Finn Murphy, The Long Haul

A presentation by Finn Murphy is offered below we titled “Dead Man Driving”. It is well worth reading by anyone and particularly so for those concerned with the impacts of Artificial Intelligence and robotics on work and economic systems as well as the harms those technologies are imposing on a wide range of societies including the US, Western Europe, China and Japan. Murphy is the author of the New York Times best-selling book The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (W.W. Norton, 2017).  About two years ago I read in London’s Guardian newspaper a discussion of The Long Haul where Murphy penned an op-ed about what he saw happening to the world in which he had spent his professional life, one where many truckers would soon see their work and livelihoods disappear.  He wrote:

The only humans left in a modern supply chain are truck drivers. Today’s cutting-edge warehouses buzz with automated forklifts and robots that load and unload trucks while drivers stand around sipping coffee – and getting paychecks and health insurance. That’s the kind of thing that drives corporate finance types crazy. The best option is to eliminate drivers.

I’ve been driving big trucks since shortly after my 21st birthday in 1980 and I always figured I’d be able to stay on the road until retirement. Now I’m not so sure. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Daimler, Tesla, Uber, Ford and Toyota are all investing billions of dollars in driverless vehicles. … [D]riverless trucks will be here before driverless cars because that’s where the early money is going to be made. With some of the world’s most aggressive and best capitalized companies racing to be first with a viable driverless vehicle, I don’t give myself very good odds on choosing when to hang up my keys. (Guardian, 11/17/17)

We strongly recommend The Long Haul to any reader who wants to experience being drawn into a richly-presented world offered by a master story teller.  For me, the book relates directly to the messages presented in a book co-authored with my son Daniel Barnhizer, The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order (Clarity 2019).  Contagion deals with the rapid introduction of Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems into US society and the warning that as many as 47 to 50 percent of US jobs could be lost to these technologies over the next ten to fifteen years.  This incorporates the development of autonomous cars and trucks, including, believe it or not, the trucks and drivers that are at the heart of Murphy’s The Long Haul.  

Murphy offers a fascinating and unparalleled look at the life and times of big rig drivers including their independence and entrepreneurial spirit.  It is this attitude that sets many truckers a breed apart from the rest of us.  It is a type that is vanishing from the American landscape along with the true individualism in the process of being buried beneath the weight of a conformist society where, regardless of our rhetoric about diversity and difference, we are being told what to think, say and do.  

The unfortunate and growing truth of American and European culture is that if we violate any of the numerous webs of PC norms created to empower identity groups, then the forces of a strange Orwellian public/private 1984 police state operating through the power provided by modern information and Internet data mining, surveillance and communication networks in ways uncomfortably similar to lynch mobs descend on us with threats, sanctions, boycotts, insults and ostracism, and other forms of intimidation and punishment.  Democratic political systems long thought of as the means to empower each of us to develop our highest potential as free and free-thinking individuals and to enrich the total community by doing so, are being increasingly converted into instrumentalities of oppression, thought control and groupthink.

Murphy presents his message through a powerful and descriptive narrative of the diverse culture of the long haul trucker, one that is often raucous and crude but that operates according to its own conventions.  By itself Murphy’s perspective is worth a deep read.  The culture of the long haul trucker is complex, including conflicting levels of status that seem stunning to those of us who have considered the nature of the job even though we have no actual knowledge of its dynamics.  Murphy provides all this as he describes a life in which truckers who move heavy duty commodities such as steel consider themselves “better” than truckers like Murphy who spent much of his life packing, loading and then transporting 30,000 pound loads of commercial and residential furniture and possessions throughout the country.  

Such messages about the inevitable discrimination that emerges in all areas of human activity—bias driven by our need to feel superior relative to others—provide useful insights about the tragic inadequacy of being human and the damage our “dark side” causes in so many contexts.  But even more important in the context of the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems that threaten the future of human work is Murphy’s message that at the heart of the long haul truck driver is the need to be independent from the control of bosses and a rebellion against being trapped in corporate cubicles like rats in a maze.

Among the powerful messages of The Long Haul is that this is where the world of work is heading—not only with trucks, cars, busses, boats and even airplanes—but in an amazing array of activities from the most labor-intensive to professions such as finance, medicine, corporate middle management and law.  Among the central messages of The Long Haul is his understanding of the dignifying power of human work, not only as a means to “put bread on the table” but a warning that taking away the opportunity to test and prove ourselves against the challenges we face denies us the chance to develop and succeed that Murphy (and Daniel and I) consider a fundamental part of being human. 

