Here is a news items that captures a good deal of the meaning of the automobile in relation to social life:
I was terrific. There I was in my white Continental, and I was wearing a pure-silk, pure-white, embroidered cowboy shirt, and black gabardine trousers. Beside me in the car was my jet-black Great Dane imported from Europe, named Dana von Krupp. You just can't do any better than that.
Although it may be true to say that an American is a creature of four wheels, and to point out that American youth attributes much more importance to arriving at driver's-license age than at voting age, it is also true that the car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete in the urban compound.
Some observers insist that, as a status
symbol, the house has, of late, supplanted the car. If so, this shift from the mobile open road to the manicured roots of suburbia may signify a real change in American orientation. There is a growing uneasiness about the degree to which cars have become the real population of our cities, with a resulting loss of human scale, both in power and in distance. The town planners are plotting ways and means to buy back our cities for the pedestrian from the big transportation interests.
Lynn White tells the story of the stirrup and the heavy-armored knight in his Medieval Technology and Social Change. So expensive yet so mandatory was the armored rider for shock combat, that the cooperative feudal system came into existence to pay for his equipment. Renaissance gunpowder and ordnance ended the military role of the knight and returned the city to the pedestrian burgess.
If the motorist is technologically and economically far superior to the armored knight, it may be that electric changes in technology are about to dismount him and return us to the pedestrian scale. "Going to work" may be only a transitory phase, like "going shopping." The grocery interests have long foreseen the possibility of shopping by two-way TV, or video-telephone. William M Freeman, writing for The New York Times Service (Tuesday, October 15, 1963), reports that there will certainly be "a decided transition from today's distribution vehicles. . . . Mrs. Customer will be able to tune in on various stores.
Her credit identification will be picked up automatically via television.
Items in full and faithful coloring will be viewed. Distance will hold no problem, since by the end of the century the consumer will be able to make direct television connections regardless of how many miles are involved."
What is wrong with all such prophecies is that they assume a stable framework of fact --in this case, the house and the store which is usually the first to disappear. The changing relation
between customer and shopkeeper is as nothing compared to the changing pattern of work itself, in an age of automation. It is true that going-to and coming-from work are almost certain to lose all of their present character. The car as vehicle, in that sense, will go the way of the horse. The horse has lost its role in transportation but has made a strong comeback in entertainment. So with the motorcar. Its future does not belong in the area of transportation. Had the infant automotive industry; in 1910, seen fit to call a conference to consider the future of the horse, the discussion would have been concerned to discover new jobs for the horse and new kinds of training to extend the usefulness of the horse. The complete revolution in transportation and in housing and city arrangement would have been ignored. The turn of our economy to making and servicing motorcars, and the devotion of much leisure time to their use on a vast new highway system, would not even have been thought of. In other words, it is the framework itself that changes with new technology, and not just the picture within the frame. Instead of thinking of doing our shopping by television, we should become aware that TV intercom means the end of shopping itself, and the end of work as we know it as present. The same fallacy besets out thinking about TV and education. We think of TV as an incidental aid, whereas in fact it has already transformed the learning process of the young, quite independently of home and school alike.
In the 1930s, when millions of comic books were inundating the young with gore, nobody seemed to notice that emotionally the violence of millions of cars in our streets was incomparably more hysterical than anything that could ever be printed. All the rhinos and hippos and elephants in the world, if gathered in one city, could not begin to create the menace and explosive intensity of the hourly and daily experience of the internal-combustion engine. Are people really expected to internalize live with --all this power and explosive violence, without
processing and siphoning it off into some form of fantasy for compensation and balance?
In the silent pictures of the 1920s a great many of the sequences involved the motorcar and policemen. Since the film was then accepted as an optical illusion, the cop was the principal reminder of the existence of ground rules in the game of fantasy. As such, he took an endless beating. The motorcars of the 1920s look to our eyes like ingenious contraptions hastily assembled in a tool shop.
Their link with the buggy was still strong and clear. Then came the balloon tires, the massive interior, and the bulging fenders. Some people see the big car as a sort of bloated middle age, following the gawky period of the first love-affair between America and the car.
