I was a teenager in Southern California in the late 1950s at the height of the California Car Culture. I distinctly remember the fact that all the important trends in automotive styles and technology originated with the people I knew or knew about, mostly in the Los Angeles area. Detroit slowly tried to catch up, but the car manufacturers’ emulations often fell flat. You don’t see that many Rap cover bands today; it was that sort of thing—“square” was the term used way back then.
Teenage Car Culture
In high school, I thought of myself as part of that California Car Culture, but not in those terms; it was just a matter of what was cool and what was not, for me and my friends.
That was how I looked at the ‘51 Ford I customized. I bought that road-weary derelict for $200- in my sophomore year after saving up my earnings as a construction laborer in the summer and as a temporary postal worker during the Christmas mail rush.
I desperately wanted a car and was willing to work as hard as necessary to get one. That Ford two-door sedan was no beauty, with its desert-weathered paint, ratty upholstery, and sluggish 6-cylinder engine.
I got a line on a rebuilt classic Ford flathead V-8 engine, one of the best Ford ever built. I bought and installed it in my parents’ garage with the help of a couple of friends who had done it before. Of course, that called for a four-barrel carburetor, tuned headers and dual exhaust pipes with glass-packed mufflers for the kind of power-expressing rumble we all admired.
I had it painted white at a paint shop owned by a friend’s father, then took it to Tijuana for a green and white upholstery job of the kind that a teenager could afford.
By my junior year I had a respectable hotrod, well, a street rod anyway.
All that kind of thing constituted an integral part of a teenage boy’s identity in the ‘50’s. The times have changed.
The Larger World
Yes, I moved on, but my engagement with machines of motion never waned. Early on, I had learned to love going fast, whether in a car, a motorcycle or bicycle, a sailboat or an airplane. For a technophile with any aesthetic sensibility, attention to detail in both mechanics and image, is important.
Over time, I turner to other interests and professions. But that sense of precision, performance, and aesthetics stuck with me and actually proved valuable in many ways and contexts. Sure, the car culture was all about ego and social status. But it was also about technology, art, and even science.
However, context can be everything. Times change. The harsh facts for anyone whose identity is heavily invested in the latest technology today, is in for a rude awakening (or a life of denial).
Of course, billionaires who build phallic rockets on the backs of underpaid workers can ignore collapsing ecosystems and climate for a while. Yet, no human being can be immune to the effects of climate emergency, collapsing ecosystems, and species extinctions for long, despite the fact that the people of the least responsible nations of the world are already suffering from the planetary consequences of the industrialization of the global north. Meanwhile, the elites of the industrial nations pretend that they can resolve the climate crisis by a mere technical fix.
The Technology of Dystopia
Since those early days, the context of a technology has gradually taken a stronger role in determining my attitude about particular technics. You could think of it as cost-benefit analysis on a global scale. More important, who actually controls all your devices and the information about you that they contain? The more corporations intermediate between you and your devices, the less free you are in the growing surveillance state. What technologies do we really need and what is the damage the cause to our habitat, the Earth System we live in?
The “great acceleration” of science, technology, and industry since the 1950s has run into the biggest obstacle of all—the very essence of the planet on which all this “economic development “ and technological innovation have taken place has undeniable limits, which its exploiters still do not really understand. We live within complex living systems, yet the affluent and those who aspire to be like them live in a separate cultural universe where planetary limits to exploitation and waste are ignored. Yet they do exist.
I have traveled to and from many places and countries in the time since the great acceleration began. I have read of how people traveled centuries ago. Bicycling through Barcelona was far more enjoyable than driving in traffic. Yet, it is clear that fossil-fueled mobility today is an order of magnitude more pervasive and energy intensive than can be sustained any longer.