The arrival of the future. Part 3 of 3: BMW’s GINA project

bmw-gina-concept-car1You might be wondering how a concept car could signal that the future has already arrived. Concept vehicles, we normally think, project futures that may or may not arrive. For instance, the minivan was first shown by Lancia in 1978 – but it didn’t “arrive” until Chrysler’s great success in the 1980s.

However, what we can see happening in BMW’s GINA project is a bit different. On one level, the project is promoting a new way to think about building cars. Traditionally cars have a body and a frame – the rigidity of the car comes from the frame, and the body gives the car its appearance, its shape. In order to make cars lighter, there has been a tendency to reduce the importance of the frame with “unibody” construction methods, in which the body is a stressed member of the chassis, bolted to a sub-frame. Making the body an integral part of a car’s rigidity allows it to be lighter and stiffer. This idea comes to a radical point with Jaguar’s aluminum exoskeleton construction – where the frame of the car is basically its skin. If the skin is made from carbon fiber, exoskeleton construction can produce even more extreme results.

Another tendency in car lightening, embodied perhaps most famously in the Corvette, is to put all the rigidity of a car in its frame or space-frame, and cover it with a light plastic or fiberglass body. Or, in the case of the Ariel Atom, not to cover it with no body at all.

On the surface, the GINA project is simply an Ariel Atom covered in cloth. However, Chris Bangle is up to something altogether more interesting – what we see happening here is the matter and the form of the car interacting in a wholly new way. Before project GINA the shape of a car is a compromise between an artistic ideal and material constraints. Car designers would like to do one thing, but safety legislation, the need for aerodynamics and economy constrain their creativity. Of course, the best automotive designers are those who can turn this opposition into a synergy. Ian Callum is probably the greatest car designer of this type.

The GINA project departs most radically from past car design in that the shape of the car is not drawn in advance in clay models and then instantiated in hard plastic or metal body panels. Rather, the shape itself is a product of the stretching of a cloth skin over metal hoops. The form of the car is literally engendered out of the matter. That on its own is nothing new, but BMW’s project is different because the flexibility of the skin doesn’t have utilitarian goals, but emotional ones instead. It isn’t form for the sake of function, or form following function, but function for the sake of form – or more specifically, for the sake of emotional affect. Usually we’d say the form of a thing is for the sake of affect (a car has a beautiful shape to provoke an emotional response). But in GINA, the matter itself has an emotional function.

In fact, “Form/matter” language breaks down trying to talk about this object – the form is not just a product of the matter, it is the matter. By this I mean that in the outward image of the vehicle, in what we see when we look, we literally “see” the matter – the stretchiness of the fabric. This is most pronounced in the video when the shape of the car changes – a spoiler raises up at the back of the car at high speed, the fabric in the doors creases as they open, the headlights open up. We even see the translucence of the material in the break lights, since the lights shine through the skin. If the car were here we could also touch it – and we would want to touch it far more than we desire to touch metal or plastic cars – and that desire is part of the emotional product the designers are aiming at.

Some of you might be familiar with Chris Bangles work on BMWs that have gone into production. In general it can be said he’s quite unpopular, and since he’s been dismissed BMW’s styling has returned somewhat to its conservative roots. However, it should be said that the role of a stylist is not merely to make beautiful objects, but to break new ground – produce new styling language – make it possible to say things in design which were impossible before. People familiar with architecture might not be terribly surprised to learn that Bangle considers Frank Gehry an important influence. Whether that means we can say Bangle was indirectly influenced by sculptor Richard Serra I’m not sure – could the controversial looks of the current BMW M5 somehow be traced to the controversy of Tilted Arc? Could the matter-form interplay in GINA have anything to do with Shift?

So, why does GINA signal the future having arrived? Simply because it shows that design can catch up with art, that emotion can become a product, and that form doesn’t need to either overshadow or proceed from function.

New Page – Cataloguing this summer’s adventures

I thought it would be in good form to create an easier way for people to trace through the cross country adventures I’ve had this summer, so I created a page on the blog to facilitate this – with links to all the relevant posts, in order, and also links to photos. I even posted the lost entry which somehow didn’t make its way online during the trip.

The arrival of the future. Part 2 of 3: Unmaned Aerial Vehicles

Predator1oClockAs children the notion of unmanned aerial attack vehicles, engaging human targets with their computer brains, was reserved for the realm of dystopian science fiction. However, vehicles that can fly autonomously are possessed by the military of the United States and Israel. Machines that engage human targets under no direct supervision by a pilot are thus no longer the realm of imagination – but of ethical discussion. Milan has discussed the topic on his blog. Rather than recognize the dystopic aspects of UAVs, he prefers to see them in a positive light:

“I think the fact that robots would not be subject to emotions like fear, the desire for vengeance, or lust does provide a reasonable chance that they could be made to behave more ethically than human soldiers.I think the fact that robots would not be subject to emotions like fear, the desire for vengeance, or lust does provide a reasonable chance that they could be made to behave more ethically than human soldiers.”

