Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

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Mobility and Science Fiction, by Alan N. Shapiro

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Mobility and Science Fiction, by Alan N. Shapiro

The German version of this text was published in the book Design und Mobilität: Wie werden wir bewegt sein? edited by Sabine Foraita, Dominika Hasse and Andreas Schulz (Fruehwerk Verlag, 2019)

In the book version, there are many visual images which are left out here.

The present essay is divided into three parts: (1) an Introduction about digitalization and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” and, more specifically, offering some initial ideas about self-driving cars as being the emblematic technology of our “cultural imagination” regarding the wide array of Next Generation advanced technologies which are upon us; (2) a survey of six iconic science fiction films, plus one science fiction TV series, and how they visually and narratively represent “the car of the future”; which leads to (3) a cultural theory conclusion presenting, as a thesis, my vision of how non-human self-aware technologies (now returning from the specific focus on the autonomous vehicle back to the general consideration of many advanced “Industry 4.0” technologies) can, in partnership and in friendship with humans, help our species to find a way out of our fundamental current impasse.


I find the term “digitalization” – in common currency among politicians and in the media today, for example, in Germany (die Digitalisierung) – to be confusing. It seems to mix together technologies of the past and of the future. In the 1960s, there were semiconductors, and mainframe and mini computers. We have Personal Computers – Windows and the Mac – since the 1980s; the Internet since the 1990s; and mobile phones, smartphones and tablets since the first decade of the twenty-first century. Now we are confronted with a vast new range or Next Generation of advanced digital technologies. A first attempt at making a list of them would include (and some of these are synonyms for each other): Artificial Intelligence (AI); automated software processes; self-learning and self-evolving algorithms; robotics; drones; digital-neurological interfaces; the smart home of the future; intelligent personal assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa; Virtual Reality (VR); Augmented Reality (AR); 3D printing; additive manufacturing; new materials; blockchains and other distributed ledger technologies; cryptocurrencies; smart contracts; Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs); and the Internet of Things.

I think that the term “digitalization” accurately describes the technologies of the past several decades which we already have, like the automation of the office and other work processes, and Personal Computers and the Internet. The administered and bureaucratic character of modern existence has already been supplemented for quite some time by computer technology widely deployed in all social institutions ranging from schools and hospitals to the workplace and the home. The next wave of “futurist” technologies is better described with a term like the Fourth Industrial Revolution or self-aware technologies.

It is the self-driving car – and the way that it has come to inform the advanced technological imagination in our media culture – that I want to focus my attention on here. The autonomous vehicle has become one of the principal exemplars symbolizing the whole wide spectrum of self-aware technologies of Industry 4.0.

I want to say something about the past of cars, specifically the cultural history of cars, and the larger cultural-historical context of cars. I am interested in the representation of cars in the cinema, especially science fiction cinema. And I will talk about self-driving cars, also known as driverless cars or autonomous vehicles.

My thesis about driverless or autonomous vehicles is different from what almost everyone else says about them. Almost everyone is talking about self-driving cars as a radical break, a paradigm shift, a quantum leap, a major step, a big change.

Yes, it seems to be that way, it seems obvious: going from having a driver to having no driver. That is, if you look at technologies from the engineering perspective, from what I call the “technological determinist” point of view. Technological determinism is the way that most people look at technologies. They ask the question WHAT IF. What will happen IF we make this breakthrough? If we make a given breakthrough, if we implement a given technology. What will happen if we have sex robots, if we have cryptocurrencies, if we have Virtual Reality, if we have nanomaterials, if we have human genetic editing, if we have driverless cars?

The alternative to the technological determinist point of view is the design point of view. In design, we ask the question HOW, not IF. There are many possibilities, many different options of how a given technology can be designed, and then implemented. Business leaders and companies did not grant such a major role to designers during the Digital Revolution. Hopefully design will be asked much more to contribute to what some, such as World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.1

My argument is that self-driving cars are pretty much going to be a continuity with what cars have been in the past, in the twentieth century. Not a radical break. That is, they are probably going to be a continuity. IF autonomous vehicles get implemented without much design thinking (which is a radical thinking). If they get implemented in the mainstream way.

Self-driving cars are probably going to be a continuity. However, the present conjuncture of autonomous mobility technologies also offers us the opportunity to initiate a transformation, to do something good. We can design self-driving cars as something good, something better than what we had before. But we can only achieve this if we first come to an understanding of what cars are, of what they have been in their and our cultural history. Only after we have this cultural and historical knowledge can we then design the new autonomous vehicle in a way that will be an authentic radical break with the past.

First: what do I think about cars? Second: how are cars depicted in science fiction cinema? Third: what general cultural theory conclusions about post-human technologies and Artificial Intelligence entities do I draw from the investigation of the material of the science fiction films? Following the existential-phenomenological method, the theory, if it is to be of value, should emerge slowly and immanently from the stories themselves.

Within the first Introductory part of the three major parts of the present essay, I will make three essential points. First, I will argue that, all things considered, we are living in a relatively sedentary, and not mobile, society. Second, by looking at two key past visualizations of self-driving cars in modern visual culture – futuristic advertising images of the tomorrow-car in post-World War II consumer society, and early twentieth century paintings of the view of the world from within cars by Henri Matisse – I assert that we can learn something about how autonomous vehicles were already pictured in our cultural past. Third, I will examine technology theorist Paul Virilio’s idea of the automobile as the Vision Machine, and how the imagination of the Vision Machine has appeared in both an older and a newer form.

