Question: So where are you in American society if you have no cash in your pocket and you don’t drive a car? Answer: in the year 2025, or thereabouts. The cashless and driverless society, in other words, of our near future.  

To me the most fascinating aspect of the U.S. currency redo and the Harriet Tubman $20 bill (aside from Alexander Hamilton being spared elimination via the popularity of a Broadway musical!) is that, as the Times notes, it’s not certain how long a life the Tubman bill will enjoy, since its arrival around 2020 is likely to be followed soon after by the abandonment of cash. To be sure, such prognostications aren’t exact science; the cashless society has been promised for at least half a century, and the driverless car has long been an abiding staple of pop futurism. But now we truly are at the brink of both changes; we’ve reached that moment where the remaining obstacles are not technological, but logistical and – most important – psychological. That is to say, in us.

My guess is that the self-driving car will be the harder sell of the two. The demise of real money has already been happening, incrementally, for some time. I recall standing in a long ticket line at a ski area a few years ago, when a new window opened and a staffer invited anyone paying with cash to come right to the counter. Not a single person moved. Who carries much cash around anymore? Already popular sentiments about money are developing the adverse feelings (bills are filthy, pennies annoying) that reflect the way we both accept change and speed it along, by rejecting the status quo even as it starts to fade. At any rate, living without coins and bills doesn’t seem like a big step from where we are now. Driving will yield less easily, partly because of the American romance of the automobile, but mostly because the driverless car presents such a drastic-seeming abdication of personal control, with the stakes literally life or death. Imagine your car speeding toward a busy intersection, with no one at the wheel, and – well, your heart clutches a bit, doesn’t it? This really will be a technological leap of faith.

When you think about it, though, the move toward the self-driving car has also been happening incrementally for some time. Think about the functions your car already performs, going back to electric windows and door locks, all the way up through such recent innovations as keyless ignition, the rear-view reverse camera (you no longer have to crane your neck), and now automatic parallel parking and the emergency stop, in which the car brakes automatically if a sudden obstacle pops up. In effect, we’ve been outsourcing our driving one function at a time; eventually we will already have ceded most of it anyway, so the final step will be less daunting than it otherwise would have been. And the timing is right; automated cars are coming along at precisely the moment when people’s addictive texting and other forms of nonstop communication are making driving a major annoyance (and danger!) anyway. All in all, we’re clearly headed for driverless roadways – and here’s a link listing various corporate and other predictions of when driverless cars are likely to be fully implemented.

The person whose politics may be liberal but whose temperament in certain ways conservative (i.e., me) may approach such changes with reluctance. One reason is a stubborn appreciation of the world as it already is, what the novelist John Updike called a realist writer’s instinct for “giving the mundane its beautiful due.” This instinct goes hand-in-hand with an elegiac anticipation of loss; the critic James Wood, praising Updike’s series of Rabbit novels, adroitly described the novelist’s “plush attention to detail” as a form of “nostalgia for the present.” Along these lines, the writer in me could easily whip up a rhapsodic personal essay about the joys of driving -- in fact, the first piece of fiction I ever published in a magazine was an ode to my father’s love of cars and driving -- or even about the pleasures of money.

There’s an inclination to ponder – and to rue -- what gets lost in the shuffle when things change. Just yesterday, in fact, as I was making a deposit at the ATM, I realized that I hadn’t been inside my neighborhood bank for at least five years, since I stopped making deposits in person. Thinking about certain personal contacts now long vaporized by the convenience of the ATM, I recalled the pleasant conversations I used to have with certain tellers when my daughter was younger, and how they gave her lollipops, and how one young bank employee wanted to be a writer and would discuss books and writing with me, and – well, you see where the elegiac essay would go from here.  

One tries to rein in the excesses of romanticism, and all in all my stance toward technological change could be summed up as willingness balanced with wariness. I’m both cautious and curious about how things will sort out once this or that transformative innovation cannonballs with a big ker-splash! in the pool of society – whether it’s the driverless and cashless society; petabyte-scale data storage and supercomputing smartphones; personal 3-D printers that can “print” out products at home (or even print out homes!); cognitive computing and android personal butlers; augmented reality and the video-gamefication of daily life; medical bioengineering; or other futuristic sounding innovations that may be just around the corner.

What technological marvels do you see transforming how we live in the next couple of decades? And are you looking forward eagerly to them?



Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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