Monday, 5 December 2011

Memories of Car and Phone, prosthetics of the cyborg citizen (Part I)

Kieran Tranter

Can you remember the make and model of your past mobile phones? I sort of can. I’ve had a succession of Nokias over the past 10 years culminating with an iPhone. But model number or features are a bit of a blur. Yet I had it on me and used it every day. It was a phone, it was useful, and it only made it presence felt when it was not useful: the times that it went through the washing machine (twice), dropped in the ocean (once), and shattered into several pieces having fallen from a height (twice).

Now – can you remember the make and model of your past cars? I can. In my 20 years of car ownership I have survived a 1981 silver four wheel drive Suzuki Sierra with a 1.0 litre engine and unassisted drum brakes; a 1973 baby-poo orange Renault 12 Sedan, a 1975 blue and white two-tone Renault 12 wagon; a 2002 XC Holden Barina (known in Europe as an Opel Corsa, my one experiment with a new car); a metallic green-gold 1985 Volvo 240GL sedan; and a 1997 TARDIS blue V70 Volvo station wagon (yes it is a blue box and it is bigger on the inside)...

What can be made of this distinction (aside from character judgements relating to mobile phone abuse and ownership of embarrassing cars)? Car and phone are the two prominent prosthetics of the cyborg citizens of the West; yet their memories seem to generate different degrees of affect. I remember affectionately my little Suzuki and the Renaults. I regret selling the Barina and I still miss the fear and wide berth that the 240GL Volvo was given by other road users. Car and life can be mapped coexistent; phone and life not so much. I cannot recall which phone it was that I rang my family with to tell them that my daughter had been born; but I can very much remember the drive to hospital in the Barina, with the morning sun reflecting off the silver bonnet.

There are some obvious explanations. The purchase and running cost of a car imposes itself. We remember the car because we are continually paying for it. But phones impose themselves as well; the slight trepidation when approaching the monthly bill witnesses this. However, this does not explain the level of affect. There is the coming-of-age ritual of passing the licence test that marks freedom and adulthood that could be seen as making the memory of cars more endearing. But I am sure for the next generation that similar symbolism will be associated with their first mobile phone. And it is not time spent with the thing – given I often ride a bicycle to work, I spend significantly more time with my phone than my car.

There probably is something about gender at play. As Sarah Redshaw observes in her cultural account of Australian automobilities, In the Company of Cars (2008), there is a form of maleness that is particularly entwined with the motor vehicle. Her term “combustion masculinity” is fabulously suggestive. The metallic technicality, the symbolic economy of men speaking through cars and not words, the speed, freedom, risk, and triumph of the car resonated, and still does resonate, with men the world over. Indeed, BBC’s Top Gear has become an institution and global marketing phenomena, as a celebration, and perhaps a slight parody, of this auto-mentality. The phone is a phone. It might now access the net/cloud, take photos, allow the sci-fi dream of videophone, play music and games, show TV and movies, and chirp reminders cross-linked to a diary; but even an iPhone does not have the cultural meaning of a 1967 Citroën DS 21 or 1957 Chevy BelAir Hardtop. I am pretty certain that there will not be clubs and enthusiasts in 50 years engaged in global discussions of how to source parts and repair old mobile phones as there probably will still be for the “Goddess” and ’57 Chevys.

The phone integrates to life. As Donna Haraway wrote in her iconic “Cyborg Manifesto” in 1985, “‘[o]ur best machines are made of sunshine”, anticipating our wireless reality of connectivity, and not the clunky, modernist, greenhouse-causing dinosaur of the car. The car makes life. Our cities, our lives, the way we feed ourselves, educate our children, and know space from place – the geographies of Western habitus – have been made because of the automobile. We remember the car because the car has impacted on us; even if we are fortunate never to have been involved in an accident. We don’t remember phones because they are sunshine; pleasant when there, soon taken for granted, only missed when connection to the cloud is unavailable. The car represents a certain form of cybernetic citizenship of machines and meat that has to be earned and paid for with resources, time, and sometimes blood. It has configured certain desires and modes of living that have been considered mainstream in the West since WWII. In this our past cars are remembered. There might be risks from phones – the research is on-going on the mobile phone-radiation-cancer link – and there is all that communication, data, and virtuality.  However, pocketing a Samsung Galaxy is not the same as tinkling a set of keys.

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