that and end up needing help anyway. There’s always someone standing around, ready to help. And then there’s me, when I’m feeling lazy, where I’d rather wait in this line to be on my phone, even if it takes 10 minutes extra. So I’m wondering how much efficiency gain there is? I guess, if there’s any efficiency gain, it’s good for the retailer. I’m not sure how good it is for the end user. I’m gonna go down to the CVS and just watch.
The best thing about those presentations was just starting, like any good presentation or book or anything like that, to pay attention to the world more. In Target, having just read that presentation, I’d be like, this is kind of weird. Not weird, but it’s had an interesting integration into society that I would like to read a longer book about. I haven’t really gone digging.
I guess if you go back in time, people in the Middle Ages were probably super technical optimists around alchemy. Like we’re gonna turn this to gold and it’s gonna be amazing.
I’m gonna have to get someone on to talk about coverage of technologies that literally never worked. I suppose in the modern era, like cold fusion. Every five or six years, cold fusion comes back. And then all the arguments about how ridiculous it is go away. There is an example of techno pessimism, or techno fear, which has worked, and not to our benefit. That’s the fear of nuclear power. Because there were a couple of incidents, you know, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. What those really show isn’t that nuclear power is inherently bad, but that anything at scale that’s poorly managed, or not well designed, is unsafe. It doesn’t matter what it is. But nuclear power seems like it would have long ago solved a lot of the issues we have with fossil fuels. And yet, here we are burning coal. There’s a book that just came out about that, I got to go hunting for it. Anyway, so your class is in three phases. You’ve got the oral histories, and then you moved the students into what you call Unit Two, placing driverless cars in historic context. What does that mean?
We start with doing trend lines and talk about have we been overly fearful, have we overly hyped, etc. Now we have to start actually talking about driverless cars, which was a challenging thing to know where to start. We kind of needed a tour guide. It’s kind of like, in an ideal world, I would have had us read almost six books for like six different perspectives but these are first year students who don’t necessarily have an interest in driverless cars. This is sort of a seminar class. And so I needed to kind of pick one very generalized book. I went with Sam Schwartz’ No One at the Wheel. Other books were a little more specific to a company or specific era. I needed something that was a broad range of sort of an overview and it eventually went great. It didn’t go great at first, just because, you know, books. And this is a super readable book. I mean, this is a very accessible book, but like books, to some of my students, they were a drag. And to be honest, and I think I can speak frankly, that you and I are both very fatigued by certain parts of the AV discourse, or certain tropes or certain things about it. And the funny thing is, they kind of are fatigued, well not fatigued, but just uninterested in a different way. They’d read a chapter on rush hour congestion and be like, “Well, when’s rush hour?” Or they’d read about the trolley problem and be like, “What’s a trolley?” Things that we’re maybe sick of in a different way, like I’m sure you don’t need to talk about the trolley problem ever again for the rest of your life by this point, I have a few students interested in it but one student was almost just like “So a trolley is? Did this happen where there’s trolleys going down…?” Some of the ways in which we talked about AV’s were almost not applicable to their lives. I mean, the driverless car vernacular that’s developed over the last decade or two is interesting through how some of it just wasn’t that interesting or interesting to them yet. As far as issues about congestion or traffic or commuters, some of those chapters that they just didn’t have a vested interest in, whereas they would eventually sort of find areas that really spoke to them.
I always come back to the elevators. It’s hard to talk to a kid about rush hour because they’ve never had to commute to work every day. Go back to the 1880’s. How would you talk to someone about the inconvenience of waiting for an elevator if they’ve never had to ride an elevator for any reason other than once in a lifetime as a tourist? Because if your only experience is as a tourist, you’d LOVE to wait for the elevator. This is the coolest thing in the world. You get to go up, you get to look around, you get to come down. And so you can’t even fathom that it would matter because elevators are not fundamental to their lives.