He is of course, right. Personally, I don’t find the ethical discussion concerning UAV’s particularly compelling. What is interesting is that the US army sees the need to participate in this discussion – see here a report they commissioned on UAVs, responsibility, and laws of war.

On the surface, the discussion surrounding UAVs isn’t futuristic at all. And of course, it isn’t – it’s impossible to have a futuristic discussion about something which already exists. My point is rather that the fact that UAVs are not even recognized as harbingers for a dystopic future is a sign that we are already in it. The cruel joke about the future, featured in Leonard Cohen’s song, the film No Country for Old Men, even Natural Born Killers – is that the future has already arrived. In comparison, even the worst atrocities of the past are easy to comprehend.

From Cohen’s song:

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing, Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned the order of the soul”

The arrival of the future. Part 1 of 3: The iphone

As modern technological individuals, we’ve been trained to expect the arrival of the future. “The future” is characterized by the automation of simple human tasks (skip to 1:40), the automation of war (in the sense of the machines become automatons), and the becoming increasingly emotional and physical of human-computer interfaces. Humans can remarkably bad at getting their vision of the future right. As such, we can have been forgiven for believing that the future we’re always anticipated might not come. There are, after all, those who argue that in a certain sense there is no future, that the last essential transformations of history have already occurred. Leonard Cohen has his own take on the future, one which really deserves its own post.

While the term is surrounded by much confusion and conflict, I believe that in a sense we have recently arrived in “the future”. As evidence for this I present the Iphone, the arrival of unmanned aerial military craft as a topic of ethical debate,  and the “GINA” concept car developed by BMW motors. These three events, which now all fall in the past, all match in different ways characteristics proper to the future from the past we grew up in.

IMG_9640

The iphone/ipod touch is a harbinger of the future because it fundamentally changes the human-machine interface. Unlike phones and computers based on buttons and commands, the iphone doesn’t expect you to learn its language – it already responds in a human way. It falls to the hand easily. By leaving the phone blank, with only one button (which is not used in any of the programs, but only to return from programs to the home screen), the programs have full control over the way controls are layed out. You use the iphone by flicking the screen – it responds in an intuitive, natural way – as if you are sliding the images across a wooden table. When you flick between photos the action is elastic – it always snaps to one photo or the next, but the speed at which the phone moves across the screen is entirely dependent on how intensely you flick it aside. It’s really as if you are touching the photograph, pushing it across the table yourself.

The iphone is from the future not primarily because of “what it does”, however. Rather, what characterizes it as a shift in the human-machine interface is that the use of it appears difficult and cumbersome before one starts using the phone. Everything great is misunderstood when first revealed, and this is certainly the case with the Iphone – people berate its lake of buttons. People think they need buttons, they think they need tactile confirmation that they’ve pushed “7” – but they don’t (the Iphone replaces tactile confirmation with visual confirmation). However, now that it’s happening, we’ll begin to see the end of buttons – the end of the difference between control surfaces and display surfaces, the end of traditional design limitations to programming. Just as important as this, since control inputs can be dynamic, we will start to control machines in a much more corporeal, bodily way.

What I’m trying to say is the iphone is an important step in the human becoming ever more intimately a cyborg. In a sense, we’ve always been cyborgs – humanity by definition almost uses tools, and tools are extensions of our bodies. The futuristic sense of cyborg is usually conceived as something super-technological – implants of computers and the like. But it’s also a characteristic of the future that technology becomes more and more sensitive to human needs, becomes more and more human.

Social Beliefs and Personal Values

church_tortureI often make the case that torture in the middle ages was a moral act. Given what people believed about the afterlife, torture wasn’t just morally neccesary or acceptable, in certain situations it was downright deserving of approbation:

“The penal law sought to save [the accused’s] soul. For this reason, a convictd person who confessed could be given absolution and could also be ministererd to by a priest at his execution….What was physical suffering, if its infliction could save the evildoer’s soul?”

“…the torture was not without danger for the torturers. Socerers, witches and heretics of both sexes had opened themselves to Satan and the proceedings were therefore a direct battle wit the devil himself.”

(Wolfgang Schild)

Given the beliefs of the people involved, the actions of torture can be interpreted as morally right. However, we’d now say that their cultural beliefs were wrong. My question is, to what extent is an individual morally wrong if they were to engage in torture without themselves explicitly sharing the cultural beliefs (in God, Satan, etc…)? In other words, to what extent are beliefs “our own”, and to what extent do we not get to choose what is true in our own time?

