Form or function

This goes out to everybody who will ever buy any car, and particularly to those students who will soon buy their first cars, and to that large proportion of students who drive to school every day. It is irresponsible for consumers to purchase most cars and related paraphernalia, and it is stupid that we celebrate car culture. At this point, cars are produced to appeal to people’s senses, not to their sensibilities.

We here in North America enjoy a plethora of resource-heavy activities. We like to ride snowmobiles in the winter and boats in the summer. Some like to deck out their cars with fancy exhaust pipes and functionally useless spoilers. We like ice cream, bubble-parties and electro-shock S&M. Some will even put in the extra money to buy expensive and wholly uneconomical super-cars purely for the image they don.

It’s a longstanding tradition, to be sure. Way back in the olden days, kings and queens rode up to their palaces in horse-drawn carriages decked out in breathtakingly crafted limbers and shafts, carved hoopsticks and luxuriously framed quarter-lights. Their palaces were steeped in ornamental carvings etched out by the highest skilled stone-workers in all the land, and the interiors were wallpapered with pages from the holiest and most beautiful books.

And for decades, almost since the dawn of the automobile, certain individuals lucky enough to have certain amounts of extremely disposable income have paid top-dollar for cars that attempt the same sense of class. It is a tradition of the wealthy that, through free-economy black magic, has weaved its way into the less-wealthy general public. People keep on buying the cars they feel expresses their identity, so car manufacturers keep on spending the big bucks to make sleek looking cars.

The result is that the quality of vehicles goes down because car companies are forced to pander to the common conception of what makes a car nice, and regular consumers find themselves focusing more on the look of the car, the outside, than the important stuff on the inside. They want to have a cool car that expresses their inner whatever. When all is said and done, contracts signed, insurance purchased, tank filled, etc., these bastions of excess have more relevance to your stupid personal image that nobody gives a shit about than they do to your ability to conveniently get around town.

I’m looking at you, students. Those car companies are after your naïve sensibilities most of all; that was the whole point of that Transformers movie, wasn’t it? They just want to get all in your head and spew a bunch of nonsense about “sweet ride!” this and “slick wheels!” that before you can seriously consider why you might purchase a car.

Don’t get me wrong; cars can be nice. I like cars because sometimes I need to get from point A to point B at “car” speed. I’m not interested in “what’s under the hood,” but can understand why, from an engineering perspective, a car dweeb who builds model robots in their spare time might be interested. Those goofy nerds are interested in the mechanical properties, and cars are worthy of this sort of attention. They are never, though, worth the kind of attention that they so often get.

Cars should not be gawked at like one would a work of art. They are not a piece of artwork to be gazed at; it’s not even a piece of machismo idolatry to puff out your chest at; it’s a hunk of metal that does stuff, like a sewing machine or a soft-serve dispenser. The engines and the bodies of nearly all cars, no matter how awesome, are impersonal items that were loaded by machines onto factory conveyor belts and assembled by blue-collar robots.

Eric Gill argues in “An essay on typography” that when factory production makes our shit we need to let the machines do it their way. “So in all other works [and] especially in those of factory production [ . . . ] everything in the nature of ornament must be omitted [and] nothing must be put in which is not strictly a logical necessity.” It is not because he hates ornamentation. Quite the contrary: the rest of the essay is dedicated to putting beauty into typography. He continues: “This is not because we hate ornament [and] the ornamental, but because we can no longer procure such things; [ . . . ] if we insist on the ornamental we are not making the best of our system of manufacture, we are not getting the things which that system makes best.” If you try to get a factory machine to do something that it wasn’t built for, the overall quality of the item being manufactured suffers the consequence.

Construction of a new rapid transit corridor that will eventually stretch from downtown to the University of Manitoba is underway. Probably, the city will do its best to make the stations and the buses look nifty, but after the ribbon is cut, the whole project will become a success only if the system’s users deem it useful. If it looks like a bodacious space shuttle but is completely inefficient, people will not use it. Conversely, it could look like crap and still be a huge success if it serves the public well.

So, as new transportation products, like this rapid transit corridor become available, you’ve got to use them. Don’t shrug them off because they don’t growl when you stomp on the gas, or because they don’t match your style of clothing. And if you explore the ideas of public transit and cycling, and still feel you must buy yourself a car, choose the most useful and efficient model you can find, not the most attractive one you can see. You’re just being dumb if you buy a car that isn’t efficient and safe.