The vital importance of preserving and developing human work experiences and opportunity is something that Dan and I wrote about in The Artificial Intelligence Contagion and we are “spot on” with Finn Murphy in that regard. Succumbing to a culture of endless ennui and becoming fully dependent on the gratuities and the inevitable stifling control of governmental actors regardless of how well-intentioned some of them might be must not be the future of human democratic societies. 

We are grateful to Finn Murphy for eloquently describing his fear that long haul truckers are a version of the “canaries in the mine” whose early demise provided miners with a warning of dangerous gas leaks with enough time that the worst consequences could be avoided.  We want to express our appreciation to Finn Murphy for his grant of permission to post the presentation set out below.  It is a wise, rich and poignant analysis that captures the rapid destruction of human work and opportunity that is now undermining the fabric of work, freedom and democracy essential to American and European societies.

“Dead Man Driving”

Finn Murphy

October 20, 2018

I received the request to speak at the Rocky Mountain Literary Festival only a week after the publication of The Long Haul. It was the very first communication I had from any organization asking me to appear. You’ve no idea how exciting that was. A week or two later I had a nice review in the New York Times, and then the New Yorker, the Paris Review and many more. I had the distinct honor of being a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and have been invited to and attended more than 150 book events. It’s been a great ride for a first time author.

I know there is pent-up curiosity about trucking, truck drivers, and the moving industry. Here with me, you’ll have a reasonably tame long haul driver to help unravel some of the mystery. I’m a fun guy and I think we’ll have some fun in the question/comment section but this first part of our journey together is going to be serious. 

My book can certainly be read as a fun little ride inside the cab of a big-rig, but my intention was something more thought provoking than a mere romp down the highway.     

For openers, truck drivers are not a homogenous group of atavistic rednecks. We’re a diverse bunch with families, aspirations, and emotional lives. The fact that many drivers are lacking modern economy skills can’t be denied but that doesn’t make any of us less a human being or discounts our desire to participate in this economy. We’re mostly just regular folks who derive our livelihood, and a lot of our self-worth, through our work. In other words, we’re just like you.  

As a truck driver and furniture mover, my work reality can be difficult, occasionally life threatening, but also sublime. People are always asking me how a reasonably sentient guy like me does what I do. My answer is that moving families long-distance is highly gratifying and driving the country in a big truck for months at a time is a daily smorgasbord of the American cultural landscape. My pleasure mostly comes from doing the work, which requires specialized knowledge, a strong back, organizational skills, with a good dollop of diplomacy thrown in. Diplomacy is the key element in moving families. I have diplomacy. In fact with a name like Finn Murphy, I have Irish diplomacy. In case you’re wondering what that is, Irish Diplomacy is the ability to tell a man to go to hell so that he looks forward to the trip. That’s my last joke. 

The fact that my job is held in low esteem by society doesn’t cause me a twinge and never has. 

A lot of my book is about dealing with authority and a lot of it is about work. I like bringing my skills to work and I like watching other people work. In my leisure hours I read about work. In fact, I’m obsessed with work, especially manual work, and have been ever since I was a teenager, after actually having done some real work. Labor can be an internal world filled with all sorts of satisfactions. I’ve always wanted more work but it seemed like most people wanted less. Indeed the entire world around me has been taking away work since my youth with gadgets that continually increase their efficiency and speed. 

Make no mistake, I’m no proponent of the back-breaking, soul crushing labor of times past. Robert Caro in his masterpiece The Path to Power about the emergence of Lyndon Johnson, has several revealing passages detailing the domestic workday of a matriarch in the Texas hill country before electrification. That description had me fashioning a noose and nosing around for a handy ceiling rafter. Books such as How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and anything by Charles Dickens have all served to help me appreciate many aspects of the modern world. 

I‘m interested in how manual work can be a choice-worthy occupation and the notion that manual work, and what goes along with it, has been devalued over my lifetime. It was Matthew Crawford’s wonderful book Shopcraft as Soulcraft that crystallized my vague disquiet about all this. Crawford points out that working with tools and machinery allows a person to fail at their own pace and celebrates how someone can recover from failure using their mind. In physical work there are constraints that won’t yield to any fabrication of an undeserved self-esteem or self-serving narrative. In short, work is a reliable demonstration of reality

As anyone who’s done real work knows, it’s not mindless at all. It’s mindful. Crawford gets on a pretty high horse about what he’d no doubt call the infantilization of our relationship with machinery. He laments that many modern car models no longer have a dipstick to check the oil. Apparently such a sophisticated mechanical operation is now beyond the skills of a modern automobile driver. I’m not a fanatic on the point like Crawford, but I’ll vouchsafe that unfreezing a brake line with a burning flare, lying on my back in slush, on a freezing highway, will not diminish my self-confidence. 