This can be turned towards any number of moral questions relevant in today’s world, but the one that bothers me is the pig-ff-02consumption of meat as a food product. It is a cultural truth in our society that eating meat, raising meat in factory farms, is right. I don’t get to decide that – this would be like trying to decide that “God exists” isn’t a social truth in the middle ages. But, what if I think this social value is wrong? Just like, what if I am a medieval humanist, I don’t believe in the transcendental struggle of good and evil – so to me torture seems repulsive! But to what extent would it really “seem” repulsive, or “be” repulsive to me? To what extent can I take on beliefs that are contrary to social truths, that are only true “for me”? If this “extent” is limited – this would seem to limit my obligation to act on their basis.

Of course I’m cheating here. By showing a disgusting picture from a factory farm, I’m not actually displaying the socially true image of respectable meat consumption. Not only vegetarians find disfigured animals gross. The actual socially-acceptable representation (truth) of meat eating is enacted in Old Macdonald’s farm. We all know this is a false representation of 20th century farming, but this does not prevent it from being the “societal truth” that justifies the factories. TAT_Old_Macdonald_Farm

We know a “truth” to be false, and yet it still functions. Zizek calls this “Ideology” – when you know something is an illusion and you still act as if its true. Of course we know what Zizek thinks about vegetarians. Leonard Cohen calls this “Everybody Knows”.The question then, is to what extent is it possible, and to what extent is it helpful, to actually “oppose” these illusions. Simple opposition (wearing signs, protesting, writing incendiary pamphlets) is a liberal value, but produces stifling opposition. People who take a moral side on an argument, the other side of which is bolstered by a social truth are often not argued with, but are as anti-American or Israeli, as making an intolerant and faddish “personal choice” or just dismissed as terrorists (you can find your own example of that).

Hegel made the case in “Phenomenology of Spirit” that every action can be considered as either moral or immoral by switching perspective:

“Just as every action is capable of being looked at from the point of view of conformity to duty, so too can it be considered from the point of view of the particularity [of the doer]; for, qua action, it is the actuality of the individual.”

“No action can escape such judgement, for duty for duty’s sake, this pure purpose, is an unreality; it becomes reality in the deed of an individuality, and the action is thereby charged with the aspect of particularity.” (404)

This logic seems to be the one that replaces moral discourse when an individual opposes a social truth – the individual’s construal of his own duty is immediately interpreted as selfishness.

It may be hubris to believe that through whit and persistence one can personally avoid this kind of dismissal. The only value that seems appropriate to a world in which values are both “our own decisions” and yet still social-truths, is to circulate values, to move from one to the other. “Standing on principle” is not longer that when principle is re-interpreted as selfishness.

Values

values-basedWe all have them. They’re what drive us, what we strive for. What we sometimes have to give up. What we set up as provisional ideals, goals, projects. What guide us through difficult decisions. What we ponder over. What we die for (or from).

When our ideals differ from those of others, we have values for then too – tolerance, respect, sensitivity, engagement. Collaboration, argument.We share some values, so we don’t have to share others.

Do we believe in our values? We can change our values. Our values are ourselves, we identify with them. If we choose our values, do we choose ourselves? We (should?) take responsibility (a value) for our values.

Are values inherently individuating? (A value). Is that a good value? Can values be evaluated?

Are values up to the challenges of our time? Isn’t “Challenges of our time” a value? Or at least the notion of “Challenge”, and the “ownership” of a time?

Is the question – “Which values are the right values to hold?” or “are values the right way to think our ideals?”?

What would it mean to give up on values? How would that not be a value?

York Debating Society

In Victoria this summer I promised Erin Rennie that I would attend at least one meeting of the  York debating society – and today for the first time I attended a meeting. Today for the first time I attended a meeting of the While I’ve been meaning to check them out for years, I’ve always come up with excuses not to see what they’re about. On first impressions, it seems legitimate – they put on a good show debate, and the exec members I met seem solid (apparently returning members don’t show up until the 3rd week). While they don’t seem to be on a level with UBC debate, I’ve already met some good people, even other graduate students. This year promises to be an exciting one for York debate, as they are hosting the North American debate tournament. While as hosts we can’t debate at that tournament, being a member of the York debate society means the possibility of funding to go to tournaments around Eastern Canada – it might be a reasonable way to visit Halifax or Newfoundland.

Since both UBC debate and York debate seem to have good people, it seems likely that it is a general tendency of debating societies. Has anyone been a member of other debating societies? Does this ring true elsewhere?

First week back, and a new blog

It’s Sunday – meaning I’ve been back in Toronto for an entire week. I’ve been to many parties, seen many familiar faces. I have one class, two jobs, other papers to write – it will be a busy term. But, there will still be time for reflection.