After that, I will go on to discuss the six paradigmatic science fiction films, plus the TV series Knight Rider, and their evocation of self-driving cars or “the car of the future.” The films provide the experiential evidence underlying the set of ideas which I elaborate in the third and final section of the present essay. Some of the pivotal interrelated elements of this “future design” vision are: post-humans helping humans – in a mutually learning exchange – to cope with some of the existential predicaments that humans face; the design of co-existence between human and non-human “actors” in economy and society; turning on its head the deeply influential negative fear-image of humans losing fundamental control to Artificial Intelligence of the self-aware computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey; the emphasis in the design proposal for androids on their emotions, feelings, ethics, and embodiment; and the granting of the rights to participate in the economy and to dispose over their own lives, and of some form of personhood, to non-human social actors.

We Don’t Live in a Society Where Mobility is Encouraged

We don’t really live in a society where mobility is encouraged. There is not much desired mobility in our society. We are stationary, sedentary, inert, immobile. We bring what is there to here via multimedia technologies. Yes, for purposes of work and business, and in the context of the vacation-tourist industry, we are encouraged to move around. But (if we consider the predominant worldview, attitudes and habits of the vast silent majorities in the Western countries) we don’t like migration, immigration, migrant workers, and inter-cultural contacts. We have fixed addresses and nationalities. Dual citizenship is discouraged.

And we don’t want to really acknowledge that large physical distances exist. The goal of the transportation revolution of the twentieth century – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (title of a 1987 classic comedy film starring Steve Martin and John Candy) – was the conquering of distance, the compression of space, the dampening of awareness of the reality of here and there.

The primary technological revolution of the twentieth century was not the transportation revolution. It was the revolution of the technologies of media images and telecommunications (see Paul Virilio’s work on speed and politics; see James Martin’s books on the wired society; see the media theories of Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard and Vilém Flusser generally; see Martin Heidegger’s 1938 essay “The Age of the World Picture”).2 The world-historical developments of virtual images and high-speed network communications have contributed massively to our immobility, to our sedentariness.

In the twentieth century and beyond, my basic relationship to THERE, to people, places, events and things which are not HERE is to bring them to me, to bring them from THERE to HERE via telecommunications, or more exactly, COMPUNICATIONS (a word synthesizing the computer and data communications).3 The idea that a visual image of something is “as good as” the thing itself or the original also has a hand in this bringing of everything which is “absent” to my presence. In the overall scheme of things (the big picture), cars (and other vehicles of physical mobility), which seem to go from HERE to THERE, are a secondary technology with respect to the primary technology of the images of everything brought to me in my home through media networks.

The Dream of the Tomorrow-Car

The dream of what we will do once we have self-driving cars is a longstanding established dream. It’s a continuity of an old dream. You can see it in the famous American 1956 magazine advertising image shown below. We will bring our home with us wherever we go. We want to feel at home everywhere, we want to have all of our comfortable and familiar stuff with us, our family and our belongings. We don’t really want to experience distance, being truly somewhere else, we want to ignore and conquer distance.

Image accompanying a sponsored article paid for by America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies in the June 1956 issue of Boys’ Life Magazine.

We see here two different versions of this fantasized image of the mobility of the future. One is black-and-white and the other is color. The second version is from 1974. It was drawn by Günter Radtke, a German illustrator and newspaper cartoonist, and one of the founders of Stern magazine. This color image of the futurist self-driving car was part of the illustration work that Radtke did for the publication of Ulrich Schippke’s book Zukunft: Das Bild der Welt von Morgen (“The Future: An Image of the World of Tomorrow”), portraying, among other imagined future scenarios, transportation technologies in various domains.4 Without being at all judgmental, it is possible to note with interest, with respect to questions of intellectual property ownership and copyrights and the creative “diverting” (the Situationist practice of le détournement) of an artefact by a second artist, the striking similarity of Radtke’s drawing to the original 1956 advertisement.

In the color version, the son is missing from the scene of the nuclear family. The second female looks perhaps older, and she is perhaps not the daughter of the family which is no longer.

Notice the large enclosed glass room in both versions, the car driving perfectly along the dotted line in the lane (guided by electrical power), and the lack of congestion on the highway. The car as a substitute for, or annex of, the living room of the home. Instead of genuine mobility, I take my stationary and familiar “at home” environment along with me on the road.

Illustration by Günter Radtke from the book Zukunft: Das Bild der Welt von Morgen (Bertelsmann, 1974).

Henri Matisse Paints “the Vision Machine”

There are two paintings made by the French painter Henri Matisse, from 1917 and 1925, respectively, which depict the view of the world as seen through the front windshield of a driverless car. The 1917 painting is called Le Pare-brise: Sur la route de Villacoublay (“The Windshield: On the Villacoubly Road”). The 1925 painting (not shown here) is called Antibes, Paysage vu de l’Interieur d’une automobile (“Antibes, landscape seen from inside an automobile”). These two paintings were made one hundred years ago, there were already cars back then, there was already the idea of a self-driving car and, more importantly, a statement made about how the experience of driving and speed transforms how we see the world.

In the painting, there is no driver and the automobile is an apparent actor in the world, a kind of non-human actor. What we see here is that the car is a VISION MACHINE (the title of a book by French technology theorist Paul Virilio5). The car sees for us. Its vision or imaging apparatus replaces (or perhaps transforms) the human visual perception system of my eyes. When you are moving at speed, you cannot really see the trees, you cannot really see the landscape, not in the same way that you saw them before. You become detached from them, entering more into a relationship of spectator to spectacle.6 In the 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner, the last surviving escaped Nexus-6 android replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) says to the genetic eye designer Hannibal Chew (played by James Hong): “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”

Le Pare-brise: Sur la route de Villacoublay (“The Windshield: On the Villacoubly Road”), Henri Matisse, 1917.