It seems like it’s very difficult to make a period film about technology. Has there been a good movie about Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla? Of course not. Because when you make a movie about people in the 19th century, and we’re seeing the lights turn on for the first time, they conceive that it’s like magic. It’s over in five seconds for a modern audience. And yet, for the people in the film, their life has changed. That’s almost impossible to do in an entertaining way in the same way that I suppose you could tell kids today: Imagine if you could teleport. Well, you can make a movie about it but it’s unlikely to change their behavior in the near term until they get in one.
It’s why popular culture often looks to the future just more for a variety of reasons, predictive, speculative, but just frankly, more exciting. You’re very right. It’s sometimes hard to capture those moments of grandeur from the past. You can appreciate a person experiencing that, but you’re not experiencing it freshly with them for the first time. Whereas when you’re looking to the future, you are experiencing that thing for the first time.
You’re closing the circle now, because if I consider the science fiction of my youth that really affected me, it was the fear of AI and robots that came out of seeing the Terminator when I was 13 or 14. Seeing that just wrecked me. Like, “Oh my god, the future nuclear war and future AI robots. We’re so screwed.” And yet, you know, Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man. What is it, Short Circuit? All these other movies were like robots are cute and cuddly and nice and sweet. Those didn’t resonate with me at all. And so I think it goes back to our predisposition to echo bad news. Repeat bad news, if only to protect ourselves on an individual and maybe on a species level. Nobody goes back and raves to their friends about how that movie was so good and the robots were so good. It’s just not baked into us. Alright, when you talk about driverless cars, if I had to rank the most common headlines about vehicles that can drive without a human,
I think driverless comes in second or third because self-driving cars are first. And then autonomous and then driverless. But it seems like each of these words is code for something else and that people project onto them very different things. What were your conversations like with your students? I mean, when did you realize that there were such different interpretations of these words?
This was one of the toughest things about teaching the class because you are very much like me where this stuff kind of drives you nuts. You’re interested, like I am, in accuracy and specificity and sort of trying to figure out what’s the right term, who’s maybe doing a little autonomy washing or who’s doing something that’s a little bit skirting or muddying the water a little bit. The problem I quickly realized, because I wanted to do like a whole module on this. This is me, a nerdy English professor really wanting to look at different headlines and do this different stuff. The problem is, teaching people who aren’t naturally invested in it or coming to it freshly, I didn’t want to create a classroom environment where they were nervous about participating or nervous about expressing their opinion or feeling like they were going to say the wrong thing. To be frank, that’s a hard thing in a lot of college classrooms. You really have to sort of create an environment where people feel comfortable to participate. You ideally don’t want them saying derogatory things or mis-naming people or doing things that you’re trying to create in a respective environment, but you also have to acknowledge in a first year classroom that they’re not going to be saying things correctly. I’m putting air quotes around correctly. They’re not gonna be agreeing, they’re coming to it fresh. So one of my things, and it was very counterintuitive for me, Alex, because you know me. I hear full self driving or I hear this or that and I’m thinking like, “Okay, what’s going on here? This is some chicanery.” But I had to kind of corral myself a little bit. Pump the brakes a little bit and be like, “Okay, if they are talking about it, if they’re participating in the subject matter, they’re bringing their ideas to it.” I’m going to choose stuff that I think is using the correct terminology. I’m going to choose people and we’re going to listen to podcasts that talk about these issues. I think we listened to you on Autonocast. We listened to you on one of these. We listened to a couple of different things that talked about these issues. But there’s got to be a different expectation for somebody who’s coming to it fresh and you’re trying to to keep in the fold and keep interested and not say you’re saying things the wrong way or this is wrong. Have you thought about this? Have you thought about this? Versus what we expect of a company, of a journalist, headlines or things that you’re talking about that are kind of like, “okay, what’s going on here?” So it was a challenging thing for me to negotiate. Because just because I’m really interested in it, it doesn’t mean that all my students need to be really interested and sort of obsessed with it. That was kind of one of the challenges in teaching the course. I want them to be mindful of it, I want them to be using proper or more thoughtful language around it to think through those issues. I was mindful that the course was not a technical course. It was not for engineers. But I knew they would be nervous about how they talk about this. What is the language? I mean, you can even hear it in the way I’m sort of going back and forth about it. It was a sort of thing where somebody in class would say something and I’d wanted to be like just chill, they’re making a point about something else, it’s about a larger thing. It’s more specific to who they are, where they’re from. It’s connected to a larger idea.
