Cars have long been associated with aggressive masculinity and social status. The rise of car-sharing may kindle a greater sense of shared ownership and sociability instead.
The news that car-sharing is around the corner will be greeted with some degree of enthusiasm and relief by those of us who have never owned a car in their lives, and who still place value on the virtues of public transport. But the changes that may come about if and when our attitude to private car ownership alters will be greater than we might realise today.
Living in the modern industrial (or some would say post-industrial) age as we do, we sometimes fail to see how some of the most mundane things in the material world around us have shaped our lives and impacted upon our subjectivity.
The example I often cite is that of glass: a common, everyday material that we see (or, rather, see through) on a daily basis. We take glass for granted as something that is simply there, but we sometimes fail to note how the mass production of glass has changed our lives, and made us the modern individuals we are today.
HOW GLASS MADE PRIVATE SPACES PUBLIC
Long before the mass production of cheap glass, homes in the medieval era were dark, small and stuffy. This was particularly true in Europe, where medieval homes were cramped, with low ceilings to keep in the warmth in winter.
As glass production increased, homes could have windows. Almost immediately, homes were better lit during the daytime, but this also meant that other things began to change. With better lighting, home dwellers could see how dirty their medieval homes were, paving the way for modern notions of cleanliness and hygiene.
Then there was the consideration of privacy, for now the neighbours could look into your home and see what you were doing. Instantly the distinction between private and public space was introduced, and social behaviour changed in due course.
Glass was therefore a radical variable with an impact greater than initially imagined. The same could be said about the modern automobile that is another product of the industrial age.
Notwithstanding the claims made by those who stand on both sides of the technological divide - the technophiles who claim that technology promises to deliver us to a new land of promise and elevated humanity on the one hand, and the technophobes who bemoan the rise of machines and who warn us about the impending end of humanity as we know it, on the other - shared driverless cars may well be a global reality one day, as they will allow us to create cities that are more liveable.
Our dependency on fossil fuels - the contaminating effects of which can no longer be ignored or denied save by those who live on a diet of fake news and misinformation all the time - cannot continue unchecked, and that is also one of the reasons why states the world over are seeking other means of shared public transport that take up less space and have a smaller carbon footprint.
Thankfully we have at least grown aware of the fact that to discard some of the polluting technologies of the 20th century makes sense today, and that we need to face up to some realities that we have been avoiding for too long.
Should the day come when we can all give up private cars, the earth's environment would thank us for it. But there are some features of cars that go beyond mere functionality and need to be considered too.
SENSE OF OWNERSHIP AND SOCIAL STATUS
For if we ever reach a post-private vehicle age, some norms that we have taken for granted will become redundant as well.
Two of these norms relate to cars in particular: our sense of ownership and social status, and the manner in which cars have become linked to masculine identity.
First, it cannot be denied that the modern car, since its mass production and distribution in society, has been associated with personal convenience, private agency and social mobility.
Cars have always been sold to us not merely as vehicles that take us from point A to B, but also as instruments of social mobility that mark our place and standing in society.
(In that sense it is interesting that this tool that is meant to move us around also fixes us in a certain spot in the social pecking order.)
Those of us born in the 20th century have been fed a steady stream of glitzy ads that send out the same message: You are the car that you drive.
Many of us can also recall the jokes of the past, about how East European cars were seen and cast as the poor cousins of the West European counterparts, ugly relatives garbed in Soviet-era hulks and parts. Why, up to the 1970s even Japanese cars were treated with condescension and scorn, and to be seen driving one meant that you were going nowhere (socially).
If it ever comes to pass that societies give up private cars for shared driverless vehicles, this identifiable marker of social status will no longer be around to play its role, and what might replace it?
Related to this element of social status was the notion of aggressive and possessive masculinity. We need not be hypocrites here and we should admit that from the beginning of the car era, cars and men were intertwined as in some kind of cyborg human-machine relationship.
Despite the advancement of women and growing awareness of gender bias, there remains a juvenile aspect of car ownership that associates cars with male identity. This is particularly galling at car shows and expos where invariably a horde of half-dressed women are conjured up, and told to stand, pose and lie on the bodies of cars as if they were roadkill trophies that had been run over at full speed.
Young men (and old men too) are fed the same stream of egocentric commercial propaganda, encouraging them to drive fast cars and seek fast women; and this fantasy has been fuelled by the possibility of private car ownership.
This was all the more evident in the 1970s to 1990s, when magazines devoted to cars (and motorbikes) often had some female model on the cover, presented as if she was an accessory to the product itself.
Films glorified the fast-driving macho hero - who often performed unreal and unbelievable feats of daring driving on the screen: dodging oncoming vehicles, driving on pavements, ramming through fences, etc.
Of course, in real life such situations are rare, and when they do occur they also happen to be criminal in nature - but the fantasy of the fast-driving macho hero remained and endured, and one can only guess how many traffic accidents and needless deaths have been the result of this infantile fantasy being digested uncritically by some.
Should shared driverless cars become a reality in the near future, this fantasy will be rendered obsolete as well, and it would be interesting to see what that might do to some tender and bruised male egos that would no longer have a toy to play with.
FROM POSSESSING TO SHARING
So while we may be a long way away from the world of shared driverless cars, it is possible for us to imagine what such a world might look like, and how we might also be transformed by innovations in technology.
In the same way that the mass production of glass altered how we understood and saw our living space as a private space that needed to be cleaned, cared for and defended, the advent of shared, common public cars may well alter our basic understanding of who and what we are, reminding us that we are members of a common society.
The spin-off effects of such an innovation cannot be underestimated, and would be of huge interest to sociologists, historians and social scientists in general - but it will also impact on all of us in many different ways.
On a personal note - and I write here as a techno-sceptic myself - I think that the advent of common shared cars would be a positive thing for society in the long run. It will certainly diminish whatever fetish value that cars might have as individual statements of largesse or prosperity, but on a wider scale it also speaks about our capacity to share and live socially as interdependent beings.
While some of the innovations in other fields of technology and IT may pose a threat to professions or even wipe out entire classes of professionals, this is one development that can actually bring society closer together, and make us reconsider our own personal understanding of what constitutes the private and the public.
The technophiles may therefore be right after all in this case, for a world where cars are common shared property would be one where our selfish egos are tempered and controlled by technology that equalises.
It may well pave the way for an attitudinal shift, from the idea that 'I am what I own and drive' to 'we are what we share together'. And that, in the long run, is not a bad thing after all.
•The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'Car-sharing may dent hard-driving male ego'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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