The perceptual experience of seeing, of looking out the window of the high-speed car or the high-speed train, is a cinematic experience. It is just like a film. The world is passing by at so many frames per second. The experience of driving can be compared with the visualities of cinema, television, and the computer screen (and the immersive Virtual Reality which is coming). Driving a car is like going to a movie. The merging of windscreen and cinema screen. Three-dimensional digital video images of sunny landscapes will be projected outside the passenger window by the car computer as I drive through the country on a rainy afternoon. Notice the long horizontal line that Matisse has drawn in the middle of the windshield, to ensure that we take note that a glass is there.

Today there is a new Vision Machine. The technologies that we need to make the self-driving car – the sensors and cameras, the Global Positioning System (GPS), the navigation system, the range finders and the radar, the ground-sensing LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technologies, along with the self-learning algorithms, Artificial Neural Networks, Big Data, and image recognition of Deep Learning AI – are again, one hundred years later, the technologies of the VISION MACHINE. This is one of the step-by-step ways in which the precession of media “hyper-reality” proceeds: What was at first a cultural experience or paradigm, an embodied metaphor, the analog technology version (in this case, the VISION MACHINE), later upgrades into the literal engineering hyper-real version (all details filled in) as enabled by the Digital Revolution or the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As Paul Virilio wrote in another book of his Polar Inertia (1990), “How can one fail to grasp that tomorrow’s transport machine will first of all be a ‘driving-computer’, in which the audiovisual feats of the electronic dashboard will prevail over the optical qualities of the field beyond the windscreen?”7 In The Vision Machine (1988), Virilio wrote already and presciently about the possibility of Computer Vision that is today (2018) being realized by the maturation of Deep Learning systems of AI and other “simulation of surveillance” technologies.8 “Aren’t they also talking about the new technology of ‘visionics’: the possibility of achieving sightless vision whereby the video camera would be controlled by the computer?”9 Virilio foresaw the time when the analysis of “objective reality” would be delegated to a machine. Images will be created by the machine and for the machine in future industries of the automation of perception. In the political climate of the postmodern media society of 2018, the distinction between “true” and “false,” the sense of certainty of the existence of facts, is profoundly “on the run” as U.S. President Donald Trump masters the Orwellian epistemological system of “beyond truth and lies” and declares assertively to his supporters: “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”10

It is Hollywood and Silicon Valley which are investing heavily in the advent of self-driving cars. Google and Tesla are working on self-driving cars. The film and TV and computer industries are busy making deals with automobile manufacturers. What am I (the consumer) going to do with the newly freed one hour of free time (which Audi AG calls the 25th Hour11) in my day that I am going to win back by not having to concentrate on driving? I am going to watch movies and TV series, I am going to play video games, I am going to telework and telecommute and teleshop. I am going to be wired and to consume multimedia infotainment.

The windows of the car are going to become screens, or at least dual-purpose physical and virtual media. Looking out the window was already a media transformation of the real, and this metamorphosis will advance further from a cinematic experience to a Virtual Reality experience. Images of virtual driving experiences – the Arizona desert, the Swiss Alps, car chase in San Francisco, New York City taxi driver, African Safari, driving on Mars, or being a Formula One racer – will be projected onto those screens as the car becomes a new gaming platform. Characters in stories or VR avatars might enter the car as three-dimensional living being-images through holographic technology.

Now I will discuss the six science fiction films plus Knight Rider. The retelling of one selected scene or clip from each film performs my phenomenological approach of the theory coming intrinsically into view from the experience, from, as the philosopher Edmund Husserl said, an engagement with “the things themselves.” It is also valuable to retell the cinematic narrative in the alternative media of words. The theory then presented at the end of this essay is the specific project of what I call Technological Anarchism: envisioning post-humans as partners and friends to humans, as participants in the post-capitalist “third sector” of the economy to which we delegate some of our human power, as autonomous or “self-owning,” self-aware technological entities, as we grant rights to AI beings to dispose over their own lives.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Menace of Verticality

In the 1977 science fiction film about first contact with aliens Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by Steven Spielberg, the character Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss), an electric company lineman blue-color worker in Indiana, is driving his job-related pickup truck at night on a rural road, investigating a series of power outages, when a strange intense light appears above him and his vehicle.

Sitting at his cabin steering wheel, Neary stops his truck in front of a railroad crossing and checks an electrical diagram of the wiring in the immediate geographical area. Behind him, an array of very bright circular lights appears, seemingly belonging to another vehicle. Neary motions with his hand to the unknown other, whom he believes to be the driver of a car or truck, to drive on past him. But the assembly of bright lights then surprisingly rises vertically, as seen by the movie viewer, while Neary continues to focus his gaze on the technical map-diagram.

He hears a rattling noise, growing louder when he opens his side-view window. It turns out to be a row of roadside metal mailboxes shaking. He shines a flashlight on the mailboxes, and their front lids all open. Then a blinding white light from overhead spotlights directly onto the truck. Although we the movie viewers have a clear view of the light, from within his cabin, Roy Neary cannot see what is happening in the vertical dimension above his truck. Gasping palpably with fear, Neary pokes his head out the window and tries to look above, but he cannot make out what is up there.