I didn’t want to discourage people so long as it wasn’t crazily wrong. It was interesting, Alex. Even class to class, I had three different seminars, the terminology was heard. Every class had their own sort of way of talking about it just based on what sort of terminology certain people use. So it was interesting for me as an educator, because it’s something I can totally nerd out about and love reading about and love listening to people like you talk about. But at the same time, I have to be mindful of where my students are coming from and that I want them invested in the discourse for the long haul and to make it a longer process instead of the first day being like, “Okay here’s what we need to say,” and everybody gets on board.
So what were the differences between how the three classes talked about this?
I remember one class we’d say driverless cars, driverless cars, driverless cars. One class definitely got in just AVs, AVs, AVs. That was the one distinction that I remember in week five or six realizing they’re using different language about these. I was bringing it up from time to time, and we would talk about it. But again, I’m always trying to be mindful in my classes of what I’m interested in versus what I need to do as an instructor and educator. I have to be mindful of their interests. Not just grinding things to a halt to say I want to unpack this issue that I’m very interested in versus you all are interested in how it’s going to affect your careers. Or you’re all very interested in the environmental benefits or this energy and you want to keep the wheels running. I don’t want to throw the brakes on that locomotive to have a semantic discussion even though I’m sure my students would say I did that all the time. They might listen to me saying that I didn’t put the brakes on and they might say, “Actually, you did throw the brakes on quite a bit” to sort of have these discussions. But usually between AVs or driverless cars and sometimes self driving. Even just reading papers, I’d really be able to sort of see that back to back to back. And I would just think, “Man, I haven’t really seen what I want to see but I also didn’t feel like I was the correct authority to sort of tell them how to be doing that. It was more of an interesting observation to see how slippery the terms are, and just how they kind of would go back and forth. We’ve talked about these distinctions in class here and there, but it wasn’t something I was too insistent about.
It’s funny how the phrase “self-driving car” or “self-driven car” in Africa or India is a car you drive yourself. There are signs near safaris where it says, “No self-driven cars allowed” because you have to have a guide drive you. Which completely inverts what that phrase means to us. And then autonomy means freedom. I was in Paris at a Tesla showroom and the wall had a painting or a poster of a car and the sign above said something like “450 kilometers of autonomy.” And that was because in French, autonomy means range. Freedom of range of the EV battery of a car. I realized that even with subtle differences in other languages, and English, people project onto those words what they think it means for them. Because if you replace the word autonomy with freedom, in every headline that says autonomous vehicle, you say freedom vehicles are on the way. There was a conversation where you had two students talking about driver’s licenses, they’re both from the country, and they had a debate. Can you tell us that story?
