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automated beauty

 

words: giuliano morse

In 1998 my father’s red Alfa Romeo Spider broke down on the side of Highway 1 in northern California, a common occurrence for the fickle natured Italian machine – marking my first time looking under the hood of a car. The heat of the exposed engine hit my face and a complex array of metal covers, plastic hoses, and rubber belts revealed themselves. Each piece seemingly divorced from the purpose of mobility itself, yet fundamental to the reason why I now sat on a dusty rock overlooking the Pacific instead of in a hand stitched leather seat designed by Pininafarina. In that moment the sporty red paint faded into the background and in an attempt to bring order from chaos, the engine and its components became central to my mind. 

In 2016 I observed a man lift another hood from a newly manufactured, American-made SUV. The familiar heat hit our faces but what lay underneath was a plastic cover, censoring the once exposed engine. The only access to the innards were through two designated holes for oil and wiper fluid, as if to say ‘look how uncomplicated I am’. As a consultant/ethnographer designing driverless cars I was studying this respondent’s relationship to their vehicle and in this moment, in stark contrast to an Alfa owner, he was opening the hood of his car for the very first time. This was a different kind of man, he was not interested with the underlying form of the vehicle, the engine did not excite him, electronic schematics where a foreign concept. Instead, what aroused him was the end-form itself. A sleek engine cover matching the windswept exterior signaled speed and if anything broke down, there was a mechanic for that. Unlike myself, this categorization of man was primarily concerned with how he felt about the overall car, finding the scientific and mechanical mind oppressive. 

In 2016 I observed a man lift another hood from a newly manufactured, American-made SUV. The familiar heat hit our faces but what lay underneath was a plastic cover, censoring the once exposed engine. The only access to the innards were through two designated holes for oil and wiper fluid, as if to say ‘look how uncomplicated I am’. As a consultant/ethnographer designing driverless cars I was studying this respondent’s relationship to their vehicle and in this moment, in stark contrast to an Alfa owner, he was opening the hood of his car for the very first time. This was a different kind of man, he was not interested with the underlying form of the vehicle, the engine did not excite him, electronic schematics where a foreign concept. Instead, what aroused him was the end-form itself. A sleek engine cover matching the windswept exterior signaled speed and if anything broke down, there was a mechanic for that. Unlike myself, this categorization of man was primarily concerned with how he felt about the overall car, finding the scientific and mechanical mind oppressive. 

‘The ancient theologian problem of faith and knowledge, or more clearly, of instinct and reason.’

By 2030 it is estimated by everyone, from BCG and Google to Shinzo Abe and probably your mother, that Autonomous Vehicles will be on the road. In this speculative anticipation the assumption is that all AV technology will be relatively the same, thus discourse revolves around all the promises of freeing the public from the necessities of driving. 

Planners from Columbus Ohio’s smart city promise that freeing us from driving will make for quicker commutes by reducing traffic. Engineers at Google promise that freeing us from driving will make us safer by reducinghuman error. And Uber promises that freeing us from drivingwill save money by cutting costs of human labor.  What most technologists and designers generally fail to appreciate is the potential idea that technological advances that may free us from necessities, might also divorce us from desire. The desire to understand the underlying form of the vehicle. The desire to find a small stretch on an open road and intentionally break our social contract with the state, and of course, just speed. That plastic cover on the new SUV symbolizes a growing divide between humans and their mobility machines, perhaps even between humans and all technology. The classification of people who desire to intimately interact and understand their machines are losing a long fought battle with those who prefer and fetishize the form of an object or technology. This battle is best articulated by Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy, between the rational (Apollonian) vs. intuitive (Dionysian). The classification of apollonian rationality is associated with the desire to understand the underlying form of an engine vs the Dionysian intuition being associated with the aesthetic consciousness interested with the form of the car itself. 

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche performs a genealogy of rationality through the examination of a precise moment in ancient Greek history – the moment in which the Greek chorus (play) undertook an Apollonian approach (Apollo is the Greek God of rationality and truth) and overtook the Dionysian approach (Dionysius is Greek God of intuition, wine, and arts).  This shift is represented by the introduction of rational characteristics in Greek plays – narrators that explicitly explain a narrative that is easily understood by everyone in the audience, as opposed to a focus on music and movement, requiring an implicit interpretation by each member of the audience. This shift in Greek arts was solidified into mainstream culture by Socrates’ political ambition to rationalize all Greek men.

The ancient theologian problem of faith and knowledge, or more clearly, of instinct and reason. In other words, the question regarding the valuation of a thing’s instinct – whether it deserves more authority than rationality.  A question which wants us to evaluate and act in accordance with reason, with a why? In other words, in accordance with expedience and utility. This is still the ancient moral problem that first emerged in the person of Socrates and divided thinking long before Christianity. Socrates himself, to be sure, with the taste of his talent – that of a superior dialectician – had initially sided with reason, and in fact, what did he do in his own life but laugh at the awkward incapacity of noble Athenians who were men of instinct and could never give sufficient information about the impetus behind their actions. This was the real falseness of the great irony that he got his own conscious to accept: at bottom, he had seen through the irrational element in moral judgment. Nietzsche acutely observed that despite the ebbs and flows of powerful artistic movements throughout history, Socratic rationality has dominated. Yet, today it seems that market forces are finding it easier to sell products to an increasingly dionysian public. The rise of creative agencies have commoditized art through the mass production of advertising, pieces of communication have gone from selling the purpose of products, to selling an attitude or an intangible feeling distantly related to the product itself (think: soft drink commercials or jewlers’ attempts at commodifiying love). The rise of technological achievements requires an apollonian discipline from top engineers who dedicate their lives to complex constructions of phenomenal advances such as LIDAR systems and Eco-Boost engines. However, in order to reap profit from such advances, it seems that a public requires just the right mix of Dionysian and Apollonian consciousness. A public that can be rationally herded into understanding how freeing themselves from the necessity of driving will benefit them in a utilitarian manner, while also lacking the depth of curiosity to understand the machine itself and instead live vicariously through a Dionysian idea of the very object they consume. An idea of freedom, an idea of sport design, an idea of speed. Yet only an idea. The reality is that a mix of both is healthy, Nietzsche argued, but similar to how an apple and pear are nurturing, when choosing to bite from the rotten side of either, their very purpose is undermined.

 
Samine Joudatv001