Blinded by the light, he retreats his head inside the cabin. The RAILROAD CROSSING sign, an iconic semiotic object stuck routinely into the ground, makes an uncontrollable ringing noise, sways rhythmically from side to side, physical debris shatters and crashes through the front windshield. Objects of all kinds blow around wildly in the cabin, dashboard control gauges of temperature, fuel level, voltage, and speed go berserk. The ashtray full of cigarette ends explodes. The radio comes on at full volume.

Then suddenly all goes still, dark, and quiet again. After a long pregnant pause, Neary looks to the darkened sky and see the Unidentified Flying Object (UFO).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg director, Columbia Pictures, 1977.

In science fiction films in general, extraterrestrial aliens are a symbol of the non-human, the crisis that threatens to destabilize and overwhelm the prevailing liberal humanism of the Western civilization of the last two centuries, the twilight of man’s anthropocentric domination of nature and dominion over the planet. Aliens represent what in cultural theory is called the perspective of the posthuman. Compared to the horizontality of the car (or, in this case, the truck), Neary-Dreyfuss cannot see what is overhead, cannot focus visually on the menace of verticality. He cannot discern the threat, except as a blinding light. Everything is shaking: the mailboxes (communication), the radio (the media), the railroad crossing sign (the signifier of mobility). The horizontality of the transport vehicle is threatened by the verticality of what it has excluded.

As Michel Foucault noted in 1966 in his Preface to The Order of Things, while discussing “the Death of Man,” the grounds of our humanist certainty “is once more stirring under our feet.”12 Foucault identified a moral and epistemological crisis. He argued that the universalist claims of the modern Western worldview (and of the academic humanities) are anthropocentric and self-contradictory. The world-historical assumptions about “Man” in fact developed in a specific historical context of modern Western European history. They, in fact, privileged the white male heterosexual Judeo-Christian individual liberal human subject. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe were the heyday of all the “grand narratives” (Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition13) of modernism, the belief in a teleological (displaced eschatological Christian narrative) view of world history: the narratives of progress, Enlightenment knowledge, science, rationalism, democracy, the industrial revolution, capitalism, socialism, and communism.

The car or truck, with its essential horizontality, can be viewed as being the classic vehicle of individualist liberal humanism. The freedom of the private vehicle, of endless open space, the sensation and experience of speed, the road trip, the open road. The car as the ultimate symbol-object of modernity, of the post-World War II consumer society, of America. Driving is one half of a hybrid technology, of a hybrid-cyborg, human merging with machine, multimedia experience. “Gliding down the freeway,” writes Jean Baudrillard at the very beginning of his book America, “smash hits on the Chrysler stereo, heat wave.”14 Driving is hybrid with music. Driving is hybrid with the heat wave. Instant acceleration with the Chevy Corvette Stingray V8 engine, easy and fluid like a song on the radio. Driving is sailing, taking a break from the responsibilities of dry land.

The founder of media theory Marshall McLuhan saw the car of the past and the present as having contributed to the uniformity of America. In the cities, in the suburbs, and in rural areas, everything in America looks more and more the same – the same shopping malls, fast-food chains, gas stations, and corporate plazas. “For forty years,” writes McLuhan in Understanding Media, the car has been “the great leveler of physical space and of social distance as well.” The car, continues McLuhan, has created highways and resorts “very much alike in all parts of the land,” spreading everywhere “the automobile version of civilization.”15

The “car of the future” might flexibly alter its planar orientation between horizontal and vertical. It could transform its shape as it exits the highway and enters the city. When in the city, it might only be 55% as wide as today’s cars. It transforms into a double-decker with four passenger compartments: lower front, lower rear, upper front, and upper rear. Each compartment is as wide as a golf cart, and can comfortably accommodate one or two persons. Up to 8 persons can ride in the car. There is a retractable electric stoop on the exterior of the car that goes up and down like an elevator platform, enabling access to the upper compartments. The engine turns vertical with the car, or is small enough to not need to be rotated.

Above the roof of the horizontal vehicle is the opening to the universe, the verticality of an interesting post-human future. The extraterrestrial aliens in science fiction films are the embodied metaphor of the threat to liberal humanist anthropocentrism and individualism. The aesthetic of SF aliens is close to that of monsters, to the literary tradition of the grotesque, and SF is often hybrid with the horror genre. This is clear in films like Ridley Scott’s Alien series. The aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind turn out to be childlike and playful.


The Fifth Element: When Manhattan has no More Ways to Expand

In the New York City of 2263, world government scientists in a laboratory (the Nucleolab) construct the humanoid alien woman Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich) from the alien DNA of a severed hand encased within a metal glove, a weird piece of alien biology, which was the sole survivor of the destruction of the spaceship of the Mondoshawan “good aliens,” decimated in battle by a mercenary Mangalore “evil aliens” spacecraft. The remaining lump of flesh was retrieved by Earth security forces from inside the sarcophagus that was inside the wreck of the shattered ship. The alien biological tissue is said to be composed of a “fifth element” encapsulating the power of the other four classical elements (earth, water, air, and fire) into a miraculous divine light capable of defeating evil.

After her biotech generation into a humanoid female body form, Leeloo, wrapped in a revealing thermal bandage dress, is initially held prisoner in a glass enclosure. But her superpowers include physical super-strength. She smashes open the glass, grabs a security badge from the startled General Munro of the Federated Army (played by Brion James), opens the encasement, and escapes from her confinement, and then from the laboratory complex.

