In the first chapter, a disagreement develops between the narrator and his riding companions, John and Sylvia, over the question of motorcycle maintenance. Robert performs his own maintenance, while John and Sylvia insist on having a professional do it. This posture of non-involvement, we soon learn, is a crucial element of their countercultural sensibility. They seek escape from “the whole organized bit” or “the system,” as the couple puts it; technology is a death force, and the point of hitting the road is to leave it behind. The solution, or rather evasion, that John and Sylvia hit on for managing their revulsion at technology is to “Have it somewhere else. Don’t have it here.” The irony is they still find themselves entangled with The Machine—the one they sit on.
Today, we often use “technology” to refer to systems whose inner workings are assiduously kept out of view, magical devices that offer no apparent friction between the self and the world, no need to master the grubby details of their operation. The manufacture of our smartphones, the algorithms that guide our digital experiences from the cloud—it all takes place “somewhere else,” just as John and Sylvia wished.
Yet lately we have begun to realize that this very opacity has opened new avenues of surveillance and manipulation. Big Tech now orders everyday life more deeply than John and Sylvia imagined in their techno-dystopian nightmare. Today, a road trip to “get away from it all” would depend on GPS, and would prompt digital ads tailored to our destination. The whole excursion would be mined for behavioral data and used to nudge us into profitable channels, likely without our even knowing it.