Quite the contrary. With work I earn confidence, bruise by bruise, to the point where I might actually know something about something. That might lead to some independent thinking about other things. Crawford’s main point is that dumbing down our machinery and neglecting mindful work materially affects our capacity for critical and independent thinking. I agree with that, and this is where the authority part of my book kicks in. Independent thinkers are not easy fodder for charlatans, demagogues, or self-appointed guardians of some invented public good. Independent thinking creates solid citizens who can distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality.  

If you’re wondering where I’m going with all this. Well I know where I’m going. I always know where I’m going, because driving a big truck requires it, or I’ll end up under an overpass or in a ditch. Putting a tractor-trailer under a low bridge and cutting off the roof (What truckers call getting a haircut) may also be described as a reliable demonstration of reality. 

Being a trucker who’s also a mover means that I don’t drive a dark line on the interstates going from terminal to terminal. I go where the moves are which means private residences. A morning backup into a suburban cul de sac where landscapers have trouble operating a riding lawn mower much less a 75 foot tractor trailer is a typical aspect of my daily work. I’m proud of that. Unlike freight hauling truckers, movers drive smack into the middle of towns and communities and I get to have a short but intimate relationship with the places I’m in and the people I move. 

America has about 15,000 towns and I’ve been in or through a good portion of them. Over the decades I’ve seen hundreds of once thriving town centers decompose in the face of the big box retailers on the outskirts. I’ve watched Kansa and Nebraska become denuded of people. I’ve seen self-serving land use transform the prairies and valleys of Colorado, California, and Oregon into swaths of auto-dependent, low density housing. I’ve watched our roadways fall apart. 

The heartland is empty now except for meat-packing plants set well away from prying eyes, a corn mono-culture where I can drive for hundreds of miles and not see a sign of human habitation. I’ve seen the environs of almost every interstate exit infested with national chain restaurants and motels that clone themselves like anthrax spores. It’s happened everywhere but you only get to see the contagion in its contemptible saturation if you’ve crisscrossed the country over and over. That phase of the homogenization, or standardization, of America is now almost complete. But it’s not over. It’s just beginning. 

I’m a dead man walking. Pretty soon a machine will be supplanting me as a driver. Sooner than you think. Intel’s recent purchase of Mobileye and Alphabet’s purchase of WAYMO are only the latest grabs in the scrum to develop autonomous vehicles on a mass scale. Those two behemoths are joined by Amazon, Apple, Daimler-Benz, Tesla, Uber, Ford, and Toyota. The world’s most aggressive and well-capitalized companies are racing to be first with a viable autonomous vehicle. We haven’t seen this kind of capital intensive technological focus since the 1960s when we were hell-bent on beating the Russians to the moon. I don’t give myself very long odds against that kind of juggernaut and truck drivers will be first to go because that’s the where early money is going to be. 

The only humans left in the modern supply chain are truck drivers. Today’s cutting edge warehouses buzz with automated forklifts and robots that load and unload trucks while drivers stand around sipping coffee. The most efficient option is to eliminate drivers. Now I understand that global industry is constantly being reinvented to reduce inefficiencies. New technologies will not be denied because if we don’t do it here, they’ll do it in Shanghai or Singapore or Dusseldorf and we’ll be left behind. I also understand that human error is responsible for almost all vehicle accidents. One and a half million people are killed worldwide every year on roadways. 40,000 Americans are killed every year. There are over 3 million injuries in the US alone and let’s not bother calculating property losses. I’ve no doubt that when the technology is perfected and critical mass is achieved, those millions of deaths will be reduced to a trickle. 

But what’s the endgame here with all this technology? It’s not a new question. I’m sure it was asked 35,000 years ago by the cave artist who emerged from his workday to see someone drawing on a sheepskin with a piece of charcoal. He probably complained that this new technology would ruin their culture. Well, it did. Nobody draws on cave walls anymore. Nobody has phone calls put through by an operator. Nobody pulls a wagon with a mule. But the question of the endgame remains, and now that the pace of change is measured in months instead of centuries it’s a much more pressing question to answer. Are we supposed to resign ourselves to the inevitability of the march of progress and keep any concerns to ourselves? Where did this assumption that eliminating work is axiomatically beneficial come from? Does this assumption have a goal other than some blurry ideal of efficiency? Is it simply an evolutionary imperative? Wherefrom comes this Will to Efficiency and what is its ultimate objective? I think it’s reasonable to have some kind of answer to that before autonomous vehicles toss 2 ½  million truck drivers into idle penury. 