The Fifth Element, Luc Besson director, Columbia Pictures, 1997.

Running from the police who are chasing her, Leeloo flees through a tunnel system and finds herself standing on the high-up outside ledge of an upper floor of a skyscraper, looking out at the three-dimensional hyper-mobility system of twenty-third century New York City. Flying cars are whizzing past on many horizontal levels of the complex architecture. Leeloo is shocked to see a high-speed train traveling vertically downwards along the side of a building. After walking around on the ledge for a while, with a police hover car closing in on her, flashing a light on her, scanning her, and seeking unsuccessfully to retrieve a file on her from a database, she leaps off the ledge in an elegant, initially slow, diving motion, then pulled down at high speed by the force of gravity, crashing, many levels down, through the roof of the flying taxi of Major Korben Dallas (played by Bruce Willis), a former soldier in an elite special forces unit of the Federated Army.

Writing about Los Angeles in his book America, Jean Baudrillard noted that that city “is in love with its limitless horizontality, as New York may be with its verticality.”20 With an ever-increasing population and confined by limited physical geographical expanse, New York City expanded vertically in the twentieth century with its world-renowned skyscrapers. Yet the ground surface of Manhattan remains to this day an unresolvable system of congested circulation with its excess of automobiles with relatively few passengers on board, somehow still symbolizing the freedom of the individual in the America in which New York is embedded.

In the scene of the female humanoid alien Leeloo walking on the ledge of the upper floor of the skyscraper in twenty-third century Manhattan in The Fifth Element, we see that even the advent of flying cars has not dampened the implacable horizontality of American car culture. The horizontal mobility logic of the street has multiplied exponentially and expanded geometrically upwards to multiple levels of horizontal travel at the heights of the successive floors or “stories” of the skyscrapers. The verticality of the New York City skyscrapers has not combined with the potential of flying vehicles to liberate the mobility of cars from their vectorized vicious circle stagnation. Skyscraper verticality has instead been instrumentalized to infinitely extend the essential horizontality of the automobile. To avoid accidents and to maintain order, cars on each horizontal level remain systematically regulated within each lane.

Back to the Future: A Speed So Fast that the Laws of Spacetime get Shattered

In the 1985 science fiction time travel film Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis, the eccentric scientist Dr. Emmettt “Doc” Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) invites his younger friend Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) to meet him in the expansive parking lot of Twin Pines Mall in the town of Hill Valley at shortly after 1 a.m. on the night of October 25, 1985. After Marty’s arrival at the parking lot on a skateboard, “Doc” Brown unveils, from the back of his van, his 1983 DeLorean DMC-12 automobile (a product of the short-lived DeLorean Motor Company, which produced cars for the American market in the early 1980s), which he has souped up and customized. Doc announces to Marty that he has invented a time machine based on the modified DeLorean that runs on plutonium. He, Marty and Doc Brown’s dog Einstein are now going to observe and participate in “Temporal Experiment Number One.” Doc straps Einstein with a seat belt into the front right-side passenger seat of the car, checks that the digital clock attached around the dog’s neck is precisely synchronized with his own digital watch, and closes the gull-wing door.

Doc operates the car with a handheld remote-control device that has an extended antenna. “When this baby hits 88 miles per hour,” Doc Brown says to Marty McFly, “you’re gonna see some serious shit.” He maneuvers the car into a starting position about a hundred meters from where they are standing, sets it to achieve a speed of 88 miles per hour, and then “let’s it rip.” Wheels spinning and rubber squealing. The car accelerates to the designated high speed as it makes a beeline towards Doc and Marty. The flux capacitor gets activated. Electrical currents around the car body glow, and a burst of light appears in front of the car. But just before potentially running them over, the DeLorean suddenly vanishes in a luminous flash into nothingness. Only fiery tire tracks remain in the path that the car appeared to be about to traverse. “Jesus Christ, Doc,” Marty McFly says anxiously, “you disintegrated Einstein.” But exactly one minute later, the DeLorean time machine vehicle and the dog Einstein reappear. The car’s exterior looks quite a bit worse for wear, but Einstein is alive and well. His clock is now exactly one minute behind Doc Brown’s control watch, having traveled one minute into the future.

Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis director, Universal Pictures, 1985.

With Back to the Future, the speed technologies of transportation mobility reach such a critical transition threshold that the complete destruction of conventional or Newtonian space and time come metaphorically into view on the horizon: scientific, technological and cultural. Absolute speed renders time as virtual: with instantaneous transport and arrival, we can be anywhere and everywhere and at any time.

The frontier possibilities that the laws of physics would open up for time travel were first glimpsed in Albert Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, originally formulated in 1905 and 1915, respectively. Special relativity accommodated “time travel to the future.” A passenger inside a spaceship traveling at a subluminal velocity close to the universe’s limit-speed of light speed would exist in the private reality of a rate of time passage slower than that lived by her cohorts and progeny left behind on Earth. This was a revision of the classic Newtonian view that clocks proceed at the same pace everywhere in the universe.

According to Einstein, clocks inside the time machine traveling at close to light speed would appear to run more slowly than those on the outside, from the relativistic point of view of the motion and proper time of the outside observer. This time dilation effect, predicted by Einstein’s special relativity equations, has since been verified by experiments conducted in upper atmosphere test pilot speed-flights, and by studies of the lifespans of subatomic muon particles in cyclotron-like accelerators. Enclosed in her “special relativity bubble,” the time travel passenger could see time in the “outside universe” moving at a faster rate.