But funny as the Viennese analysts have been able to get about the car as sex object, they have at last, in so doing, drawn attention to the fact that, like the bees in the plant world, men have always been the sex organs of the technological world. The car is no more and no less a sex object than the wheel or the hammer. What the motivation researchers have missed entirely is the fact that the American sense of spatial form has changed much since radio, and drastically since TV It is misleading, though harmless, to try to grasp this change as middle-age reaching out for the sylph Lolita.
Certainly there have been some strenuous slimming programs for the car in recent years. But if one were to ask, "Will the car last?" or
"Is the motorcar here to stay?" there would be confusion and doubt at once. Strangely, in so progressive an age, when change has become the only constant in our lives, we never ask, "Is the car here to stay?" The answer, of course, is "No." In the electric age, the wheel itself is obsolescent. At the heart of the car industry there are men who know that the car is passing, as certainly as the cuspidor was doomed when the lady typist arrived on the business scene.
What arrangements have they made to ease the automobile industry off the center of the stage?
The mere obsolescence of the wheel does not mean its
disappearance. It means only that, like penmanship or typography, the wheel will move into a subsidiary role in the culture.
In the middle of the nineteenth century great success was achieved with steam-engined cars on the open road. Only the heavy toll-taxes levied by local road authorities discouraged steam engines on the highways. Pneumatic tires were fitted to a steam car in France in 1887. The American Stanley Steamer began to flourish in 1899.
Ford had already built his first car in 1896, and the Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903. It was the electric spark that enabled the gasoline engine to take over from the steam engine.
The crossing of electricity, the biological form, with the mechanical form was never to release a greater force.
It is TV that has dealt the heavy blow to the American car. The car and the assembly line had become the ultimate expression of Gutenberg technology; that is, of uniform and repeatable processes applied to all aspects of work and living. TV brought a questioning of all mechanical assumptions about uniformity and standardization, as of all consumer values. TV brought also obsession with depth study and analysis. Motivation research, offering to hook the ad and the id, became immediately acceptable to the frantic executive world that felt the same way about the new American tastes as Al Capp did about his 50,000,000 audience when TV struck. Something had happened. America was not the same.
For forty years the car had been the great leveler of physical space and of social distance as well. The talk about the American car as a status symbol has always overlooked the basic fact that it is the power of the motorcar that levels all social differences, and makes the pedestrian a second-class citizen. Many people have observed how the real integrator or leveler of white and Negro in the South was the private car and the truck, not the expression of moral points of view. The simple and obvious fact about the
car is that, more than any horse, it is an extension of man that turns the rider into a superman. It is a hot, explosive medium of social communication. And TV, by cooling off the American public tastes and creating new needs for unique wrap-around space, which the European car promptly provided, practically unhorsed the American auto-cavalier. The small European cars reduce him to
near-pedestrian status once more. Some people manage to drive them on the sidewalk.
The car did its social leveling by horsepower alone. In turn, the car created highways and resorts that were not only very much alike in all parts of the land, but equally available to all. Since TV, there is naturally frequent complaint about this uniformity of vehicle and vacation scene. As John Keats put it in his attack on the car and the industry in The Insolent Chariots, where one automobile can go, all other automobiles do go, and wherever the automobile goes, the automobile version of civilization surely follows. Now this is a TV-oriented sentiment that is not only anti-car and
anti-standardization, but anti-Gutenberg, and therefore anti-American as well. Of course, I know that John Keats doesn't mean this. He had never thought about media or the way in which Gutenberg created Henry Ford and the assembly line and standardized culture. All he knew was that it was popular to decry the uniform, the standardized, and the hot forms of communication, in general. For that reason, Vance Packard could make hay with The Hidden Persuaders. He hooted at the old salesmen and the hot media, just as MAD does. Before TV, such gestures would have been meaningless. It wouldn't have paid off. Now, it pays to laugh at the mechanical and the merely standardized. John Keats could question the central glory of classless American society by saying, "If you've seen one part of America, you've seen it all," and that the car gave the American the opportunity, not to travel and experience adventure, but "to make himself more and more common." Since TV, it has become popular to regard the more and more uniform and repeatable products of
industry with the same contempt that a Brahmin like Henry James might have felt for a chamber-pot dynasty in 1890. It is true that automation is about to produce the unique and custom-built at assembly-line speed and cheapness. Automation can manage the bespoke car or coat with less fuss than we ever produced the standardized ones. But the unique product cannot circulate in our market or distribution setups. As a result, we are moving into a most revolutionary period in marketing, as in everything else.
