10/26/2012 03:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Uncommon Sense: Self-Driving Cars and Books That Write Themselves

A webzine recently asked me to write 100 words on the question, "If you had to choose between blindness and deafness, which sense would you keep?" I gave them one word: "common."

I wanted to put in my two cents about the absurdity of such nonsense, but something else was at work: more and more, the universe seems to be knocking common sense senseless.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines common sense as "the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way."

Fair enough. Common sense dictates that a reasonably safe way to transport my car around town is for me to drive it -- but even that may not be right: California has just legalized self-driving cars, so now it's reasonable to assume that someday soon my car may be driving me. Safety-wise, the LA Times promises that, "Self-driving Cars Are Approaching Fast -- And Safely."

What about reading? You might think you're on safe ground believing that you are reading this blog and not the other way around. Yet the Wall Street Journal reports that "Your E- Book Is Reading You," and a Huffpost blogger holds forth about, "The Books That Read You."

Twenty-five-hundred-years ago, Aristotle -- whom Bertrand Russell described as "Plato diluted by common sense" -- argued that common sense was the sensation that allows us to integrate the raw sensations of the other five senses. Make sense?

Buddhists deploy Zen koans to help truth-seekers sense the senselessness of trying to make sense of things; in other words, common sense -- in essence - isn't nonsense; it's non-sense.

Quantum physics makes mincemeat of common sense. Its equations prove that, in the strictest sense, a particle can exist simultaneously right here on earth and in the farthest corner of the universe. Firesign Theatre was having fun in 1969 when they wondered, "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?" Discover magazine was serious in 2005 when its cover story posed the question, "If an Electron Can Be in Two Places at Once, Why Can't You?"

Nonsensical as it may seem, many writers say that their fictions "write themselves." Author David Finkle elaborates: "There's a point at which when writing fiction, the characters begin telling the writing what they want to say and be. The writer is merely transcribing, so that you, the assumed author, are not writing the book. The book is writing the book."

Decades before the digital revolution, philosopher Michel Foucault stood common sense on its head by arguing, as University of Texas professor Ben Agger summarized it, that "books are an undecidable quagmire of plural, polyvocal meanings that do not sort neatly into a big picture." In English, this means that the book writes the author (or the blogpost writes the blogger). This has something to do with language and our hegemonic culture, but the bottom line is this: For Foucault, Foucault's books wrote Foucault.

I'm not saying that the upending of common sense is necessarily bad. Self-driving cars could prevent accidents and allow commuters to pursue happiness in any number of scandalous ways. But nagging questions arise. Will cop cars drive the cops who pull our self-driving cars over to give them (the cars, that is) tickets? Will car-hacking become the new car-jacking? And how will Jerry Bruckheimer make us care about driverless-car-chase scenes?

Can common sense handle a future in which, for instance, my Prius drives me across the country -- giving me time to read all 1208 pages of War and Peace -- while the 1034-page manual reads itself?

How about a new koan for the age of uncommon sense: What's the sound of one book writing its writer while it reads its reader?