Monday, October 6, 2008

Auto Culture

It has become standard for social commentators to decry the way modern entertainment technology begets individualism. The movies let you witness events second-hand, sitting in a dark room, instead of out on the street with real people. (At least reading is easy to interrupt, and requires some imagination.) TV moves those images into the home, so that you can tune out of the real world and sink into your easy chair. But at least at the beginning your options were limited, so that you were watching the same thing as millions of other viewers. Cable let you choose just what you wanted, the VCR let you watch whenever you wanted, and now modern gizmos like tivo and internet movies give you greater selection, so that your media fix can be perfectly individualized.

Meanwhile, music moved from a social activity, in a concert hall or a saloon, to a phonograph in the living room, to headphones out on the street. Many commentators think the iPod is a new low, so that you don't even have to listen to an artist's whole album, but can pick and choose the program that exactly fits you. Reality becomes something not received, but created. We'll call it auto-culture: it's all about my individualized desires.

I'll acknowledge these critiques, with two hedges. First (and I won't try to work this out) I think there's a negative force as well. Take, for example, classical music. Anyone who has been to a concert knows that live music is much much more enjoyable than the radio, or even the iPod. If people come to prefer tuning out through technology, it has something to do with a lack of other options. Technological entertainment feeds individualism, but I think it's more a symptom of social breakdown than a cause. If kids had something better to do or somewhere better to go, they'd be less inclined to plug into their devices.

Second, individualism isn't all bad, because it is, in a certain sense, true. We are individuals. Society should come together as an organism, to be sure, but an organism composed of individual units, each knowing and learning and loving at their own pace. I can enjoy the social experience of an opera more if I can study it on my own time, too. The anti-technology zealots sometimes fail to appreciate the great boone that technology can be. It's not good to be tuned out all the time, but when I'm sitting alone in my office cataloging books, it's pretty nice that I can turn on a cd. There is, in fact, something socializing, and enculturating, about being able to do some things on my own time -- as long as I also plug into the world around me: go to concerts, talk to human beings, listen to birds, etc.

In any case, I think those who decry entertainment technology fail (as far as I have seen) to recognize the greatest force of auto-culture: the automobile. My daily commute has made me more aware than ever of the profound solipsism of the car. In Washington, I commuted by foot and by train. I stopped to talk to people. I looked at people, had time to observe them, and look them in the eye. I stopped to watch the construction in my neighborhood, to identify a new bird, to sort through books left on the curb by my neighbors.

In the car, everything flies by at 55mph. Every day I watch the pond where the heron lives -- but I fly by so fast that there's no time to look. It's like fleeting images on the television. But most bizarre of all, all I see of the thousands of other people on the road is the back end of their cars. At stop signs sometimes you see a face -- but it's of somebody trying to get past you as fast as possible, and trying not to crash into anything. (I think we under-appreciate how dangerous cars are, and how much of our energy has to go into not killing ourselves.) The freeway is almost like a nightmare, where all the people have been turned into machines.

Meanwhile, the car allows us to create a culture based entirely on our own desires. iPods let you choose what music you want to listen to. But a car lets you choose what landscape you live in, what people you come in contact with, what territory you experience. The ability of suburbanites to fly past poor "inner city" neighborhoods without even seeing the people who live there is truly amazing. The ability to choose a neighborhood where only people like you live. The ability to limit your contact with other people, so that an automobile life can leave the house and get to work or social activities without ever seeing a neighborhood, without ever seeing anyone one hasn't directly chosen. This is auto-culture taken to its limit.

To be sure, the hedges I noted above apply to cars as well. If people had a greater awareness of the riches of a pedestrian lifestyle, perhaps they would be less inclined to whiz past it. Politically, I am certainly more in favor of carrots than sticks in this regard: better to improve our cities than to drive people out of the suburbs. On the other hand, cars have created our social breakdown in a way that entertainment technology has not. People did not move out of their neighborhoods just because they had a tv. Entertainment is only an accoutrement; automobiles shape an entire lifestyle, so that the average American's home, work, and social life are all fundamentally conditioned by their abstraction from the neighborhood around them.

And individualism isn't all bad. Those who attack cars -- especially in favor of trains -- sometimes fail to appreciate the magic of individualized transportation. For example, later this week my family is going on vacation to New England, where we will rent a car. That car allows us to get to New Hampshire to see family and friends, then drive down to Connecticut, then over to Rhode Island. We will spend nights in three different towns and visit people in at least seven different cities over the course of a week -- all while dragging around two little kids, a wheelchair, and a bunch of luggage. Our travel itenerary is highly individualized, because our friends and family are in different places than yours. No mass transit could get us to the door of each of these houses. Travel would be difficult without cars.

Even city life is greatly improved by the automobile. It is probably not necessary for each person to drive a separate car to the grocery store. But to get the groceries from the store to each individual house (not to mention getting it to the store in the first place) it's a heck of a lot easier if there are at least delivery trucks. It makes sense for groceries to be individualized -- it is, in fact, a necessity of culture -- and that requires a more individualized system of transportation. And sometimes it's nice to have a ride home -- if someone gets hurt, or if someone isn't able to walk far, or if you're going to an event across town. I rather doubt we all need to own our own cars for that, but it certainly helps to have taxis and buses, with the individualized itinerary these vehicles allow.

In short, automobiles -- and auto-technology in general -- makes a great servant, but a terrible master. To make our lives revolve around ultra-individualism is to kill what is most human in us. But to deny the individuality that gives me an interest in Renaissance music while I work, or in getting to a concert across town, or in visiting relatives across the country, is also to deny our humanity: both our individuality and our social nature, since social things happen only when individuals can get to them. Autos, yes. Auto culture, no.