When Europeans used to visit America before the Second War they would say, "But you have communism here!" What they meant was that we not only had standardized goods, but everybody had them.
Our millionaires not only ate cornflakes and hot dogs, but really thought of themselves as middle-class people. What else? How could a millionaire be anything but "middleclass" in America unless he had the creative imagination of an artist to make a unique life for himself? Is it strange that Europeans should associate uniformity of environment and commodities with communism? And that Lloyd Warner and his associates, in their studies of American cities, should speak of the American class system in terms of income? The highest income cannot liberate a North American from his
"middle-class" life. The lowest income gives everybody a considerable piece of the same middle-class existence. That is, we really have homogenized our schools and factories and cities and entertainment to a great extent, just because we are literate and do accept the logic of uniformity and homogeneity that is inherent in Gutenberg technology. This logic, which had never been accepted in Europe until very recently, has suddenly been questioned in America, since the tactile mesh of the TV mosaic has begun to permeate the American sensorium. When a popular writer can, with confidence, decry the use of the car for travel as making the driver "more and more common," the fabric of American life has been questioned.
Only a few years back Cadillac announced its "El Dorado Brougham" as having anti-dive control, outriggers, pillarless styling, projectile-shaped gull-wing bumpers, outboard exhaust ports, and various other exotic features borrowed from the non-motorcar world.
We were invited to associate it with Hawaiian surf riders, with gulls soaring like sixteen-inch shells, and with the boudoir of Madame de Pompadour. Could MAD magazine do any better? In the TV age, any of these tales from the Vienna woods, dreamed up by motivational researchers, could be relied upon to be an ideal comic script for MAD. The script was always there, in fact, but not till TV
was the audience conditioned to enjoy it.
To mistake the car for a status symbol, just because it is asked to be taken as anything but a car, is to mistake the whole meaning of this very late product of the mechanical age that is now yielding its form to electric technology. The car is a superb piece of uniform, standardized mechanism that is of a piece with the Gutenberg technology and literacy which created the first classless society in the world. The car gave to the democratic cavalier his horse and armor and haughty insolence in one package, transmogrifying the knight into a misguided missile. In fact, the American car did not level downward, but upward, toward the aristocratic idea. Enormous increase and distribution of power had also been the equalizing force of literacy and various other forms of mechanization, The willingness to accept the car as a status symbol, restricting its more expansive form to the use of higher executives, is not a mark of the car and mechanical age, but of the electric forces that are now ending this mechanical age of uniformity and standardization, and recreating the norms of status and role.
When the motorcar was new, it exercised the typical mechanical pressure of explosion and separation of functions. It broke up family life, or so it seemed, in the 1920s. It separated work and domicile, as never before. It exploded each city into a dozen
suburbs, and then extended many of the forms of urban life along the highways until the open road seemed to become nonstop cities.
It created the asphalt jungles, and caused 40,000 square miles of green and pleasant land to be cemented over. With the arrival of plane travel, the motorcar and truck teamed up together to wreck the railways. Today small children plead for a train ride as if it were a stagecoach or horse and cutter: "Before they're gone, Daddy."
The motorcar ended the countryside and substituted a new landscape in which the car was a sort of steeplechaser. At the same time, the motor destroyed the city as a casual environment in which families could be reared. Streets, and even sidewalks, became too intense a scene for the casual interplay of growing up. As the city filled with mobile strangers, even next-door neighbors became strangers. This is the story of the motorcar, and it has not much longer to run. The tide of taste and tolerance has turned, since TV, to make the hot-car medium increasingly tiresome. Witness the portent of the crosswalk, where the small child has power to stop a cement truck. The same change has rendered the big city unbearable to many who would no more have felt that way ten years ago than they could have enjoyed reading MAD.
