Firstly let me explain this, as a car person we often describe certain cars as having character, a personality, or some sort of x-factor which really sets it apart from others, as well as creates an emotional bond with its owner. This tie often isn’t entirely logical. For example, it is widely known that Alfa Romeo makes great, but generally unreliable sports cars. Somehow this trait, which would normally be seen as a negative, helps to define the character of the car, and in doing so creates a bond and a fanaticism amongst Alfa owners. The saying goes something like “You’re not a real car person until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo.”
This notion of a car’s character being partially defined by its downfalls, its foibles if you will, is something I know well with my own car and my attachment to it. The S60R has a turning radius which may as well be measured in miles, not feet. It is atrocious. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if the engineer(s) who designed the steering subsystems and chassis were fired for creating a car which is damn near impossible to drive in cities, or park in tight lots. But every time I have to do just that, and when the wheel is rubbing the inside of the wheel well, I can’t help but smile and laugh. Maybe it’s pity, maybe I just think it’s pathetic; I’m not sure. But it helps to strengthen the bond between me and my car.
Therefore, the question I would like to explore today is why do we view cars as having this character, this passion and soul, which is often defined by negative aspects or performance downfalls, but at the same time we view computers as being cold and heartless.
Let’s start at the beginning: cars boomed in this country because they symbolized freedom, and allowed owners to travel to new destinations with ease, in style and comfort. Sure, cars are tools which are used for the sole purpose of getting us from point A to point B, and that journey is most often the part of a car experience which people love the most. But at some point cars became more than just a tool, they also became a way to express oneself. Also, we generally live with and spend more time with one particular car than we do with one particular computer, since technology in the PC and mobile industries is expanding at such an incredibly rapid rate, and since cars are significantly more expensive to buy and own. So we gain more of a long-term relationship with our cars than our mobile phones for example. Also, 9 times out of 10, the effectiveness of a car both as a transportation machine and as an emotional relationship isn’t marred by the test of time. A car doesn’t necessarily become less useful as it ages, whereas a computer, again mostly due to the rapid innovation in the industry, is out of date and effectively useless just a few short years after it was shiny new. Hell, one could even put up a good argument that older cars are better than newer models because they often have more character. But that is a topic for another time.
One of the biggest ideas though, I think, is that it is never humorous when a computer doesn’t work precisely well for the task at hand, whether that be a $150 tablet, a flagship mobile phone, a $4000 gaming computer, or a massive server farm. It isn’t funny when all of the sudden Skyrim decides to freeze up after you’ve been working on a quest for over an hour, or when your term paper in Word doesn’t save properly , or your Windows PC has a “Blue Screen of Death.” But if your car decides it wants to make funny squeaky noises, or shake when you go above 75mph, or only turn over and fire up after holding they key in the ignition for more than 30 seconds, it doesn’t phase us in the same way. Just as when another human has an oddity, or a disadvantageous trait like a lisp, or a limp, we don’t automatically start yelling obscenities at them (as we would a computer), or stop being their friend.
Computers are but tools, appliances, if you will. Cars, well, they’re a little more than that. They are often created by hand by other human beings who impart some sort of magic, a little x-factor into every car they create, bringing more life into their creation and therefore making us as the driver feel more connected (both physically and spiritually) to the car. At the same time, most car people (or even non-car people) would be really sad and depressed if their car were to be heavily damaged, stolen, or wrecked. But if a stick of RAM in your computer dies? Whatever, buy a new DIMM for $30 and you’re on your way. No emotional pain or suffering required.
That ability to reach deep within our emotions (often through humour) as a bi-product of being significantly “closer” to other human beings, I think, is the difference between the character of computers and cars, and why we still view computers are purely lifeless tools and appliances, much more akin to a toaster than a pet or another person. If computers ever want to become as emotionally connected to humans as cars are (without getting into a computer-in-brain scenario), they need to have more characteristics of a human, more entertaining foibles, more passion, more soul.
The question now becomes, do we want that sort of relationship with a computer? Speaking for myself, I know I don’t. (Why did I waste my time writing all this then…)