The Defeat Device

The basis of the appeal of the private automobile has always been a kind of mystically perceived total freedom. In practice, it is the freedom to go wherever one wants to go (wherever the roads go, which opens up another socioeconomic can of worms), whenever one desires to go (whenever the car is ready, when one has paid the price in preparation and maintenance, in taxation and legal qualification, whenever one has the wherewithal simply to feed the machine), at whatever rate one desires to go (assuming the traffic will allow, that congestion eases – and at rates up to but not beyond the arbitrary standards established to protect one from the dangers of excessive use of his own freedom).

Never mind the cavils, however; mobility, or the illusion thereof, has indeed been the prime attraction, the dream for which we have so cheerfully paid all those other costs. The tragedy is that if mobility alone had been the single goal in the development of the modern private automobile, we could have achieved a better measure of it for a fraction of a percentage point of the cost we have paid.

— John Jerome, The Death of the Automobile, 1972

It should be unsettling to all of us that we have built our lives around, designed the places we live and work to, hinged an unhealthy segment of our economy on this “mystically perceived total freedom” of the private automobile. deathoftheautomobileSo engrained is this perception of the individual life enhancing power of the car that we cannot imagine a future without one, a future, like the past two generations, of unimodal transportation policy revolving entirely around our use of private vehicles. Anything else is inconceivable.

Our mayor will be pursuing an item at city council this week that will, if successful, drain $350 million from the capital budget in order to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway, shrinking the timeline from 20 to 8 years. So important to our local economy that people not be hampered in getting around the city in their cars, Mayor Tory believes this to be a wise and prudent expense of public dollars. Just like spending hundreds of millions more money to keep a small eastern section of the same expressway elevated makes sense to him.

The primacy of the automobile is simply self-evident. As it was so it shall ever be. carad5Stopping such madness only serves to reveal it was madness from the very beginning.

While you can certainly accuse the mayor of lacking much imagination and even less foresight, you can’t necessarily fault him. The car mythology has been deeply engrained in us, sold to us unrelentingly, in 30 second spots during the Super Bowl, filling up magazine pages, providing regular content in pop culture. Little Deuce Coup to the Fast and Furious. Baby, you can drive my car and we’ll have fun, fun, `til your daddy takes the T-bird away. (That makes no sense but nothing about car adulation does).

We have been bamboozled by marketing and PR. In this way, the automotive industry has much in common with Big Tobacco. Actually, in another important way as well. Mass deception and perfidy resulting in a steady march of hundreds of thousands to the graveyard.

Truth in advertising.

We laugh now at the outrageous claims of pretend doctors pitching their favourite brand of cigarettes. Cool menthol. Lucky Strike. It’s Toasted! Low tar and nicotine. I’d Rather Fight Than Switch. carad4Come To Where The Flavour Is, you Marlboro Man Men, a succession of pitchmen dying of lung cancer.

But how much more realistic is your everyday car commercial? Mostly, drivers and their freedom-loving passengers, tearing it up along the open road, nary another car in sight, even in the most populous of cities. Ads highlighting the new features that a company has developed to keep your family safe deny the obvious. Your family would be much safer not travelling around the city in a car.

One of the most cynical spots on TV right now is one featuring the band X Ambassadors, touring America in a Jeep, writing lyrics, listening to music on the radio, taking in the sights. And where do they wind up for a gig? At a venue that says ‘Portland’ on its marquee. Portland, Oregon. Perhaps the leading North American city committed to reducing its dependence of private automobiles.

Renegades, my ass, you TV jinglemakers. Fuck you, X Ambassadors. Fuck you, Jeep. Fuck you, car industry.

A little over-the-top? An unfair comparison, cars and cigarettes? One is a delivery system for an addictive, toxic virulence which was well-known but hidden and denied by corporations and the other…

Volkswagen: The scandal explained. ‘Diesel dupe’. ‘Defeat device’. carad2A mammoth multinational company consciously working to defy regulations in order to sell their product which dumps untold amounts of dangerous, deadly shit into the atmosphere. Yeah, that’s the other.

It’s not like this is some singular event by an outlier. Car companies have been slipping and dodging government environmental regulations for, well, probably since the advent of environmental regulations. “Manufacturers have long been accused of using specially prepared cars to produce the best possible [miles-per-gallon performance] figures.”

The entire Age of the Automobile has been predicated on lies and slick, misleading advertising. Like all advertising, it’s based on a perceived lifestyle with the promise of easy, economical and efficient mobility at its core. Like all advertising, it’s not entirely true. Not even close.

This is not news, particularly. There’s nothing revelatory in that statement. Car dependence is killing us, and disfiguring our cities and communities in the process. But we’re too far in, it seems, to do much about it. carad1We just continue to dig the hole deeper, tossing more money after bad, hoping to find a solution somewhere in that deep, dark pit.

The denial sits heavily. We can’t possibly have been this stupid to have bought so whole-heartedly into such a fantasy, spun by corporate entities. Can we? No. Let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing.

More than 40 years on, we refuse to accept the reality of what we’ve done.

Technology isn’t evil, but the uses of technology often are. The car is a bad machine – and the solution is not to build a better bad machine, but rather not to build bad machines. Yet this huge, wealthy nation is trapped with what is virtually a single transportation system, and to suggest simply abandoning that system is to suggest paralyzing the nation. We have become addicted to automobiles; they have become literally a necessity to sustaining life.

autohatingly submitted by Cityslikr

3 Responses to The Defeat Device

  1. Barry Lipton says:

    Here is a good article by Ivan Illich about the place of cars in our society

    http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/ivanillich/

  2. jrootham says:

    Thank you for that NFB short. I remember it fondly.

  3. Ron Wm. Hurlbut says:

    It’s the Pioneer Mentality that North Americans have. Homesteading on the great wild frontier. I need a full stable of horse and oxen to plow the fields and pull my wagon to market.

    A team of snow white horses pulling my surrey with the fringe on top to take my honey to the hoedown!

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