Autonomous Vehicles- Panopticons on Wheels

For a start, AVs [autonomous vehicles] will record everything that happens in and around them. When a crime is committed, the police will ask nearby cars if they saw anything. Fleet operators will know a great deal about their riders. In one infamous analysis of passenger data, Uber identified one-night stands. If, as seems likely, human-driven cars are gradually banned on safety grounds, passengers could lose the freedom to go anywhere they choose. The risk that not all robotaxis will serve all destinations could open the door to segregation and discrimination. In authoritarian countries, robotaxis could restrict people’s movements. If all this sounds implausible, recall that Robert Moses notoriously designed the Southern State Parkway, linking New York City to Long Island’s beaches, with low bridges to favour access by rich whites in cars, while discriminating against poor blacks in buses. And China’s “social credit” system, which awards points based on people’s behaviour, already restricts train travel for those who step out of line. source

The irony of “autonomous vehicles” is that they may, or could, strip away autonomy from people, as seen above. Auto-mobile, seems like an apt term for cars as it means self-mobile. Auto-nomos, or self-law/self-determination, may apply to the car’s programming, but certainly not the passenger’s control of the car as they aren’t driving although the AV should obey them much like a taxi driver. An AV relationship defers autonomy for the trip, though not mobility. It’s almost like hoping on a train or bus that has a route, but closer to a taxi that “obeys” the passengers commands. An AV is certainly NOT autonomous, as it is controlled to the millisecond by computers that make choices. AVs are by no means free agents. They aren’t really free from human control as humans play a part in the programming, but an AV is free from the passenger or possible driver, especially if it overrides any demands by the passenger. “Driverless” isn’t an apt term either, but better. Perhaps robo-car is better? I’m not sure alternate names for AV are much to fuss over unless people start to forget that they should be autonomous, and not subjects of someone else.

Issac Asimov’s book “I, Robot” lists three “laws” of robotics :

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Calling and AV a Robot won’t necessarily change how they could be misused, but in light of what Asimov notes above, it is worth considering what he says later (~p.106):

all normal life…consciously or otherwise, resents domination

“All normal life” seeks autonomy. Lets hope AVs are never abused, and more akin to a robot that obeys robotics “laws.” All this said, it is worth driving by autonomy to look at what it means, not necessarily in light of the AV term, but because “autonomy,” or self-law, is central to libertarianism/anarchism.


freedom involves duty, not only to the self but also to the shared reality in which all people partake. To Kant, autonomy, or a moral consciousness which recognizes itself as a part of the entirety of rational agents, acts in a way that does not infringe on another’s power to acknowledge that same fact, making it true or dutiful freedom. One reason why Kant believes this to be so is that people cannot cease to be volitional, and since they naturally possess agency, they can never transfer that power to another. At the same time, since individuals coexist in a common reality, it follows that people should maintain a level of respect for one another since together they share in the same humanity. Therefore, to Kant, autonomy is true freedom since it allows people to choose alone, while also being mindful of the dignity and responsibility they and others possess as rational beings.

In other words, to Kant, one should never use another just to use that individual, since no one is a tool, but instead a thinking agent deserving of the same treatment that any other rational being would expect and enjoy. As such, it would not be illogical to think that autonomous, or ethically free people, recognize others as they recognize themselves. That is, autonomous people, by dutifully accepting total selflessness, compassion, or that which results from acknowledging the limits of their nature, with complete individuality, or their ability to posit their freedom for only their success, interact with others appropriately since they live wisely. Finally, since wisdom is a product of autonomy, and because both are forms of reason, it follows that all people can become autonomous since the capacity to at least understand it is inherent to all.

To philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, anarchy, or a society without the need of leaders, best fits with autonomy, or dutiful freedom since only it can sustain the individual and collective aspects of liberty. For example, one cannot claim that democratic republics of today cohere with people’s innate capacities for freedom since each election is a “tyranny of the majority.” That is, it is impossible to claim that democracies truly embrace freedom since they do not require unanimous decisions to push forward policies that will affect all people. As such, democracies do not represent everyone’s autonomy, and because they only represent and work best for the majority, the autonomy of those who lose in an election cycle goes mute.

At the same time, Wolff shows how societies which choose to embrace extreme individual freedom also fail to capture autonomy and are thus unsuitable for truly free people. To Wolff, when a society allows for unbridled individualism, it fails to acknowledge the collective elements of freedom. Now, through Wolff’s lens, when one person, or a small group of people, or even 49.9% of a population can decree for the rest, it restricts how most people wish to be free. Accordingly, the problems with a monarchy, oligarchy, or any other form of minority rule is that it illogically places one, few, or less than most, ahead of the autonomy of an outnumbering group. Again, the problem of how to genuinely represent everyone’s autonomy, at the individual and group level, arises. To Wolff, this issue is virtually irresolvable with the range of governments available in modern civilization, leaving anarchy, at least in theory, to be the only solution to the problem of political legitimacy.

Similar language and considerations continue in this piece:


Key aspects of movements such as anarchism include an emphasis on autonomy and the construction of alternative social structures (Hardt, 1996). Through the daily experiences of “thoroughgoing struggle” these movements constitute  “a positive pointer to the kind of social relations that could exist: no money, the end of exchange values, communal living, no wage labour, no ownership of space” (Aufheben, 1998: 110). Autonomist Marxists refer to these radical and participatory forms of democracy which thrive “outside the power of the State and its mechanisms of representation” as a constituent power, “a free association of constitutive social forces” (Hardt, 1996: 5-6).