Total Recall: You’re in a Johnny Cab

Another brilliant piece of writing by Philip K. Dick that was made into a Hollywood film was his short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” adapted by director Paul Verhoeven into the 1990 film Total Recall.21 For the current study, this is already the third Dick Hollywood adaptation to be examined in the area of “Mobility and Science Fiction,” along with Blade Runner and Minority Report. Dick is undoubtedly the greatest American science fiction writer of the twentieth century, and his work qualifies as bona fide high literature. It would also be interesting, however, to do an inter-media study of the relationship between written and filmic versions of these Dick texts, since it is clear that, in many ways, the Hollywood adaptations represent reductionist renderings or “readings,” and perhaps even betrayals, of Dick’s literary and political genius.

Douglas Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker who has recurring nocturnal dreams about Mars and a mysterious woman whom he “knows” there. While riding the subway one morning on his way to work, Quaid sees a TV advertisement for the company Rekall, a neuro-technology firm which sells memory implants of vacations at prices which are more reasonable than the real thing. Arrived at Rekall’s office, Quaid chooses the adventure vacation identity of a secret agent. But something goes wrong during the memory implant, and the company employees abort the procedure (or, at least, that is what appears to happen). From this point on in the narrative, through the construction of a brilliant Dickian plot device, neither the viewer nor Quaid knows if the rest of the film consists of real experiences or is rather the intended effect of the memory implant (or even of the implant gone awry). Neither the viewer nor Quaid knows if Quaid got up from the operation chair at Rekall, or if he is still sitting there in an unconscious mental state. What is reality and what is hallucination?

As the secret agent who does not even know his own identity – whether he is Douglas Quaid or Carl Hauser from Mars – the protagonist played by Schwarzenegger gets physically attacked and is then pursued by armed men who want to either capture or kill him. After leaving Rekall under sedation, Quaid/Hauser wakes up and finds himself surprisingly in the back seat of a self-driving taxi known as a “Johnny Cab” and has his first interaction with an Artificially Intelligent robot who is the human-machine interface to the vehicle. “Johnny” is humanoid but embodies only a head and shoulders. He sits at the front left driver’s position of the taxi, and is whistling happily when Quaid/Hauser awakens from sleep and begins their dialogue:

Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven director, TriStar Pictures, 1990.

Quaid/Hauser: Where am I?

Johnny: You’re in a Johnny Cab.

Quaid/Hauser: I mean, what am I doing here?

Johnny: I’m sorry. Would you please rephrase the question.

Quaid/Hauser: How did I get in this taxi?

Johnny: The door opened. You got in. Hell of a day, isn’t it?

In a later scene, now carrying a suitcase which contains valuable information and artefacts about his past and future, with the pistol-brandishing bad guys in hot pursuit of him, Quaid/Hauser climbs again into the Johnny Cab:

Johnny: Hello, I’m Johnny Cab. Where can I take you tonight?

Quaid/Hauser: Drive! Drive!

Johnny: Would you please repeat the destination?

Quaid/Hauser: Go anywhere, just go, go!

Johnny: Please state a street and number.

Quaid/Hauser: Shit. Shit.

Johnny: I’m not familiar with that address. Would you please repeat the destination?

An exasperated Schwarzenegger then uses brute physical force to wrestle the Johnny Cab android violently from its electronic socket connection to its base unit. Sparks and smoke fly, and Arnold tosses the annoying robot aside. He takes over manual control of the vehicle, driving with a joystick. Quaid/Hauser/Arnold narrowly escapes his pursuers, who shoot intense gunfire at the back of the taxi. “Fasten your seatbelt!” exclaims the still partially activated Johnny robot, while lying in a supine position. Arnold successfully drives away from the chase scene, and eventually brings the vehicle to a halt in an isolated dark alley. As he departs the taxi, the android resumes their dialogue:

Johnny: The fare is 18 credits please.

Quaid/Hauser (leaving the taxi): Sue me, dickhead!

Johnny screams, the autonomous vehicle uncontrollably starts up again, crashes head-on into a wall, and explodes. As his charred face is about to get engulfed by flames, Johnny shouts out: “We hope you enjoyed the ride! Ha ha!”

The encounters with the Johnny Cab are hilariously funny. They show the linguistic programming limitations of the conversational speech interface between humans and AI. And they show the crisis of the long tradition of the “getaway car” in cinema.

Schwarzenegger wants to GET AWAY from the authorities or bad guys who are chasing him, who are trying to capture or kill him. He does not have a specific destination. He only wants to LEAVE HERE. The conversational flow interpreter of the speech interface of the self-driving car controlled by the AI software only knows the function of traveling to specific stated destinations. “SHIT,” says Arnold. “I’m not familiar with that address,” says Johnny.

When Schwarzenegger says “sue me, dickhead!” this provides a glimpse of an idea that is present in many Philip K. Dick stories and novels that self-aware intelligent entities in the future advanced technological society will have legal rights and responsibilities within the economic system. In the novel A Scanner Darkly (made into a 2006 Hollywood film directed by Richard Linklater), you can be sued by an intelligent doorknob.22 Given the rise of the Internet of Things, “sue me, dickhead” is not only a joke, it might actually happen.

