“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger”


“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger,” Technology and Culture

            The format of this issue is different in that it starts out with the presentation of a simplistic framework proposed by Peter Norton, and the articles that follow employ that framework and the questions it urges, showing how it does and does not fit into much more nuanced and localized studies of traffic safety. The intellectual outlook is different than what we havefo looked at so far because it analyzes the culture and infrastructure a technology requires; cars would be far less useful and abundant if roads were not built for automotive traffic and laws were not created to regulate its uses and abuses. For the car to be fully accepted into a society, that society must make manifest their approval of it by constructing more than just a culture to surround it — rules, regulations, and infrastructure are all required. By delving into this complicated process, the contributors to this issue have tried to tease apart how and why these cultural and infrastructural pillars were built, and how popular and institutional understandings of the safety or danger of the technology in question have factored into these decisions.

One of the most interesting aspects I found highlighted in a few of the articles was the role that class played in the regulation of roads, cars, and drivers, and thus the socio-cultural acceptance of a technology. Particularly at the beginning of the automobile’s career (Norton’s phase 1 and 2), it was very much a part of male, elite culture — a culture that had and used institutional privilege to hasten the car’s takeover of roads, a public space. While the automobile’s reputation as an inherently dangerous machine prompted hesitancy early on (in the form of lower speed limits and licensure), as Donald Weber’s case in Belgium shows, powerful members of automobile clubs were able to paint a new image of the danger of cars by framing statistical analyses of the issue in a way that would, “shift attention away from motorized traffic and have other means of transportation share the blame.” (402) Lobbyists also used their political clout to push forward punitive safety regulations at the expense of preventative ones. By delegating blame to the driver or the pedestrian — and not the car itself — these men secured its dominion over public roads, even though only 2.5% of Belgians owned a car by 1930. Obviously, the acceptance of the car was not as simple as it being viewed a utilitarian machine capable of improving everyone’s lives. The decisions regarding its cultural and infrastructural inroads into societies, if the case of Belgium is an indicator of more ubiquitous trends, was largely in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. I don’t want to get political here, but arguments against gun control in modern-day America contain eerily similar rhetoric and logical fallacy.

The latter half of the issue is largely concerned with how traffic safety policy changed after auto supremacy had been established. Through the framework of Norton’s paradigms, Stève Bernardin and Jameson Wetmore explore the United States’s second and third phases; the second was largely backed by “grassroots” movements instigated and maintained by “motordom” members and safety experts, while the third was a product of government intervention. I was particularly interested in XXX’s piece on automobility in Africa; its discussion of what the Peugeot 404 meant to Africans reminded me of Rieger’s arguments in The People’s Car. Just as Germans had seen an industrial, successful Germany in the Volkswagon Beetle, so Africans saw in the 404 “the speed of Africanization that could remake the colonized subject in the new imaginary of the sovereign African state.” (471) Fancy new (to the user, anyway) artifacts, it seems, often take on whatever “modernity” means to their users. I wonder what the almost ubiquitous link between technology and modernity says about people, and what instances in which this isn’t the case (like the movie Ex Machina, where a rogue technology ends up being a serious problem) say as well.

The primary question I think this issue gets at is: how do we deal with the adverse effects of a pervasive technology? And, more specifically, how can we answer that question when humans have to be factored in as the operators of that technology? In the case of traffic safety, that question has been answered by playing what Claes Tingvall termed the “blame game” in his contribution. When an accident occurs, who is at fault? The machine, the operator, the victim, or the infrastructure? Depending on to whom, where, and when this question was asked, different answers were proposed. How these answers were constructed, argued, and made into concrete changes (be they technical, cultural, or infrastructural) can tell us a lot about latent divisions in a society and about their beliefs about technology, its risks, and its role in their world. I think technologies with infrastructural dimensions like the car give historians a unique opportunity to look at something that has its tendrils in many different areas of life, belief, and culture; this issue proved that through the varied conclusions its contributors were able to draw by employing Norton’s framework and answering the questions he posed.