The continuing power of the car medium to transform the patterns of settlement appears fully in the way in which the new urban kitchen has taken on the same central and multiple social character as the old farm kitchen. The farm kitchen had been the key point of entry to the farmhouse, and had become the social center, as well. The new suburban home again makes the kitchen the center and, ideally, is localized for access to and from the car. The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man. Even before the Volkswagen, observers above street level have often noticed the near-resemblance of cars to shiny-backed insects. In the age of the tactile-oriented skin-diver, this hard shiny carapace is one of the
blackest marks against the motorcar. It is for motorized man that the shopping plazas have emerged. They are strange islands that make the pedestrian feel friendless and disembodied. The car bugs hm.
The car, in a word, has quite refashioned all of the spaces that unite and spearate men, and it will contintue to do so for a decade mroe, by which timethe electronic successors to the car will be manifest.
Keeping Upset with the Joneses
The continuous pressure is to create ads more and more in the image of audience motives and desires. The product matters less as the audience participation increases. An extreme example is the corset series that protests that "it is not the corset that you ieel.
The need is to make the ad include the audience experience. The product and the public response become a single complex pattern.
The art of advertising has wondrously come to fulfill the early definition of anthropology as "the science of man embracing woman." The steady trend in advertising is to manifest the product as an integral part of large social purposes and processes. With very large budgets the commercial artists have tended to develop the ad into an icon, and icons are not specialist fragments or aspects but unified and compressed images of complex kind. They focus a large region of experience in tiny compass. The trend in ads, then, is away from the consumer
picture of product to the producer image of process. The corporate image of process includes the consumer in the producer role as well.
This powerful new trend in ads toward the iconic image has greatly weakened the position of the magazine industry in general and the picture magazines in particular. Magazine features have long employed the pictorial treatment of themes and news. Side by side with these magazine features that present shots and fragmentary points of view, there are the new massive iconic ads with their compressed images that include producer and consumer, seller and society in a single image. The ads make the features seem pale, weak, and anemic. The features belong to the old pictorial world that preceded TV mosaic imagery.
It is the powerful mosaic and iconic thrust in our experience since TV
that explains the paradox of the upsurge of Time and News week and similar magazines. These magazines present the news in a compressed mosaic form that is a real parallel to the ad world.
Mosaic news is neither narrative, nor point of view, nor explanation, nor comment. It is a corporate image in depth of the community in action and invites maximal participation in the social process.
Ads seem to work on the very advanced principle that a small pellet or pattern in a noisy, redundant barrage of repetition will gradually assert itself. Ads push the principle of noise all the way to the plateau of persuasion. They are quite in accord with the procedures of brain-washing. This depth principle of onslaught on the unconscious may be the reason why.
Many people have expressed uneasiness about the advertising enterprise in our time. To put the matter abruptly, the advertising industry is a crude attempt to extend the principles of automation to every aspect of society. Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavors. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective
consciousness. When all production and all consumption are brought into a pre-established harmony with all desire and all effort, then advertising will have liquidated itself by its own success.
Since the advent of TV, the exploitation of the unconscious by the advertiser has hit a snag. TV experience favors much more consciousness concerning the unconscious than do the hard-sell forms of presentation in the press, the magazine, movie, or radio.
The sensory tolerance of the audience has changed, and so have the methods of appeal by the advertisers. In the new cool TV world, the old hot world of hard-selling, earnest-talking salesmen has all the antique charm of the songs and togs of the 1920s. Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman are merely following, not setting, a trend in spoofing the ad world. They discovered that they have only to reel off an ad or news item to have the audience in fits. Will Rogers discovered years ago that any newspaper read aloud from a theater stage is hilarious.
The same is true today of ads. Any ad put into a new setting is funny.
