The advent of self-parking cars is one example of how automated systems are replacing human skills. As we face increasing automation, we must decide whether the benefits of each new automated system outweigh the loss of related skills.
Knowing All the Angles
In the Seinfeld episode “The Parking Space,” George boasts to Elaine of his parallel parking prowess:
George: “I wish you could make a living parallel parking. It’s all geometry. Knowing all the angles, when to make that first turn and then when to swing it back in.”
As George observes, parallel parking is a skill. I know this because my parallel parking abilities are decidedly average. But I also realize that it’s not a very difficult skill, just one that I haven’t bothered to master. After all, George can do it, and he’s not exactly a paragon of ability. It’s also not that dangerous. Driving carries a much greater risk than parking, where the worst possible outcome is a dented fender or wounded pride.
But George’s skill is quickly becoming obsolete. As of April 2022, at least eleven automobile manufacturers offer self-parking cars. Such vehicles will undoubtedly ease the mental burden on drivers who have never taken the time to master parallel parking. But these self-parking cars won’t accomplish much else. They won’t make drivers significantly safer. And they won’t save much time, because parking doesn’t take that long. Whether the parker is a human or a machine, the act of parking still takes between several seconds and a few minutes (unless the driver wastes time bragging about how good a parker he is).
Whether or not you drive a self-parking car is of minimal importance. But it does point to the larger issue of balancing technological advantages and costs. When it comes to self-parking cars, the advantage is minimal. The cost is a loss of skill acquisition. Drivers who own self-parking cars would likely struggle to park rented cars lacking such technology or to park their own cars if the automation failed.
The Bigger Issue
So the question we should ask of any technology in which automation replaces skill is whether or not the advantages conferred by automation outweigh the cost of losing the related skill. Does the peace of mind gained by not having to parallel park outweigh the absence of parallel parking ability?
We can take this question one step further. As previously stated, parallel (self-)parking is a minor issue. But every time we allow automated systems to perform tasks that were once performed by skilled humans, we risk the social cost of losing those skills. Will GPS navigation impair our ability to navigate on our own? Will autopilot impair the ability of human pilots to rescue a plane from danger? Will increasing automation erode the value of learning new skills in the first place?
Automation can offer us a welcome relief from rote, unskilled labor. But replacing skills with automation leads to a cycle that demands more and more automation at the expense of once-precious skills.
As I point out in my dystopian novel Our Dried Voices, if the machines fail, we will face new problems without the skills necessary to solve them. But the point is more than a practical issue. We must decide what kind of humans we want to be. When is automation a desirable alternative to human labor? What skills (if any) do we want to retain? Those who want to be creative, productive and inventive in the future will need to decide how to balance automation with human ingenuity and skill.