Is Technology Addiction Killing Car Culture? – The ‘Book Mystique

I am profoundly grateful that I grew up in an era without colour television or reception of more than two channels; in rural communities that still had telephones with a hand crank and live operators who connected you with the number you wanted using a switchboard and patch cables.

Experiencing the days before there were personal computers or an Internet, when all phones were landlines, when we listened to music on the radio — often on transistor portables that sounded like they had recycled tin cans for loudspeakers — or on vinyl records played on what was typically medium-fi equipment at best. No digital clocks, no FAX machines — themselves now considered obsolete technology but for a very short while the cutting edge of communication chic. No electronic calculators either; you had to learn how to do math the hard way — perhaps assisted in complex calculations by a sub-basement level tech mechanical analog computer called a slide rule.

These are perceived deprivations that generations growing up with no memory of a pre-Internet, pre-cellphone, pre-social media, pre digital music world (ie: pretty much everyone born after about 1985) can barely imagine, but we survived them and thrived — arguably more happily and successfully in many respects than current upcoming generational cohorts gazing transfixed into the electronic Narcissus pool of cellphone texting, social media, and selfie shooting as so many of them are. According to a poll conducted for nonprofit Common Sense Media reported by CNN correspondent Kelly Wallace, 50 percent of teens cop to being addicted to their mobile devices, nearly 80 percent check their phones hourly, and 72 percent feel compelled to respond immediately. Of course tech addiction can afflict members of older generations as well, with 27 of parents surveyed in the poll admitting to being addicted to cellphones as well, with 59 percent saying their offspring are too.

Back in the day, to communicate and socialize, we related face-to-face, by land line telephone (at least locally — long-distance was expensive), and by letter mail. When we needed to find out someting or research a topic, we would consult an encyclopedia or other reference book — either at home or the library. For entertainment, we watched T.V. and went to movies at the theater — all of which seemed quite adequate at the time..

A lot of us also had cars, in which a large proportion of our social interaction was conducted or facilitated. George Lucas’s 1973 flick American Grafitti presents a remarkably recognizable — albeit dramatized and time-compressed –facsimile of my experiences in the car-oriented social culture of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Cars themselves were a focus of enthusiasm and endless hours of discussion — mainly by males — although the opposite sex typically liked cars too for their social, transportation, and status attributes. However, there were females prominent in the golden era of car culture. Look up Shirley Muldowney and Denise McCluggage as prima facie examples.

It was also healthier. Text neck.Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and other frms of RSI were not widespread problems, and being generally much more physically active, far fewer of us were overweight or obese.

There’s no way I would trade the social aspects for today’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, texting, etc., or the non-electronic mechanical purity and user involvement with cars of that era for the heavily computer-dependent vehicles of our current world. Let alone ones that drive themselves.

It’s really not so much of a wonderment that so many young people these days profess indifference or even dislike toward cars. Such residual car enthusiasm as still exists among young people tends to be focused on infotainment matters. Cars are no longer an important facilitator of social life, and their locked-down resistance to tinkering renders them less satisfactory objects of interest from a technical (as opposed to technological) perspective.

Personally, I remain an automotive aficionado. I still subscribe to three (hard copy) car magazines, and the fascination remains very much alive. But I never cared much for in-car inoftainment, and back in the day would rarely even turn on the radio if I was driving alone — preferring to listen to the engine, especially if it was a V-8.

My 2014 Ford F-150’s 5.0 litre V8 still sounds great, but my degree of disinterest in automotive tech can be gauged by the fact that I’ve never bothered even to experiment with the Ford Sync voice activation technology (engineered by Microsoft, I’m unencouragingly informed by a plaque on the dash), nor did I take advantage of the complimentary six-month satellite radio subscription the truck came with.

It’s not that I’m a complete technology Luddite. I spend vast amounts of screen time on computers and iPads, which have been essential tools of my trade for a quarter-century now, and I’ll happily embrace technology that makes my life better. However, I’m not a gamer, avoid social media as much as possible, and associate computers with work rather than as entertainment and recreation devices.

And I definitely don’t want to talk to my car or have it talk to me in synthesized human language, let alone passively let it chauffeur me around. Consequently, I was fascinated to read a recent column in Automobile magazine by my favorite non-fiction author and chronological contemporary P.J. O’Rourke, who has been an automotive journalist off and on since 1977 voicing similar techno-skeptical musings and disaffections and stating: “There’s no new car I want”, noting that while five generations of O’Rourkes have built, sold, written about, and tinkered with cars, when he raises a new car’s hood these days, “there’s nothing to tinker with”, adding: “I might as well pry the back off a giant, rolling iPhone”.

O’Rourke says the rot started setting in some forty years ago when cars began letting him know if he’d left the lights on, the door open, the keys in the ignition, or if he failed to fasten his seatbelt.

“Now I hate cars,” O’Rourke declares, explaining: “I hate that I can’t fix them. I hate that I don’t need to fix them. Love means wanting to be involved”.

“I hate the way new cars look”, O’Rourke continues, “aerodynamically correct blobs of phlegm spit out by computers at the command of Hello Kitty draftsmen… I hate electric cars. They run on batteries. My house is full of devices that run on batteries…. Now I hear of driverless cars…. Damn the computers… letting something you’re supposed to operate be smarter than the operator is dangerous”.

I agree in principle, although I’m not quite as jaundiced as P.J. is letting on here, and I doubt that he really is either, although I do understand where he’s coming from. O’Rourke cut his automotive teeth on British sports cars, as did I. He had a 1960 MGA. I had a 1957 MGA, a 1967 MGB and a 1962 Riley 1.5. In all of these vehicles, tinkering was non-optional, unless one was independently wealthy, in which case one would have probably been driving an Aston Martin, a Ferrari, or some other exotic cared for by a private mechanic.

I miss the tinkering, although not so much on cold winter mornings when I have miles to go and the F-150 fires up without hesitation and just does what I need it to do, with no involvement from me other than steering and other driver input. But that’s where I draw the line. Which is why I have only academic technical interest in the automotive projects of tech firms such as Google with its autonomous vehicle development, or Apple’s rumored iCar which is widely anticipated to also be oriented toward driverless operation.

Investment guru Warren Buffet seems to be convinced that an Apple car has a future, his Berkshire Hathaway mutual fund buying 9.8 million Apple shares worth worth approximately $1 billion this week. However, while there’s lots of interest from the automotive community, it’s largely apprehensive. Car and Driver magazine did include an Apple “iMaybe” in its May, 2016 “25 Cars Worth Waiting For” feature, but the speculative artist’s conception of a futuristic minivan-like vehicle is unappealing to auto enthusiasts.

Not to say that real car culture and high technology are absolutely antagonistic. Elon Musk has spectacularly demonstrated with the Tesla Model S that it is possibles to design and build automobiles with crossover appeal to car people, tech focused types, and even to greens. The Model S is zero emissions, scorchingly quick, handles well, and is classically beautiful and elegant in the way that Jaguars used to be.

If Apple were to come up with something like that, they would have my attention. Especially if it was priced within reach of ordinary people and still offered stimulating driver involvement.

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