This is a way of saying that any ad consciously attended to is comical. Ads are not meant for conscious consumption. They are intended as subliminal pills for the subconscious in order to exercise an hypnotic spell, especially on sociologists. That is one of the most edifying aspects of the huge educational enterprise that we call advertising, whose twelve-billion-dollar annual budget approximates the national school budget. Any expensive ad represents the toil, attention, testing, wit, art, and skill of many people.
Far more thought and care go into the composition of any prominent ad in a newspaper or magazine than go into the writing of their features and editorials. Any expensive ad is as carefully built on the tested foundations of public stereotypes or "sets" of established attitudes, as any skyscraper is built on bedrock. Since highly skilled and perceptive teams of talent cooperate in the making of an ad for any established line of goods whatever, it is obvious that any acceptable ad is a vigorous
dramatization of communal experience. No group of sociologists can approximate the ad teams in the gathering and processing of exploitable social data. The ad teams have billions to spend annually on research and testing of reactions, and their products are magnificent accumulations of material about the shared experience and feelings of the entire community. Of course, if ads were to depart from the center of this shared experience, they would collapse at once, by losing all hold on our feelings.
It is true, of course, that ads use the most basic and tested human experience of a community in grotesque ways. They are as incongruous, if looked at consciously, as the playing of "Silver Threads among the Gold" as music for a strip-tease act. But ads are carefully designed by the Madison Avenue frogmen-of-the-mind for semiconscious exposure. Their mere existence is a testimony, as well as a contribution, to the somnambulistic state of a tired metropolis.
After the Second War, an ad-conscious American army officer in Italy noted with misgiving that Italians could tell you the names of cabinet ministers, but not the names of commodities preferred by Italian celebrities. Furthermore, he said, the wall space of Italian cities was given over to political, rather than commercial, slogans.
He predicted that there was small hope that Italians would ever achieve any sort of domestic prosperity or calm until they began to worry about the rival claims of cornflakes and cigarettes, rather than the capacities of public men. In fact, he went so far as to say that democratic freedom very largely consists in ignoring politics and worrying, instead, about the threat of scaly scalp, hairy legs, sluggish bowels, saggy breasts, receding gums, excess weight, and tired blood.
The army officer was probably right. Any community that wants to expedite and maximize the exchange of goods and services has simply got to homogenize its social life. The decision to homogenize comes easily to the highly literate population of the English-speaking world. Yet it is hard for oral cultures
to agree on this program of homogenization, for they are only too prone to translate the message of radio into tribal politics, rather than into a new means of pushing Cadillacs. This is one reason that it was easy for the retribalized Nazi to feel superior to the American consumer. The tribal man can spot the gaps in the literate mentality very easily. On the other hand, it is the special illusion of literate societies that they are highly aware and individualistic. Centuries of typographic conditioning in patterns of lineal uniformity and fragmented repeatability have, in the electric age, been given increasing critical attention by the artistic world. The lineal process has been pushed out of industry, not only in management and production, but in entertainment, as well. It is the new mosaic form of the TV image that has replaced the Gutenberg structural assumptions. Reviewers of William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch have alluded to the prominent use of the "mosaic" term and method in his novel. The TV image renders the world of standard brands and consumer goods merely amusing. Basically, the reason is that the mosaic mesh of the TV image compels so much active participation on the part of the viewer that he develops a nostalgia for pre-consumer ways and days. Lewis Mumford gets serious attention when he praises the cohesive form of medieval towns as relevant to our time and needs.
Advertising got into high gear only at the end of the last century, with the invention of photoengraving. Ads and pictures then became interchangeable and have continued so. More important, pictures made possible great increases in newspaper and magazine circulation that also increased the quantity and profitability of ads.
Today it is inconceivable that any publication, daily or periodical, could hold more than a few thousand readers without pictures. For both the pictorial ad or the picture story provide large quantities of instant information and instant humans, such as are necessary for keeping abreast in our kind of culture. Would it not seem natural and necessary that the young
be provided with at least as much training of perception in this graphic and photographic world as they get in the typographic? In fact, they need more training in graphics, because the art of casting and arranging actors in ads is both complex and forcefully insidious.
