PULLING UP TO A RED LIGHT in an irresponsible state of fatigue, I was stirred from my torpor by a flash overhead. I cursed, thinking the automated stoplight camera had taken my photo, attributing some infraction unwarranted or obscure to me. But then my irritation gave way to a fanciful sense of threat as I noticed the same flash, accompanied by a faint click, illuminating every passing car, as if to remind us of its presence and capability should any grow bold in the assumption that no one is looking.
Our new camera system had introduced itself by mail weeks before, ticketing me for that longtime indulgence: turning right on a red light without coming to a complete stop--what is sometimes called a "boulevard" or "California" stop. (This latter construct, I imagine, is destined to become an archaic curiosity, as soon no one will associate such laxity with a state in the vanguard of the prohibitionist assault on smoking and fatty foods.)
When the ticket arrived in the mail, my daughter and I, who share the offending car, were left wondering which of us was responsible. A machine took a picture of a machine, and a man was accused of an indiscretion. Human involvement, if not yet unnecessary, was at least not in evidence. The car might as well have been driving itself.
I paid my $112 ticket dutifully and ruefully as always but with an added sense of powerlessness, as if I'd become nothing more than a conduit for transferring small amounts of capital from the private sector to the public coffers. The transaction couldn't have occurred without me, but I still couldn't help feeling a bit superfluous.
This admittedly petty encounter cast in relief for me the erosion of something I take for granted: the unregulated and unmonitored existence. The encroachment on my life was slight and might have been justified in light of public safety--driving is, after all, an earned privilege, not a given right. But one can be excused for wondering where these fractional progressions in the unassailable name of safety are leading us.
I further found myself nostalgic for that other human marginalized by this transaction, the traffic cop: for his inconvenient intrusions, his occasional severity and lecturing, his indifference to the real criminals, his being forever chastised for not pursuing--presumably in 1970s cop-show fashion--a speeding getaway car or engaging in a foot chase through a gritty alleyway. You truly never know what you have until it's gone.
The unsleeping automation of the stoplight camera, in relieving us of the cost and imperfection of man--his wandering attention, his occasional laziness, his bias--purges this interaction of the nobler and softening humanity the traffic cop brings: his occasional exception for the impoverished working man or harried single mother, his fellowship tempting him to overlook the slight transgression in hope of establishing goodwill, his vanity to appear magnanimous and "let you off with a warning."
The fiscal logic of these systems suggests that they will prevail and proliferate to the point that soon there will be no cop on the ground to find an offense understandable or minor. Automation strips society of a bit of its humanity along with those humans it renders superfluous and economically unjustifiable. But we are all complicit, voting with our wallets and with whatever instinct compels me to turn a trip to the grocery store into a solitary experience by using another recent innovation, automated checkout lines. I'm not pointing fingers but owning up. …