I’ve not yet encountered a satisfactory answer to any of the questions posed above. Nor have I seen any credible vision of what a healthy society might look like that is buffeted daily by runaway technological expansion. 

There’s certainly no shortage of what an unhealthy society that worships at the altar of technology might look like. Post-apocalyptic literature is bursting with any number of dystopian scenarios where the labor issue is solved by machinery but the human issue regarding purpose is not. There’s a lot of excellent and creative current literature out there on this but my three favorites are oldies but goodies, they being Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In these novels social order has no goal other than order itself. The role of humankind is to act as a kind of protoplasmic teletubby ingesting whatever consumer goods are on offer. In Brave New World when John the Savage tries to take away the Soma drug everyone is issued, he enjoins the mob:

“Do you like being babies? Yes, babies. Mewling and puking. Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you understand what manhood and freedom are?”

He receives no answer. 

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 and Bradbury’s depiction of the Fireman’s wife, addicted to interactive television, is chilling in its foresight. 

Another, and perhaps more important facet in these books is how societies deal with those iconoclasts who insist upon continuing with meaningful work. Huxley soaks these misfits with the soporific Soma and exiles them. Vonnegut puts manual laborers on public assistance and everyone calls them the Reeks and Wrecks. Bradbury’s police state violently purges outliers. Apparently hard work, especially lone work, is dangerous to totalitarian social orders. Indeed it is, and any budding authoritarian knows this instinctively, because lone work begets independent thinking.  

I’m not at all confused by the general surge in populism we’re seeing. I’m not one of them, but I have certainly noticed that the tail of technology is wagging the dog of the social contract. We’re leaving millions of citizens in poverty professions and out of any economic progress or upward mobility. It’s precisely this segment of supplanted workers where populist growth is happening. I see these people every day. As one truck driver said in the New York Times: “We’re throwaway people.” Another driver added: “I live and breathe and take up space. I have to be somewhere, but nobody wants me anywhere.” 

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a panacea for displaced workers but that misses the whole point of what I’m saying today and what I wrote my book about. People like me, peering into the abyss of ineffectuality, actually want to be responsible. We want to work and support our families. We want to hold our heads up high. We want to pay our taxes. We want to be a part of it all. UBI is just a nice way of telling us all we have no economic value. Well, nobody wants to hear that about themselves, nor should they, in any society worthy of the name. 

We need to examine our attitudes about technological change and labor. Where’s the private sector in all this? Can it toss a couple of million truck drivers onto the dole and then reap the financial benefits with no accountability at all? Apparently it can. It has before and will continue to do so unless the process is interrupted. I’m a solid American and I believe in work. I also believe in cleaning up after myself. That doesn’t make me a left-leaning softie or an unreconstructed Luddite. That makes me a responsible citizen. It’s long past time the private sector became one too. You only have to drive a few miles west of here to see the mess the gold strikes left with their slag heaps and chemical dumps. Maybe the days of leaving that kind of mess are behind us but there’s been no change whatsoever in how human beings are left behind. 

An even bigger idea is that we look ahead and actually think about what kind of society technology can help shape. Right now, it’s the other way around. This might help us navigate the social effects of the technological ocean we’re currently drowning in. Social order for its own sake is no place I wish to live and technological change for its own sake isn’t either. Without some kind of vision about where this is going we’re destined to be the slaves of technology not its masters. We already are. 

Automation is also running a parallel track in eliminating bankers, lawyers, accountants, indeed all sorts of professions. When that starts to happen in earnest we might see some push back about the social costs of technology. So long as it’s only truckers and factory workers getting sacked, well there’s always Walmart, McDonald’s, and food stamps for us. Well, my view is that we’re the canary in the coal mine. You’re next. If this trend continues, and I see no reason why it won’t, soon enough the ‘throwaway people’ will outnumber everyone else. Then we’ll see a real dystopia. 

I myself don’t have any answers to these questions but I don’t think enough people are asking them. In an automated world, what’s to be the role of human beings? To quote Cotton Seiler in his book Republic of Drivers, “The belief in self-directed motion as an agent of liberation is powerful and venerable in American culture.”

I don’t want to give another inch on that kind of freedom. The interstate highway system is a great example of what I’m talking about. It appears to be the road to freedom but, like runaway technology, it’s can also be an agent of social control. The limited access and homogenized services on the highways create an illusion of freedom in the same way a build-a-bear creates an illusion of creativity. Like in Brave New World, the options are broad to buttress the fantasy of autonomy, but it may turn out to be a prison, no matter how comfortable. 

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