Knight Rider: The Autonomous Vehicle as Partner and Friend

Knight Rider was a television series, produced by Glenn A. Larson and starring David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight, which was first broadcast from 1982 to 1986. The pimped up 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am automobile named KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) is an Artificially Intelligent, self-aware, speech-interaction-capable, self-driving, and nearly physically indestructible vehicle who assists the character played by Hasselhoff in “fighting crime” and investigating special cases of injustice deemed to be important by the privately funded do-good organization called the Foundation for Law and Government (FLAG). KITT has a super-robust shell and frame made from the technological applications of advanced materials science. The relationship that develops between Michael and KITT is one of partnership and friendship; Michael, for example, often calls KITT “pal.”

Knight Rider, TV series, created by Glenn A. Larson, NBC Universal Television Distribution, 1982-1986.

Presented with the reality of bringing robots or androids into our social world, I believe that we are being offered the precious gift of an opportunity for humanity to grow and develop. To have semi-living beings in our midst who both resemble humans and are different from humans is an opportunity to change ourselves. The human condition – looked at from the viewpoint of philosophy, theology, cosmology, or even cybernetic communications theory – is inherently difficult and disorienting because we are not getting any feedback from anyone or anywhere. Not even a simple OK, a confirmation, a yes or no response to our speech and our actions. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Our situation is a cosmic mystery. We do not know the origin of the universe or of life. We do not know why we are here, what is the purpose and the meaning of all this, what are we striving for? We barely know what we want. We are alone, staring into the communicational void. What humanity needs is an other, an Other-who-is-no-longer-excluded-as-an-Other-yet-is-not-the-same-as-humans. We need a mirror, a partner, a friend. We need to establish an I-and-Thou relationship (Martin Buber) with someone who has empathy with us, yet who has a decidedly different perspective on things.23

In his Discourse on Method, the enormously influential seventeenth-century mechanist philosopher René Descartes described the universe as being like clockwork and animals as being clockwork-like automata.24 Animals are just bodies, they have no soul. Humans are superior to animals, according to Descartes, because we have an independent mind or soul in addition to having a clockwork-like automaton body. A hyper-modern version of Descartes’ outlook would judge robots to be soulless humans, humans minus a soul. This outlook would then justify considering robots to be nothing more than our servants.

If we make the mistake of retaining only this work-oriented attitude towards robots, then we will keep alive an ideological system that has been around for a very long time: the Fordist-Taylorist-capitalist system of humans serving the primary function in their lives of carrying out closely supervised work in the processes of economic productivity. This system is not good for our health, happiness, well-being, and longevity. By thinking of robots as workers, we would paradoxically reinforce our own status as workers. Instead of taking the opportunity to change in the direction of happiness.

The android perspective, on the other hand, is about humans growing to become more flexible and more embodied, as we learn from androids. Androids will have much greater flexibility than humans have had until now, in both mind and body. Androids will teach humanity this new flexibility. Androids are animated. They are alive. Androids have emotions and feelings, like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation who gets an emotion chip. Most human beings today, especially males, are not much in contact with their feelings and emotions. We can learn from androids how to become whole, not one-sidedly intellectual and rational. Androids are physical, as the Nexus-6 replicant Roy Batty says to the genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (played by William Sanderson) in Blade Runner. Androids are enchanting, seductive, theatrical, and magical.

Conclusion: Self-Owning Cars

It would be good to reverse the trend of the consolidation of power in the hands of very few giant corporations which the current state of online existence has become. The Internet in the 1990s was originally a pragmatic-utopian project of democratization and decentralization. Now it is controlled by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon. The vision of self-driving-becoming-self-owning cars is a way forward to prevent the concentration of power in the area of autonomous vehicles getting into the hands of very few Silicon Valley and automobile industry companies. The design of blockchain projects and platforms in cyber-commerce and social media present a similar hopeful possibility.

The idea of self-owning cars was first put forward in 2013 by Mike Hearn, a bitcoin developer and former Google engineer.25

The self-owning car would be its own “profit center,” responsible for its own maintenance, costs, and revenues. The philosophy and neuroscience of AI consist of endless debates which only go around in circles, with stated academic positions which are generally either anthropocentric or “technological determinist.” We should transfer the discussion from the provinces of philosophy and brain science to economics. What should be decisive for defining “self-awareness” is not “consciousness” but rather pragmatic participation in the economy and the surrounding environment. Self-driving cars can be programmed with moral algorithms to be ethical capitalists. We can code whichever rules we want into the driverless, self-owning, ecologically-minded, self-sustaining (see Aristotle’s autarkeia26) vehicles. Privacy protection of human data is a high priority.

Without the factor of human labor costs, the self-driving cars will quickly out-compete human-operated vehicles. Humans can invest in or own shares of these mobility profit centers. Since the autonomous vehicle can be on the road 24 hours a day, there will be much fewer cars in circulation in cities, mitigating air pollution, energy consumption, and traffic congestion.

In an ideal economic system, some technologies should not be owned by humans. These technologies should be autonomous agents of systems of radical decentralization (see the cryptocurrency firm Ethereum’s concept of the DAO – Decentralized Autonomous Organization27). Some people fear the idea of an Autonomist third sector of the economy as being the “rise of the robots,” the takeover of humanity by a new posthuman species over which humanity will lose control (as in apocalyptic science fiction films like The Matrix). But we can do this posthumanism in the right way if we so choose, standing on its head the quintessential scenario about the out-of-control Artificial Intelligence of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or would you rather work forever for the large corporations and the totalitarian state?