“Shifting Gears”


“Shifting Gears,” Technology and Culture

         Unsophisticated logic and a lack of in-depth thinking about technological advancement leads to the belief — held by many, I’ve learned in my brief tenure as Dr. Heyck’s teaching assistant — that decisions about what technologies will be adopted are based on that technology’s efficiency, the improvement it offers, and its ability to out-perform its contemporary competitors. This week’s readings soundly denounced that narrative, introducing the many factors that influence a technology’s development, adoption, and appropriation. What technologies are “better” is not always clear and often changes with context, and even then, the “better” technology may require a cultural change inconsistent with its intended beneficiaries. In considering these factors, the contributors to “Shifting Gears” painted a portrait of car technologies’ interactions with institutions, governments, peoples, and developers, and in turn, the way that these interactions affected society, culture, and the technologies themselves.

A word I saw a lot this week was “co-development,” something I think we touched in in class with our discussion of technological determinism and social construction of technology. It refers to the idea, in my understanding anyway, that while engineers and manufacturers are producing a technology, users of that technology are creating cultural practices that make it usable and desirable. Technology and the culture surrounding it thus develop concurrently. In Morris’s piece, the technology and cultural meaning of “extreme car audio” were created around the same time and within one another. The same goes for closed-in cars and their audio technologies in Mom’s work; it became culturally desirable to have a car quiet enough to talk in, a cultural adaptation made possible (and desirable) only after, and because of, noise abatement technologies. In addition, technologies and their cultural constructions are also dynamic and constantly in flux. While hi-fi audio technology was originally designed with the white, middle-class private ride home from work in in mind, proponents of hip-hop counterculture appropriated it for use as an identity amplifier and audio space dominator. Technology changes culture just as culture changes technology.

Looking back to the book on the beetle with the concept of “co-construction” in mind, it seems quite exceptional that the car’s structure remained more or less the same during its long and varied history. How it could be adopted by so many cultures and have retained so much of its original technological (and visual) features is a mystery that Rieger touches on only intermittently and briefly, mostly citing the model’s simplicity and durability as explanations. It is becoming clearer now just how different the methodology used in that book is from mainstream history of technology; the technical aspects of the beetle were described in abstract terms, but the author failed to offer a nitty-gritty account of the inner workings of the vehicle like Mom, Morris, and others do in “Shifting Gears” for their objects of study. This lack of technological depth makes it difficult to uncover how technically altered (or unaltered) the beetle was during its cultural journey, which in turn makes it impossible to understand whether or not it was “co-constructed” as a cultural and technical artifact. How can we understand the conversation between a technology and its users if we are only privy to one side? I now understand why Rieger’s argument was placed firmly on the left side of the white board.

Another takeaway from the issue was that technologies come with infrastructure and culture built in; this can most plainly be seen in Krebs’s account of the difficult integration of diagnostic instruments into the sensory-based craft tradition of German automobile repair. The cultural changes needed to effectively adopt the new repair technology often proved too much for their successful, daily integration into auto repair. A strong craft tradition in Germany meant that the sociotechnical hierarchies that formed the organizational bases for repair shops were constructed around a different method of diagnosis based on sensory input — one that lost out to the American, “objective” system based on instrumentation. The switch from listening to instrument-driven diagnostics meant sociotechnical upheaval to German mechanics, a fact that delayed its implementation by twenty years. Again, we can see that technology is firmly embedded in culture — a change in one necessitates a change in the other, and the reasons for the adoption or abandonment of a technology can often be found not in its technical qualities, but in its cultural effects.

Lastly, technologies’ embedment within society and culture is made manifest in Luckso’s account of changing attitudes surrounding diesel engines. Of particular interest is how the political environment, in a trickle-down effect, influenced the diesel engine’s acceptability. Diesel cars were labeled eco-friendly, but they increasingly became associated with cancer. When the oil crisis was at its worst, public worry about the cancer-causing propensity of the diesel engine was largely forgotten; when this was no longer the case, panic ensued. I found it fascinating how changing political environments, combined with the cultural-scientific attributes the diesel engine acquired, influenced its success as an automotive technology. The culture (and science) that surround a technology can thus contain within it a technology’s fate, regardless of its technical abilities. “Better,” it seems, is in the eyes and culture of the beholder.


