TCS Daily

The Four (Wheel) Freedoms

By Brock Yates - March 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Like an increasing number of America households, mine contains a jumble of computers and automobiles. While this is an example of the surfeit of riches that seems to enrage the Arab world, the fact remains that multi-car, multi-computer families are hardly worthy of note in this amazing system we call free-market capitalism.

But there is an odd dichotomy between the ownership of computers and automobiles on a variety of fronts. It is politically correct to own a computer, but within the salons of the elite automobiles are only marginally acceptable. To be sure, the lower orders can trundle around in the Heartland in their pickups and SUV's; but among the truly civilized, four-wheeled transport outside the occasional cab or limousine can represent an ugly descent into barbarism.

PC divisions notwithstanding, these two machines, the computer and automobile, offer interesting contrasts both in terms of their function and their impact on the economy.

A day doesn't pass when one of my three computers isn't working properly. Service contacts seem essential to their operation. Reliability borders on a joke. Conversely, my three automobiles run like draft horses day in day out. My big Ford diesel pickup has 93,000 miles on the clock and is barely broken in. My two other cars, a Jeep Grand Cherokee (one of these hated SUV's) and my wife's Jaguar XJ8 sedan run with amazing dependability, month in and month out, with a minimum of maintenance.

Moreover, it is not uncommon to sight 20 year-old automobiles rolling down the highway. But the notion of using a computer even one-tenth that age is doomed to the technological Dark Ages. There is a tendency in the computer industry to eat its young; to constantly obsolete and outdate products, forcing consumers to update both soft and hardware. This may be the simple manifestations of a young and vibrant industry, but compared to the reliability, predictability and stability inherent in the automobile, the computer is a vaporous, hi-tech will-o-the-wisp.

The modern motor vehicle can be owned and driven almost forever while suffering the worst kind of abuse. It will run for years without raising the hood even if the owner is a mechanical ingrate. Gone are the days when ignition points, condensers and spark plugs had to be changed every 2-3000 miles and that tires would wear out in 5000. The modern automobile will endure the worst kind of brutality and still run without complaint, proven by the fact that 50-100,000 mile drivetrains warranties are now common.

By contrast the computer hates jostling, temperature variations, moisture, and when in a surly mood will swallow data into a cyber-pit from which it can never be recovered. Even laptops must be hauled around like a bag of French pastries, lest their sensitive innards suffer a seizure of crossed-circuitry.

The automobile can be operated by all but the halt and blind, provided you are tall enough to reach the pedals. The expertise involved in guiding a two-ton machine down a public road is minimal compared to that required to operate a desktop computer anywhere near its maximum capacity.

While both machines are critical components of this economy's unfettered transfer of commerce, information and ideas, the urge among powerful forces in government and the academia to limit the use of one while enhancing the use of the other is alarming. The sturdy old steed that hauls millions of people and untold trillions of tons of goods from pillar to post each day is assaulted as a blight on society while the other, an electronic miracle of the first order, is embraced as the hope of the future.

This is hardly an indictment of the computer because its benefits to society are vast. But within its unbelievable power lies the potential for intrusion into privacy and the control of individual behavior that we may only be beginning to understand.

Ironically, the computer has made the modern motor vehicle radically better as well. Were it not for the brains controlling the drivetrain, etc. we would still be living with automobiles much less reliable and dirtier in terms of emissions then we enjoy today.

But computers in the engine bay or not, the private motor vehicle is the lifeblood of this free economy. It has been the elemental source of mobility that has permitted Americans to move without interference each day of their lives. It has permitted entire populations to move, east to west and north to south without government interference or control. It has been the source of social mobility, allowing those on the bottom rung of society to move upward based on access to better jobs, schools and neighborhoods.

Can it be that hatred of this wonderfully egalitarian device lies in the reality that a plumber or a carpenter has the potential of driving a better car than his employer; that the motor vehicle represents the upward mobility than keeps all social status in flux?

These post 9-11 days have produced a number of plans relating to ID cards, computer recognition systems, etc. that, in the name of national security, could inhibit personal freedom and mobility. Big Brother always lurks in the background and these concepts -- coupled with Washington's incessant efforts to limit the use of the personal car through draconian CAFE standards and other curtailments on vehicular travel -- in the event of a future terrorist attack can not only severely damage the economy but strike a blow to the basic freedom of mobility that we all cherish.

Love your computers on the desktop, but never forget that your real key to freedom sits on four wheels in your driveway.


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