For many contemporary anarchists, including prominent commentators such as Richard Day and David Graeber, those who conceive of theory as a struggle against power work according to a logic of affinity rather than a logic of hegemony.  This logic of affinity, which includes inter-subjective reasoning as one of its modes, also involves typically discounted affects such as passion, strategy, rhetoric and style (Day, 2001: 23).

This mode of shared decision-making in a terrain of undecidability, this kind of community, cannot take the form of a Sittlichkeit, or even a multicultural civitas.  It cannot, in fact, be a community at all as these are currently conceived. Rather, individuals and groups linked by affinities that are temporary and always shifting are best seen as examples of what Giorgio Agamben has called “coming” communities (Day, 2001: 23).

In my view glimpses of these coming communities, are already here, prefigured in the bund or affinity groups and heterotopias of contemporary anarchism. As Epstein (2001: 10) and others suggest:

This anarchist form of organization makes it possible for groups that disagree in some respects to collaborate in regard to common aims.  At the demonstrations in Quebec City in May 2001, affinity groups formed sectors defined by their willingness to engage in or tolerate violence, ranging from those committed to nonviolence to those intending to use “unconventional tactics.”  This structure made it possible to incorporate groups which otherwise would not have been able to participate in the same demonstration.

This non-centralized and adaptive form of organization allows for an inclusive movement that is open to a diversity of tactics, perspectives and goals.  This is an important aspect of organizing in a post-Fordist context as participants eschew the more stable forms of organization such as unions or community groups in favour of a flexible and variable coming together of generally small affinity groups.

Hetherington (1992: 92) suggests that the emergence of such groups relates to two specific processes: “the deregulation through modernization and individualization of the modern forms of solidarity and identity” and the “recomposition into ‘tribal’ identities and forms of sociation.”  Transformations in capitalist economies encourage reflexive forms of individualism which are not easily referred to such structural characteristics as class.

These non-ascriptive ‘neo-Tribes’ as Maffesoli calls them, are inherently unstable and not fixed by any of the established parameters of modern society; instead they are maintained through shared beliefs, styles of life, an expressive body-centredness, new moral beliefs and senses of injustice, and significantly through consumption practices (Hetherington, 1992: 93).

It is suggested by Hetherington that the concept Bund, expressing an intense form of solidarity which is highly unstable and which requires ongoing maintenance through symbolic interaction, better expresses the character of these forms of sociation than does community.  Active involvement in anarchist projects provides participants with important experiences and lessons in solidarity, mutual aid and collective action, all cornerstones of anarchist politics.

According to Epstein (2001: 2) the anarchist practice “combines both ideology and imagination, expressing its fundamentally moral perspective through actions that are intended to make power visible (in your face) while undermining it.” For anarchists, the convergence between ideology and organization is crucial.

It is not opposed to organization.  It is about creating new forms of organization.  It is not lacking in ideology.  Those new forms of organization are its ideology.  It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.  Ultimately it aspires to reinvent daily life as whole (Graeber, 2002: 70).

Anarchist tactics, such as black blocs, exhibit another characteristic of bund, as described by Epstein (2001: 2) who suggests that “today’s anarchist activists draw upon a current of morally charged and expressive politics.”  This moral approach to politics is expressed through a focus on tactics of direct action.  As Graeber (2002: 62) suggests, direct action tactics like the black bloc are symbolic of the “rejection of a politics which appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state [and capitalist] power.”

We might refer to Manuel Castells, Shujiro Yazawa and Emma Kiselyova in suggesting that autonomy movements offer “alternative visions and projects of social transformation that reject the patterns of domination, exploitation and exclusion embedded in the current forms of globalization” (1996: 22). In constructing these alternatives, anarchists often develop practices that disrupt the smooth functioning of capitalist economics or liberal democratic politics. This suggests, following sociologist Leslie Sklair, that that anarchist movements exemplify a “disruption” model of social movements and resistance to capitalism which does not seek an organizational model that would allow for greater integration within mainstream political channels. Through their uncompromising rhetoric and immodest strategies anarchist movements resist attempts to divert their disruptive force into normal politics. Activists attempt to reject the entire context within which they can be either marginalized or assimilated; they occupy their own ground. Thus one must also move beyond Sklair’s focus on disruptive politics to look at the constructive projects which make up so much of contemporary anarchism.

Politics which impede the capacities of states and capital to impose their global agenda offer possible beginnings for revolutionary politics in an age when many thought revolutionary politics had run their course. The collapse of authoritarian communism and the seeming triumph of neo-liberal capital throughout much of the world led many to lower their sights to little more than a radical democracy. Anarchism shatters such “end of history” scenarios and provides a radical vision for the renewal of struggles for a future beyond statist capitalism.

For Hakim Bey, another anarchist writer influenced by postructuralist theories, the greatest hope for resistance (revolution) rests in the assertion of difference against capitalist hegemonism (sameness). Difference is revolutionary in an age of one-world capitalist globality precisely because it disrupts the single-world, the mono-culture (1996: 25). To be revolutionary, however, particularity must not seek hegemony, it must remain anti-hegemonistic in character. As in classical anarchism, the two forces of the opposition are autonomy and federation. Autonomy without federation would be reaction, whereas federation without autonomy would end self-determination. Authentic difference is non-hegemonic and must be defended against the hegemonism of reaction (and capital). Against (one world) sameness and separation, difference and presence. Bey’s favourite example of revolutionary difference, and indeed the favourite of many anarchists including Graeber and Day, is the Zapatistas of Mexico because they defend their difference (as Mayans) without asking others to become Mayans.

More on the panopticon here

More on autonomy:

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