A Phenomenology of Driving


It’s late. You’re tired, but you need to drive home.You also need to maximize safety by utilizing less attentional resources on steering so as to maintain vigilance in respect to road hazards. What do you do? Offload the task of steering onto the roadlines. This constitutes a use of cognitive technology. That is, environmental props that lighten the computational load for the achievement of goals. A seemingly complicated affair such as driving, once learned and made automatic, is achieved effortlessly by the brain-body system through the use of cognitive technology. With sufficiently developed road networks, the problem of steering can be reduced to following the lines. Accomplishing this task is not much more complicated than following a wall or path, something a simple robot could learn. By greatly reducing the complexity of the problem at hand through cognitive technology, the computational load of driving is made tractable.

When travelling the highway, one can automate the task by hitting cruise control and allowing your hands and vision to couple with respect to keeping a certain distance from the solid sidelines. The subtle back-and-forth motions of our hands is reciprocally connected to the very structure of the road itself. If you need to exit, you simply wait until there is a break in the line and you continue following the sideline off the ramp. In the dark, the only relevant detail are the reflective lines, the roadsigns, and the other cars. Everything else can be attentionally ignored.

When we first start driving, we haven’t learned to ignore details by relying on cognitive technology to reduce the computational load.  We need to ignore a massive amount of information if we are to couple our attention with the road guidelines. Forgetting information is thus more important in driving than storing it. Doing so reduces the computational load and allows us to deploy our attentional resources on defensive driving and vigilance. Everytime I drive on the highway I am amazed at how easy it is to drive a 2 ton heap of metal at 80 miles per hour in the dark with maybe 160 ft range with lowbeams on. The cognitive unconscious effortlessly couples our hands with the guidelines such that can keep our conscious mind on other activities, such as talking with the passenger, changing the music,  or looking for an exit.

If we examine the phenomenology of driving, we can extract a general principle of cognitive computation: we simplify by externalizing. This principle is ubiquitous in everyday human dwelling. We externalize problems onto pen and paper, calculators, computers, GPS navigation, iphones and ipads, recipes, blueprints, books, etc. Cognitive technology can be found at all levels of human-world interaction. Even language itself can be seen as a form of cognitive technology. According to Andy Clark, linguistic scaffolding has at least three interlocking effects:

First, the simple act of labeling the world opens up a variety of new computational opportunities and supports the discovery of increasingly abstract patterns in nature. Second, encountering or recalling structured sentences supports the development of otherwise unattainable kinds of expertise. And third, linguistic structures contribute to some of the most important yet conceptually complex of all human capacities: our ability to reflect on our own thoughts and characters and our limited but genuine capacity to control and guide the shape and contents of our own thinking.

In conclusion, the principles at work in driving indicate that cognitive technology is omnipresent in human affairs. We surround ourselves with props and aids which act to reduce the computational load of everyday tasks and allow us to automate tasks and devote our cognitive resources for more abstract decision making.


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Filed under Phenomenology, Psychology

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