Yeah. An interesting thing happened when two students from rural country communities started talking about the fact that they didn’t have driver’s licenses. We were reading this book and again, as I said before, some issues are not necessarily piquing people’s interest, whether it’s about traffic or congestion or the trolley problem, things like that. But we started talking about licenses and how younger generations generally have lower rates of getting driver’s licenses. They started talking and one student was a little nervous about driverless cars. I think she was talking about when she went to, I believe it was Cleveland. She was from Ohio. And she was sort of saying, “Yeah, when I go into the city, it just seems so different. It seems like everybody’s much more technologically savvy than me. It’s a different environment, a different world that feels very separate from my community. I’m worried that more technology in the world will only exacerbate the differences between my community, my family, and these other places.” Another student, in a very similar demographic that’s a part of a little micro group of rural students without driver’s licenses, said, “Actually, I think it’s awesome. Public transit is terrible. I’ve never even been on public transit, there is no public transit.” in her county. I mean, maybe not the county, that’s probably too grand a statement, but they kind of started going back and forth about some anxieties, some excitement, finding some ground in the middle. This was one of those moments where I thought, yes, this is why you don’t necessarily nitpick every single incorrect mention of a technology. This is why I don’t try to get in and jump in too much in the conversation. I mean, if I could have, I would have stood on the floor and just let them talk. I really just kind of let them work out their attitudes. And this got to a larger idea in the class. Once we started reading more and these students started finding where they shared commonalities with their peers, then they could have these little sort of micro discussions around particular issues specific to their demographics: where they’re from, what their major is. Not me or a book telling them what to think about driverless cars, but them really hashing it out peer to peer, which was really what I wanted. I really wanted them talking about it, feeling invested and feeling like they have an angle. Feeling like they have a worldview. Feeling like they have a safe space to sort of talk through these issues. And so that conversation amongst those two rural students was really one of those aha moments for the whole class. It’s kind of like we need to kind of find these little mini issues and then let people work them out. Some other people jumped in, some other people talked about it. But that was one of those special moments in the classroom when I realized I just need to find more of these or they need to help each other find some of these issues. They quite frankly are way more interesting to talk about than the trolley problem or some of the very tropi stuff around the driverless vehicle discussion.
You know, the real trolley problem is that trolleys are underfunded and the brakes wouldn’t fail if they were properly maintained.
Well, I had some students who were all about infrastructure. I had infrastructure nerds who were all about that kind of talk.
So one of the things that I heard you say is that in order for autonomous vehicles to thrive, democracy has to. Where’d you come up with that? How did you come to that conclusion?
That was honestly more the idea that driverless vehicles are somewhat dependent on democracy. A lot of it came from my students. They did this creative interpretation activity where they wrote a short story or a screenplay or a graphic novel about driverless cars. I gave them free rein. I said it just has to involve a driverless car, the idea of driverless cars, something about that. What was really jolting to me was that so many of the anxieties and dramas and conflicts and new stories were not about driverless cars. They were about America, and democracy. One story was you can only vote in driverless cars. And so licenses are hard to access and are hard to come by. And politicians are sending them to certain neighborhoods where they know they have more votes. Another one, the infrastructure nerds, God love them, that I was talking about. This one student wrote an incredible Choose Your Own Adventure where you keep choosing a driverless car or a sort of regular car except it doesn’t matter because infrastructure failures are thrown at you at every single turn. And it’s just sort of a tale of infrastructure being underfunded. And story to story, the dramas were really… I don’t know what I was expecting. I was maybe expecting some more, I don’t know, more sort of AI or sort of robot fear, or some more of that to sort of express itself. But over 75% of the classes, I would say, of my 75 students, were afraid not about driverless cars, but the country that these driverless cars, at least here, is going to roam. That phrase is very much from my student who said, “It seems like driverless cars kind of need democracy to be really working well if we need equitable distribution of this for it to make sense.” I was not preparing before the class to talk about democracy a lot or to talk about that type of issue. But it was very much where my students ended up. I guess it makes sense from younger students who were raised to be online and more in that discourse, but that idea comes very much from my classes. It’s something they were thinking about quite often.
One of the most interesting things I said that echoes that statement was “People have to vote for autonomy.” And that’s a very loaded phrase because that means they have to vote for freedom. That also presupposes that automation that makes you free is something that you can vote for. That it’s a choice. And as I kind of venture out riding around in self-driving test vehicles, in Miami, where I moved, the feedback is universally like, “Well, what can this do for me?” Like, “When will this be something that can help me? Can I put my kids in it and have them take them to school?” And it’s not just that all politics are local, but all mobility is local. Like people, I mean I don’t want to say they don’t care, but the notion that people in Wichita have their mobility problems solved is great for Wichita, but it doesn’t help New York or Miami or Chicago. Andthe notion that a teleportation device only works in Australia or an elevator is only available to someone in Paris. It doesn’t matter. Ubiquity and scale is what people want to see.
