Hug an Automobile Today

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James Carroll, one of my very favorite columnists (Boston Globe), departs from his general political thread to discuss what has happened to the American love for the automobile. He starts by putting us into the historical context:

THE GREAT American romance is over. The automobile has gone from being the joyous emblem of what made this nation great to being the symbol of its social, political, environmental, and economic, well, car wreck.

And ends up with:

Automobiles are not the same machines we fell in love with. They are computers that move, and, instead of by the savvy mechanics of the old days, trouble shooting is done by “on board-diagnostics.’’ Hard drive has a new meaning, and so does crash. This is all to the good - except when it’s not. What’s with that fickle “check engine’’ light anyway? The car began as one kind of symbol, and has become another - a symbol of the world we are creating with machines that answer more to themselves than to us.

In between, he traces the path that took automobiles from a machine that we could understand and tinker with to a heartless device that runs as if by magic. Even the neighborhood mechanical magician, who used to diagnose every problem by listening and tapping, now needs a computer to discover what is causing that funny noise. Carroll is observing a general trend in technology that has serious adverse effects on the possibility for flourishing, that is, sustainability. Technological artifacts are continuing to morph from things that we interacted with and which collected more than a single instrumental mode of satisfaction for us to what Albert Borgmann calls devices. For him devices have a single instrumental function. One example he talks about in his important, but difficult book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, is a comparison of a furnace and a fireplace.

Both deliver heat. The furnace is significantly more efficient than the fireplace, but does nothing other than provide BTU's. The fireplace serves as a magnet for family activities from carrying fuel from the cellar or woodpile to providing a place to gather and converse. Borgmann calls such technological artifacts, focal devices, because they collect activities just as a lens collects light. Focal activities are important to sustainability because they illuminate Being. Or stated conversely, devices are bad for sustainability because they hide Being from us.

We interact with them without understanding what is inside of the almost always present black box. They are designed to do their job with as little interruption in the flow of action as possible. User friendliness is a key design criterion in most electronic and mechanical products. As we use them over and over, our consciousness of how they fit into our lives, that is what (multiple) domains of care they serve slowly fades away. They reinforce our sense that things are only there for some limited, well-defined use.

The last sentence of Carroll's insightful article echoes the concern of many, including me, that modern technology has changed the way we understand everything in the world as something existing only as a potential instrument. Nature becomes nothing but resources. Human become only tools for something. Our only goal in life is then the pursuit of more and more of these tools. There is and can be no flourishing in this mode of living. It's what happens when, As Carroll puts it, when our artifacts become, "machines that answer more to themselves than to us."

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