Does It Matter That I Let My Car Parallel Park Itself?


I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I’m a phenomenal parallel parker, but ever since getting a car with parking-assist, I’ve found myself opting to let the car take over. I realize this particular skill of mine is one that will soon be worthless (like driving generally), but I can’t help feeling like I’m losing something essential. Am I contributing to the general passivity and dumbing down of the human species? —IDLING

Dear Idling,

Given the skill sets we humans have lost over the course of our history—archery, celestial navigation, and the ability to track animals come to mind—I don’t know that the obsolescence of parking skills counts as a blow to the species, especially considering that it’s an ability people often lose through perfectly mundane circumstances. Moving to the suburbs, say. It’s true that we’re the only animal to have mastered the art of driving, and that the gradual automation of the car often makes it feel as though we’re abdicating some essential feature of our intelligence. Of course, it’s hard to say what “human intelligence” even means these days. The definition is always changing, mostly in reaction to whatever new aptitude machines have picked up.

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I can sympathize, though, with your uneasiness. We in the 21st century have so few skills compared to our predecessors, and the ones we can claim (multitasking, photo editing, speaking with authority about long-form articles we haven’t read) don’t feel especially advantageous. Assuming you’re prone to the usual apocalyptic anxieties, each atrophied talent feels like just one more thing you’ll inevitably have to relearn when some catastrophe obliterates our modern infrastructure and drives us back into the wilderness.

But let’s start with the more immediate effects. Will losing this skill make you dumber or less competent in other areas of your life? Probably not. The reality is that we are constantly outsourcing our intelligence to unconscious processes—not to machines but to muscle memory. If you think back on the first time you drove a car, you’ll recall how even the simplest maneuvers required attention. Over time, though, you no longer had to consciously think about signaling, turning, or staying centered in the lane. Undoubtedly there have even been times where you were so absorbed in a podcast, or even a regular old thought, that you found yourself at your destination with little memory of having maneuvered yourself there. Parallel parking might require some concentration, but most drivers are habituated enough to the rote choreography of driving that they can do it in their sleep (quite literally, as some Ambien-takers have discovered).

You probably don’t fret over your ability to drive without consciously thinking about it, or worry that doing so is dulling your mental acuity. The ability to perform physical actions mindlessly, through habituation, is evolutionarily advantageous in that it frees our minds to take on higher-level cognitive tasks. Those who become proficient at musical instruments often speak of transferring their intelligence to their fingers, such that they can perform all sorts of complex mental operations that have nothing to do with playing. Einstein once claimed that he would take to the piano when he was trying to work out difficult mathematical problems.

One could argue that technology is just an extension of this process. In fact, throughout history, the case for automation has relied on the notion that machines would take on the tedium of brute labor so we could devote ourselves to higher pursuits. The housewife, liberated from the drudgery of laundry day, would use her leisure hours to write sonnets or study French. The factory worker would learn to code. Perhaps the concentration that parallel parking once demanded of your mental RAM can now be used to compose haiku or contemplate your five-year plan. You might think of automation as an opportunity to become, as one AI company founder put it, “better at being human.”

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