Crawford’s book is uneven, an analogue man’s despairing roar, but he is witty, open-minded and impossible to label as reactionary. As public polymaths go — he’s an engineer, physicist, philosopher, sociologist, motorbike mechanic and a restorer of VW Beetles — he leaves Jordan Peterson at the start line. I like his advice to challenge the chorus of inevitability, that “one must accept the future rather than ‘cling to the past’ (which often means simply accepting the present — what presently exists — as perfectly adequate)”. Let’s question what progress means.
Crawford is a good writer and, crankshafts aside, the book is a pleasure to read. His thesis demands that he convey the pleasure of driving, and he’s up to the task: “Eventually the strip malls give way to farmland, and now a shady country road reels out in rhythmic curves. You stick your hand out the open window and let it undulate on a cushion of pressure. You can breathe.” And he addresses some huge, fascinating issues: how people retain self-respect when computers are deskilling them, and sovereignty over their lives when computers are spying on them.
Why We Drive follows his bestselling Shop Class as Soulcraft (published in the UK as The Case for Working with Your Hands) and The World Beyond Your Head in making the case for freedom in a technological society. This time, he takes aim at the new digital technologies that threaten his relationship with the old technologies he loves: cars and motorbikes. The book contains some terrific moments – an explanation of how human and machine contrived to crash two Boeing 737s; a description of the suck-squeeze-bang-blow four-stroke that happens a billion times in an engine’s life – but its big and important argument is muddied by the author’s prejudices.
This is a lovely book that applies history, philosophy and literature to one obsessive subject, but you’ll probably only like it – maybe love it – if you’re a member of the slightly mad minority that Crawford is writing for. Most people might enjoy driving, but it’s really just a method of getting them from A to B. A small group of us get a real thrill out of it, because it not only serves our psychosexual need for speed but also control. Behind the wheel, I am a combination of Steve McQueen and the Little Old Lady from Pasadena.
This is not only a petrolhead’s complaint against rule-making officialdom (though Crawford reserves a special place in hell for the bureaucratic scalpers who install traffic cameras); it is also a vivid and heartfelt manifesto against the drift of our world, against the loss of individual agency and the human pleasure of acquired skill and calculated risk. It asks its readers to beware tech billionaires bearing algorithms... No doubt, as Crawford understands, there are environmental arguments against our attachment to the combustion engine. His book, however, remains a powerful (and enjoyable) corrective against that wisdom that suggests the unchecked march of all-seeing tech monopolies – ravenous for data, trading attention for distraction – is essential to human progress.
This book is a defence of felt life against the intrusions of the technocrats – a running theme in Crawford’s work, from The Case for Working with Your Hands (2010) to The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction (2015). But, as I said, it is strange. For a start, almost all the intellectual content is included in the first 50 pages. Most of the rest is the real thing – hot-rodding a VW Beetle, getting lost on a trip in a 1972 Jeepster Commando, folk engineering, demolition derbies, desert racing, how to handle road rage and so on. He admits the tone is uneven, but it is intrinsic to his world view; after all, life is uneven.