The Protective Shell

Posted: December 6, 2020 in Cinema, Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Economics, Environment, History, Idle Nonsense, Science, Technophilia
Tags: , ,

Unlike turtles, humans do not have protective shells into which we can withdraw when danger presents. Nor can we lift off, fly away, and elude danger the way birds do. These days, we’re sorely beset by an invisible pandemic spread by exposure to carriers (read: other people) and so asked or forced to submit to being locked down and socially distanced. Thus, we are withdrawn into the protective shell of the home in cycles of varying intensity and obeisance to maintain health and safety. Yet life goes on, and with it, numerous physical requirements (ignoring psychological needs) that can’t be met virtually demand we venture out into the public sphere to gather resources, risking exposure to the scourge. Accordingly, the conduct of business has adapted to enable folks to remain in the protective shells of their vehicles, taking delivery through the car window and rarely if ever entering a brick-and-mortar establishment except in defiance or at the option of acceptable risk. In effect, we’re being driven into our cars ever more, and the vehicle is readily understood as a proxy for its inhabitant(s). Take note of pictures of people in bread lines during the Great Depression having been replaced by pictures of cars lined up for miles during the pandemic to get packaged meals from charitable organizations.

Reflecting on this aspect of modern life, I realized that it’s not exactly novel. The widespread adoption of the individual vehicle in the 1940s and 50s, as distinguished from mass transit, and the construction of the interstate highway system promised (and delivered) flexibility and freedom of tremendous appeal. While the shift into cars (along with air travel) doomed now moribund passenger rail (except intracity in the few American cities with effective rail systems), it enabled the buildout of suburbs and exurbs now recognized as urban sprawl. And like all those packages now clogging delivery systems as we shift even more heavily during the holiday season to online shopping, a loss of efficiency was inevitable. All those individual cars and boxes create congestion that cry out for solutions.

Among the solutions (really a nonsolution) were the first drive-through banks of the 1970s. Is doing one’s banking without leaving the vehicle’s protective shell really an efficiency? Or is it merely an early acknowledgement and enabling of antisocial individualism? Pneumatic tubes that permitted drive-through banking did not speed up transactions appreciably, but the novel mechanism undoubtedly reinforced the psychological attachment Americans felt with their cars. That growing attachment was already apparent in the 1950s, with two bits of Americana from that decade still resonating: the drive-in theater and the drive-in restaurant. The drive-in theater was a low-fidelity efficiency and alternative to the grand movie houses built in the 1920s and 30s seating a few thousand people in one cavernous space. (A different sort of efficiency enabling choice later transformed most cinema establishments into multiplexes able to show 8–10 titles instead of one, handily diminishing audiences of thousands to hundreds or even tens and robbing the group experience of much of its inherent power. Now that premium streaming content is delivered to screens at home and we are disallowed assembly into large audiences, we have instead become something far more inert — viewers — with fully anticipatable degradation of the entertainment experience notwithstanding the handsome technologies found within the comforts of the home.) I’ve heard that drive-ins are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in 2020, with Walmart parking lots converted into showplaces, at least temporarily, to resemble (poorly) group experience and social cohesion connection. The drive-in restaurant of the 1950s, with their iconic carhops (sometimes on roller skates), is a further example of enabling car culture to proliferate. Never mind that eating in the car is actually kinda sad and maybe a little disgusting as odors and refuse collect in that confined space. One might suspect that drive-ins were directed toward teenyboppers and cruisers of the 1950s exploring newfound freedom, mobility, and the illusion of privacy in their cars, parked in neat rows at drive-ins (and Lookout Points for smooch sessions) all across the country. However, my childhood memory was that it was also a family affair.

Inevitably, fast food restaurants followed the banks in the 1970s and quickly established drive-through lanes, reinforcing the degradation of the food experience into mere feeding (often on one’s lonesome) rather than dining in community. Curiously, the pandemic has made every restaurant still operating, even the upscale ones, a drive-through and forced those with and without dedicated drive-through lanes to bring back the anachronistic carhop to serve the congestion. A trip to a local burger joint in Chicago last week revealed 40+ cars in queue and a dozen or so carhops on the exterior directing traffic and making deliveries through the car window (briefly penetrating the protective shell) so that no one would have to enter the building and expose oneself to virus carriers. I’ve yet to see a 2020 carhop wearing roller skates (now roller blades) or a poodle skirt.

Such arrangements are probably effective at minimizing pandemic risk and have become one of several new normals (discussion of political dysfunction deferred). Who can say how long they will persist? Still, it’s strange to observe the psychology of our response, even if only superficially and preliminarily. Car culture has been a curious phenomenon since at least the middle of the 20th century. New dynamics reinforcing our commitment to cars are surprising, perhaps, but a little unsurprising, too, considering how we made ourselves so dependent on them as the foundation of personal transportation infrastructure. As a doomer, I had rather expected that Peak Oil occurring around 2006 or so would spell the gradual (or sudden) end of happy motoring as prices at the pump, refusal to elevate standard fuel efficiency above 50 mph, and climbing average cost of new vehicles placed individual options beyond the reach of average folks. However, I’ve been genuinely surprised by fuel costs sinking to new lows (below the cost of production, even bizarrely inverting to the point that producers paid buyers to take inventory) and continued attempts to engineer (only partially) around the limitations of Peak Oil, if not indeed Peak Energy. I continue to believe these are mirages, like the record-setting bull market of 2020 occurring in the midst of simultaneous economic, social, and health crises.

Comments
  1. Greg Knepp says:

    Excellent summation of what a drinking buddy of mine from years ago called “metal monster madness”. Speaking of which, I wonder if the near-universal syndrome of ‘road rage’ is related to the fact that the automobile experience is ill-suited to the human animal. Apparently our instinctual make-up leaves little accommodation for the odd mix of power, speed and artificial isolation involved in the ‘protective shell’ culture. The result being that, too often, otherwise sane people turn into emotional toddlers behind the wheel.

  2. Brutus says:

    Thanks for your comment. I daresay the “metal monster madness” extends broadly to many of the mechanisms of industrial civilization. Regarding road rage, I’ve seen conjecture about the interactions of the vehicle as an extension of the self (the same as when holding, say, a tennis racquet or hammer) and the rising tide of selfishness and individualism, especially when traveling at high speed to which our nervous systems are not adequately evolved. I don’t have more to say about the psychology, but it’s ripe for exploration.

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