The ideal pragmatic-utopian society of tomorrow, or perhaps it is better to say, the economic system of tomorrow, will have three sectors: a capitalist sector for economic growth, free enterprise, competition, and rewards for achievement; a socialist sector where education, health care, guaranteed housing, basic income, and other universal human rights are administered by the state; and a new third sector called Technological Anarchism, or Post-Capitalism, or Autonomy, or self-aware entities, or based on Aristotle’s autarkeia.

Many thoughtful intellectuals feel strongly opposed to either capitalism (criticized by the Left) or socialism (criticized by the Right). I take both of these “critiques” seriously. I have a balanced moral view of capitalism, seeing both the good and the bad (the values of the advocacy, the legitimacy of the critique). There should be a capitalist sector of the economy, both necessary and limited. I have a balanced moral view of socialism, seeing both the good and the bad (the values of the advocacy, the legitimacy of the critique). There should be a socialist sector, both necessary and limited.

The “Achilles heel” that both capitalism and socialism share, however (the fundamental shared cause of what is wrong with both of them), is that, in both systems, humans are in charge. Humans are – perhaps not ontologically or genetically, but in the current historical era in which we find ourselves – selfish, narcissistic, corrupt and power-hungry. Therefore we need a posthuman perspective, a delegating of moral responsibility, and much of social and economic logistics, to autonomous self-owning entities and processes.

Suppose that non-human actors were granted “rights” and were authorized to participate in the economy, in the third Technological Anarchist or post-capitalist sector of the economy? Suppose that these non-human actors were owned by no one else, neither by private corporations nor by the state, but rather disposed over their own lives? Suppose they transcended the condition of slaves? Could we then call them self-aware as a posited first principle? Instead of needing to first define self-awareness philosophically or neurologically?

Enhance the Physical World

With Augmented Reality generally, we can now reverse the decades-old trend of digital and virtual technologies being designed and implemented to escape from the phenomenological physical real, to destroy the real, to virtualize the real, to simulate the real. We can design and implement digital and virtual technologies, and now the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to enhance and support the familiar physical real, to protect the environment, on one level the ecosystem, but also the more general environment of physical reality itself. Bring back the REAL side of the REAL/VIRTUAL hybrid.

The conjuncture of self-driving cars presents the opportunity to design these vehicles to promote real mobility, the awareness of distances, awareness of the physicality and experience of space, of the difference between HERE and THERE, encourage the appreciation of otherness and of the destination, to inspire us to really go somewhere.

If we do not carry out this alternative radical design, then human physical movement would cease to be important. Dynamic vehicles would give way to and be replaced by the static audiovisual vehicles, marking the definitive triumph of sedentariness.

As we have seen in our brief review of the history of mobility in science fiction cinema, the selection of films commented upon here, the automobile in our culture is already endowed with a life of its own. The long-term historical and futurist encounter between the cinema and the car is in the mode of creativity. As media and everyday life become indistinguishable from one another – life becoming film (or VR) and film (or VR) becoming life – we can expand the life of technological non-humans to participation in our economy and our collective existence.

We face the challenge of designing the co-existence of human and non-human actors in society – and these non-human actors, in a way, might be defined as having personhood.


1 – Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (New York: Crown Business, 2016).

2 – Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (originally published in French in 1977) (New York: Semiotexte, 1986); James Martin, Telecommunications and the Computer (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969); Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (originally published in 1964) (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994); Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (originally published in French in 1981) (New York: Semiotexte, 1983); Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images (originally published in German in 2000) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track (originally published in German in 1950) (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

3 – See Daniel Bell, The Winding Passage: Sociological Essays and Journeys (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1991). The term “compunications” was coined by Anthony G. Oettinger in the 1970s.

4 – Ulrich Schippke, Zukunft: Das Bild der Welt von Morgen (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1974).

5 – Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (originally published in French in 1988) (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).

6 – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (originally published in French in 1967) (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014).

7 – Paul Virilio, Polar Inertia (originally published in French in 1990) (London: SAGE, 1999).

8 – Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, op.cit.; William Bogard, The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

9 – Ibid.;p.59.

10 – Donald Trump, speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, MO, July 24, 2018.

11 – The 25th Hour Project is a cooperation of Audi AG and the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart, Germany.

12 – Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (originally published in French in 1966) (New York: Pantheon, 1970); p.xxiv.

13 – Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (originally published in French in 1979) (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

14 – Jean Baudrillard, America (originally published in French in 1986) (London: VERSO, 1988); p.1.

15 – Marshall McLuhan, “Motorcar: The Mechanical Bride” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (originally published in 1964) (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994).

16 – Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (originally published in French in 1975) (New York: Pantheon, 1977).

17 – See William Bogard, The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

18 – Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (portions originally published in French in 1976 and 1981) (New York: Semiotexte, 1983); p.117.

19 – Philip K. Dick, “The Minority Report” in Minority Report, Volume Four of the Collected Stories (London: Millennium, 2000); Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (New York: Ballantine, 1968).

20 – Jean Baudrillard, America; op. cit. p.52.

21 – Philip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Volume Five of the Collected Stories (London: Millennium, 2000).

22 – Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (New York: Doubleday, 1977).

23 – Martin Buber, I And Thou (originally published in German in 1923) (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937).

24 – René Descartes, A Discourse on Method: Meditations and Principles (originally published in French in 1637) (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1960).

25 – Mike Hearn, “Autonomous Agents, Self-Driving Cars and Bitcoin,” talk at the Turing Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, August 23, 2013 (video available at

26 – Aristotle, The Nicomachaen Ethics (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009).

27 – Henning Diedrich, Ethereum: Blockchains, Digital Assets, Smart Contracts, Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (Wildfire Publishing, 2016).

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