I agree with you. Most people I talk to, I’d make the clarification most older, and older meaning like above 25 in this case, so not old at all, most people do just care about themselves. When I talk to most people, they’re like, “How does it affect my commute? How does it affect my things like this?” I was really encouraged by, and maybe it’s somewhat performative in the classroom environment or because I was asking them to do it in different assignments, but my students really did more than any other demographic I’ve talked to about this issue. They cared about how their parents would adjust to it. So many of them were healthcare related majors so they’d ask “How is this gonna help my patients? How’s it gonna help the disability community?” Nobody I’ve ever talked to about driverless cars has unprompted brought up their parents or the disability community. Maybe there’s people out there, but when I’m teaching and when I’m writing or stuff, people are like, “Oh, how’s this gonna affect me?” It really was kind of marvelous to see them thinking through in a more interdisciplinary and interpersonal way. Again, maybe that’s performing for the professor a little bit, but it was heartening to see.
You sound really optimistic about the youth of today, which isn’t something that you see a lot in the media. Are the kids alright?
They absolutely are. I’ve taught, I think, over the past 10 years over 2000 kids, predominantly 18 and 19 year olds and yes, there’s certain things. I wish they loved books as much as I do. There’s certain things, but I will admit they’re much more large hearted than I was at 18. They think about how driverless cars are going to like, affect their parents and how their parents will adjust. I was not thinking that at 18. I would not have cared one bit about that question. I would not have brought it up in the class. I was not thinking about my parents once between the ages of probably 18 and 22. So I mean, I was continually impressed and am continually impressed. I genuinely love my job and doing it so again, many of the comments I’m making here I’m trying to attribute to them as much as possible. This student said this. This guy brought this up. She wrote this thing about infrastructure. So many of these ideas were being generated by them. I mean, I certainly brought the scaffolding but they really filled it quite marvelously.
What is the next topic you’re going to cover or next technology you’re going to use to teach your class?
I wrote sort of a long-ish thing at The Baffler a year ago about driverless cars, more than books about driverless cars and I just yesterday or this week got a pitch accepted to do one on blockchain and crypto books.
Yeah, that’s my next territory, which is incredibly daunting. I’m not as versed in that. I’ve spent the past year or two sort of immersing myself into some of the language, some of the discourse. I would say it’s even crazier than the driverless car.
It’s a lot crazier.
So I don’t know. I mean, that driverless car piece for The Baffler was about 5000 words and I was just talking to her being like, “I don’t know man. Can I do it in 1500?” It’s crazy. But again, this is kind of my beat, like emerging technologies, how they are communicated to wide audiences, how it works, the relationship between the technology, the discourse that you know. But still very much in this world, too.
That’s a perfect place to end it. Thanks a lot professor was great having you on.
Thanks for having me. Great to be here.
In addition to teaching, McGinty also recently wrote a column, because we’ve gotten to know each other, for the website that I’ve been working on for a few months called Ground Truth. The domain is GroundTruthAutonomy.com and McGinty’s first column talks about exactly what we were talking about: How do you cut through the BS around self driving? It’s a wonderful column and I hope he writes more for Ground Truth. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please connect with us on social media. We’re on twitter at No Parking Pod. I’m everywhere on all platforms at AlexRoy144. That’s the numbers 1 4 4. But really, Twitter is where I live. Please share no parking with a friend. Like us. Subscribe. Give us five star reviews wherever you listen to your podcasts. This show is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group. So until next time, I’m Alex Roy and this is the No Parking Podcast.