Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Toyota Prius & musings on alienation

I wash my bikes most weekends. I'm not overly fastidious about clean bikes - quite the opposite - but it is a part of the maintenance routine. And Harleys are by modern standards fairly high maintenance machines - I will usually find something that needs tightening or adjusting. But they are also imminently fixable - which is why people keep them for many years - and of course the passion of ownership that surpasses all logic. 

My car on the other-hand - a very ordinary Focus Diesel - tends to be ignored other than very occasionally checking the oil or topping up the screen wash. When I open the bonnet everything is neatly boxed in plastic and I struggle to even identify the engine components. Should something go wrong I simply take it to a dealer who has the electronic diagnostic tools. Much like my laptop - it is a magical black box beyond my comprehension.

This lack of connected-ness from technology is a form of alienation. Robert Pisrig talked about it in Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance and it is an ever growing phenomenon in our digital 'post industrial' society. Or less pretensiously - the world is becoming less and less real and we are getting less and less personally involved in the things that surround us.

The present Toyota scandal* is a case in point - and the Prius is a symbol of this alienation. The hybrid car is so complicated that it is beyond the scope of the home mechanic to look after it or repair it. Its computerised systems switch from electrical mode to petrol mode - and judging by the problems cited in the factory re-call it will have a pretty good go at driving itself whether you want it to or not. 

And on another level it divorces the owner from taking moral responsibility  - simply buying one is enough and the car will do the rest for you when it comes to minimizing your environmental impact. If that sounds over the top then consider the bizarre situation in California where owning a Prius has become a must-have accessory if you want to be accepted as a socially responsible citizen - but at the same time  actually walking anywhere on foot marks you out as either barkingly eccentric or part of the underclass.

I may have oil permanently under my finger-nails and I may be constantly moaning about something that needs fixing - but I know that there is a fair chance that my bikes will outlive me. They won't suddenly try to ride themselves whilst I am seated on them - and when they do they fail I can fix them myself or at least diagnose the problem and take them to someone who can. I will also even acknowledge that from time to time the best option is to get off my arse and actually walk somewhere - for  my own sake and the environment.

* If you want some background on big business' callousness  over safety in the automotive interest then seek out the 1991 film 'Class Action' - a thinly disguised dramatisation of the Ford Pinto scandal in the seventies...

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