The People’s Car

The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, Bernhard Rieger

         As someone quite illiterate insofar as the history of technology is concerned, I thought this book did an excellent job of elucidating through example just how ingrained in a society’s beliefs, prejudices, and self-perceptions technologies are, and equally important, how easily the same technologies can adapt to new socio-cultural environments. Technologies can be overtly used — like the VW Beetle was by the Nazi regime — to further political, social, or economic goals or ideologies, but the purposeful instillation of technological ethos is not the only way that a technology can acquire social meaning. The beetle’s adaptation to cultural environments outside of Germany (and even inside of West Germany, a quite different landscape from the one of its conception) proves that technologies can acquire meanings far beyond those instilled in them by their developers. Author Bernhard Rieger cleverly displays the nuances and complicated patterns of societies’ relationships with technologies, demonstrating that neither technological determinism nor the social construction of technology paint a full picture of the way that a technology interacts with a population. Instead, as evidenced by the effects the bug had on society and the way that society in turn shaped the bug, a reciprocal relationship emerges in which society and technology converse and enact changes in one another.

The book showed how technologies can be an avenue through which political entities proliferate (radio) and reinforce their ideologies; the VW Beetle in its promotion by the Nazi party was meant to “demonstrate how the emerging ‘people’s community’ would raise the average German’s living standard.” (58-59) Things can be said, ideas made manifest, through the use of commodities. In Rieger’s words; “Material objects often acquire profound personal and collective significance because they make the ‘abstract… concrete, closer to lived experience.'” (6) Hitler was able to make his ideologies concrete by enacting technological policies that put his beliefs about the ideal society into action. In a way, the technologies spoke back — and said something about the realities of human nature — when his laissez-faire Highway Code backfired. Perhaps, if he had listened when the human-technology conglomerate (men driving cars) spoke, he would have found that is worldview (and what he wanted for Germany) was untenable.

After WWII, the bug was in a precarious situation in occupied West Germany. Rieger’s account of how it bounced back, in no small part due to its revamped and heavily revised cultural aura, offers the first example of how a technology can adapt to different socio-cultural environments. In order to remain culturally attractive, the bug had to shed its Nazi origin story; like the society that surrounded it, it was viewed as a victim of the Third Reich. Its paramount success in the otherwise dire post-war economy served as a beacon of hope for Germans. Where the Nazis had failed, the Federal Republic had finally provided a long forgotten promise of providing the average German a vehicle. This drastic reworking of VW’s actual history goes to show that technologies evolve and adapt with the populations they were created to serve and are not static historical factors. They can also play a role, as they had in the 1930s and 1940s, in establishing and reinforcing cultural identities. Battered Germans looked at the success of the beetle and saw an economically viable, competitive Germany in their future, if they would only work hard like those in Wolfsburg had.

The latter half of the book is what makes Rieger’s history “global”; in it, he outlines the bugs’ donning of a few other cultural robes. The Nazi origins of the car tended to be too much of an obstacle to the British constituency, displaying limits to the beetle’s techno-cultural adaptability. In America, by contrast, after initial hurdles the Volkswagen became very popular. As part of a new society, however, it took on a very different identity. Instead of the hearty “people’s car,” the standard-setter it had been in Germany, the bug adopted a distinctly unorthodox and counter-culture ethos in the American market, which was dominated by much larger, domineering vehicles. In Mexico, the beetle — or vochito — adopted yet another cultural ethos. Again, its simple yet reliable engineering proved advantageous; Mexicans identified the car as “tough” and “thick-skinned,” “capable of handing both actual and metaphorical bumps in the road,” like its hardy clientele. (283)

Rieger employs a somewhat elementary version of gender analysis, commenting occasionally on how the culture surrounding the car differed for men and women. A lot more could have been done here, but at 335 pages, the book was already quite hefty. Another mild complaint I had was that it seems a bit much to call a book that covers Germany, the United Kingdom, America, and Mexico, “global,” but again, including more would have made Rieger’s book a monolithic project and read. This begs the question, however, of what exactly “global” means to historians — because if it means only four countries, three of which are western European, that seems problematic.

I came away from the book with a far deeper understanding of the way that, to borrow from Dr. Heyck, technology and society reinvent one another over and over again. While the appearance of the bug — because it was such a large part of its draw — remained more or less the same, its cultural meaning was constantly being reworked, just as the societies in which it found itself developed unique and varied ideas of what it meant to them. The car’s reentrance into the automobile market in the 1990s speaks to how powerful and long lasting these associations can be. Additionally, Rieger’s explanations of why the VW caught on (or didn’t) displayed just how important international politics and economics are to technological adoption and adaptation. Far from being static entities only reflective of their designers’ technological goals, technologies can tell historians a lot about the worlds they were produced from and used within.