Some writers have argued that the Graphic Revolution has shifted our culture away from private ideals to corporate images. That is really to say that the photo and TV seduce us from the literate and private "point of view" to the complex and inclusive world of the group icon. That is certainly what advertising does. Instead of presenting a private argument or vista, it offers a way of life that is for everybody or nobody. It offers this prospect with arguments that concern only irrelevant and trivial matters. For example, a lush car ad features a baby's rattle on the rich rug of the back floor and says that it has removed unwanted car rattles as easily as the user could remove the baby's rattle. This kind of copy has really nothing to do with rattles. The copy is merely a punning gag to distract the critical faculties while the image of the car goes to work on the hypnotized viewer. Those who have spent their lives protesting about "false and misleading ad copy" are godsends to advertisers, as teetotalers are to brewers, and moral censors are to books and films. The pro-testors are the best acclaimers and accelerators. Since the advent of pictures, the job of the ad copy is as incidental and latent, as the
"meaning" of a poem is to a poem, or the words of a song are to a song. Highly literate people cannot cope with the nonverbal art of the pictorial, so they dance impatiently up and down to express a pointless disapproval that renders them futile and gives new power and authority to the ads. The unconscious depth-messages of ads are never attacked by the literate, because of their incapacity to notice or discuss nonverbal forms of arrangement and meaning.
They have not the art to argue with Pictures. When early in TV
broadcasting hidden ads were tried out, the literate were in a great panic until they were dropped.
The fact that typography is itself mainly subliminal in effect and that pictures are, as well, is a secret that is safe from the book-oriented community.
When the movies came, the entire pattern of American life went on the screen as a nonstop ad. Whatever any actor or actress wore or used or ate was such an ad as had never been dreamed of. The American bathroom, kitchen, and car, like everything else, got the Arabian Nights treatment. The result was that all ads in magazines and the press had to look like scenes from a movie. They still do. But the focus has had to become softer since TV
With radio, ads openly went over to the incantation of the singing commercial. Noise and nausea as a technique of achieving unforgettability became universal. Ad and image making became, and have remained, the one really dynamic and growing part of the economy. Both movie and radio are hot media, whose arrival pepped up everybody to a great degree, giving us the Roaring Twenties. The effect was to provide a massive platform and a mandate for sales promotion as a way of life that ended only with The Death of a Salesman and the advent of TV. These two events did not coincide by accident. TV introduced that "experience in depth" and the "do-it-yourself pattern of living that has shattered the image of the individualist hard-sell salesman and the docile consumer, just as it has blurred the formerly clear figures of the movie stars. This is not to suggest that Arthur Miller was trying to explain TV to America on the eve of its arrival, though he could as appropriately have titled his play "The Birth of the PR Man." Those who saw Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy film will remember their surprise at how much of the 1920s they had forgotten. Also, they were surprised to find evidence of how naive and simple the Twenties really were. That age of the vamps, the sheiks, and the cavemen was a raucous nursery compared to our world, in which children read MAD magazine for chuckles. It was a world still innocently engaged in expanding and exploding, in separating and teasing
and tearing. Today, with TV, we are experiencing the opposite process of integrating and interrelating that is anything but innocent.
The simple faith of the salesman in the irresistibility of his line (both talk and goods) now yields to the complex togetherness of the corporate posture, the process and the organization.
Ads have proved to be a self-liquidating form of community entertainment. They came along just after the Victorian gospel of work, and they promised a Beulah land of perfectibility, where it would be possible to "iron shirts without hating your husband." And now they are deserting the individual consumer-product in favor of the all-inclusive and never-ending process that is the Image of any great corporate enterprise. The Container Corporation of America does not feature paper bags and paper cups in its ads, but the container function, by means of great art. The historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities. The Egyptian hieroglyph lags far behind in this respect. With TV, the smarter advertisers have made free with fur and fuzz, and blur and buzz. They have, in a word, taken a skin-dive. For that is what the TV viewer is. He is a skin-diver, and he no longer likes garish daylight on hard, skiny surfaces, though he must continue to put up with a noisy radio sound track that is painful.