Monday, 29 April 2013


Autopilot "Otto" in the film Airplane!
from Wikipedia

Ironically, this issue has fascinated me for ages. Ironically? I'll get to it eventually.

I know I’ve mentioned this notion before, but I’m sure many of us have arrived at work one morning to discover we don’t remember a single thing about the journey. Nothing, zilch, nada, zero, a total Cameron. It certainly happened to me.

If nothing out of the ordinary occurred to disturb my tranquility, then I’d arrive at work with the journey a complete blank. All that driving, the traffic lights, gear changes, stopping and starting - none of it had registered. My tranquility remained unmolested by other road users. 

It's quite a helpful start to the working day, but that's another issue. 

So how do I know nothing out of the ordinary happened during that unremembered journey? Hmm... Could be the tranquility I suppose.

Anyhow, this kind of experience always sets me wondering about our ability to run on autopilot and I’ve never really dropped the idea - which is another aspect of running on autopilot - hence the irony.

One question I mull over is - how common is it to run on autopilot? For example, when you roam around the internet, are you mainly  doing today pretty much what you did yesterday? Do you visit the same sites and read the same blogs? I certainly tend to.

Do you eat pretty much the same meals, have fixed routines, react in a standard way to similar questions, jokes, arguments, requests and frustrations? Do you react in a standard way to the weather, shopping, burnt toast, wine, a bad cold or your neighbour?

Are we on autopilot 50% of the time? Is it more than 50%? Or less? Is it possible to live almost your entire life on autopilot - say 98%?

To my mind, the tricky and uncomfortable issue is that we don’t really know how to tackle the question. Many aspects of human life do not present themselves in a handy quantitative way, but many more do not even present themselves in an unambiguously qualitative way either.

The autopilot question may be qualitative to some degree, but not in a particularly satisfactory way. We can't realistically claim to be hardly ever or sometimes or usually on autopilot because life isn't that clear cut.

Yet I still see the question as real enough, but it has to be tackled loosely via metaphor, simile and language which may as well be frankly literary as anything else.

So what’s the answer? Is it possible to live entirely on autopilot?

I don’t know, but I think one problem is time. It takes time to switch off the autopilot and back into independent thinking, but even then there is the autopilot waiting in the background, ready to take over the controls. 

So we don’t so much switch it off as turn it down. If we have the time to turn it down that is. The time to meditate, ponder or muse.

Time - that seems to be a key point.

Often we don’t have the time, especially in an environment where the autopilot is not necessarily a disadvantage. So why not extend the metaphor.

Work for example. The work of a senior civil servant, EU bureaucrat or UN committee trying to make the whole world run on autopilot. Because that appears to be the ultimate aim - a global autopilot where nobody has to think because there is a rule for everything and everything has its rules. 

Suppose the world tries to run itself on global autopilot, building systems and processes which also run on global autopilot because that is what bureaucracies expect and aim for.

My guess is that global autopilot is a worthwhile metaphor for globalisation. Something big which runs itself apart from an elite class of stakeholders to reap its benefits and a vast class of factotums to keep it those benefits coming.

It's only a harmless metaphor of course. Isn't it? 


Sackerson said...

Perfecting a system so you don't have to think any more. Is unconsciousness our highest aim?

Macheath said...

To reduce your global metaphor to a sphere I know, I wonder whether part of the problem with education could be described as a misplaced desire for schools to run on autopilot.

While those at the chalkface - at least the good ones; there will always be some who turn up and teach the pre-programmed lesson regardless of what is going on around them (rather like the dinner party in 'Carry on up the Khyber') - try to adapt their teaching to the needs of the individual classes and pupils, the office-based theorists and council officials in the wings are attempting to apply sausage-factory uniformity to the process.

Woodsy42 said...

I sometimes ask myself this question when watching our cats. They react to situations, learn from experience and have routines and emotions so it's easy to anthropomorphize their behaviour, yet they don't appear to plan ahead or analyse past behaviour.
I would suggest automatic behaviour, and like you the morning journey is a classic example, perhaps after being drunk forgetfullness is another, may date back to our animal origin? We simply do what we have learned works and carry it out on a subconscious level. How far that carries over into intellectual behaviour and beliefs is a good question.

Demetrius said...

Did I read this a week ago? At my age I am almost permanently on auto pilot (I nearly wrote polite). It is not that I forget but that I do not recall what I will be doing tomorrow.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - I see it as a state where there are no surprises - the state Karl Friston thinks we are programmed to seek.

Mac - I think bureaucrats would be happy to run entirely on autopilot. I've met some of them!

Woodsy - it's a tricky question too, yet we undoubtedly do have our routines.

Demetrius - I'm sure blogging helps though.