It’s hard to know what to write when I’m not up to extraordinary adventures. If anyone’s interested, the books I’m currently reading are “Cradle to Cradle” by McDonough and Braungart, “Gomorra” by Roberto Saviano, “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, “Concrete Reveries” by Mark Kingwell, and “The New Heidegger and “Heidegger and Happiness” by de Beistegui and Matthew King respectively. I suppose I could post reviews of any of these books if people are interested. I’m also taking a course called “Theory” taught by John O’Neil which has no assigned readings as of yet – but which promises to be interesting. I’m working on papers about Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, and the film “No Country for Old Men”, and re-working a paper on Virtue Ethics in an attempt to get something published. I could expound on any of these topics, but I don’t know if they would be of general interest.

I’ve also started a new blog. I live in a house called “Toad Lane”, which is part of the 30 or so house “Campus Co-op”, but which is distinct in that organization for being a “Theme House”, which means we coalesce around the theme of Veganism (being, or being interested in vegan diets). That blog is here if anyone is interested at checking it out. It will be Co-op, or at least Toronto specific – although more general issues about the ethics of food will also be discussed. I hope that blog will eventually have many contributors from the house and the community that surrounds it.

American Rail Trip Amalgamation

Cross America Rail Trip

Day 1 – Morning (Cascades from Bellingham to Seattle)

Day 1 – Afternoon (Seattle)

Day 1 – Evening (Empire Builder in Washington State)

Day 1 – Photos

Day 2 – Morning (Empire Builder in Montana)

Day 2 – Photos

Day 3 – Afternoon (Chicago)

Day 3 – Chicago Photos

Day 4 – Buffalo Photos

Day 4 – Afternoon (Maple Leaf)

Day 4 – Conclusion

Rail Journey Across America: Conclusion

As the sun goes down and we pass through Oakville, I feel the journey gathering to a close. There is an uncanny famiiliarity to being back in Canada. Strange to be home after having become at-home with being in a strange land (with not-being-at-home). America really is a different land to the one we have here – as much trade as there is, and as much tourism, and similarity of terrain, the brute facts remain that the average American has made no or only a cursory visit to Canada – this seems to be the case even with those I’ve met on the train, many of whom live less than a hundred miles from Canada on the Northern Plains.

So, if I can sense being at home, and being away, can that help me discover where the train is? Is it in a Country? Is it 15 minutes from Toronto’s Union station as our conductor has announced? I already knew when embarking on this journey that the train, like the car, isn’t where it is nor where it’s from or going, but literally is in “the between”, as if “between” were itself a location, a “the”.  I know that the between is a  present entirely co-constituted by endpoints which are at the same time definitionally alien to it. What I mean by this is while the between helps gain itself through the beginning and the end, the beginning and end are very much “outside” it – something you feel emphatically upon arrival in Union station. The Empire Builder, which had been your two story home for 2 full days instantly becomes no more special than a jet airliner as everyone disembarks as quickly as possible. I take a bit more time, and yet not enough – I leave important school books on board, ones I still do not know if I will get back.

But what does the between help with the question I’m asking, “where am I?” I am “on the way”, as they say, between my own past and future, and yet nothing but a tangent, a vector, an opening. One thing the train shows remarkably brightly is that there is no “I” in “on my way”: it is always “we” – but not simply the we of community, or the ghostly we of a denied community (e.g. the passengers who choose to ignore others, listen to ipods, write on their computers, rather than acknolwedge the shared reality they pass through together, which right now is me, incidentally). No, these we’s are obvious, and are we’s which can be reduced to a series of I’s and the relations between them.  But there is another we, the “we” of self and world. What I mean to propose here is that “self and world” ought not be grasped as a contradiction, as an opposition. Not “one man against the world”, or “I’m going to go out and change the world” – I think this is a grave mis-formulation which produces anxiety, depression in the face of the impossibility of “one man changing the world” (which is only made worse by the continued liberal cries that “all that ever has changed the world is determined groups and individuals”. These truisms only seem true as a result of ignoring how the self is part of the world, the world is part of the self. If the world eschews your change, if you remain opposed to the world as something that stymies your will, you will never change anything. Changing the world is only possible by co-operating with it, by finding an opening, a clearing, a weak point in the structure of the now. In other worlds, changing the world is about interlacing, rather than opposing). This is clearer on the train, as “I” am never outside of my context, my world, my locale. I am not “outside” of the buildings or rivers or trees which “I pass by”. I am not “outside of” the dining car, or other passengers or crew. I am what I am only insofar as we are together – one thing could not exist on its own, there could not be merely one undifferentiated thing! “Thing” means limited, with a boundary, any “thing” in-finite lacks existence (this is the central lie of Christianity – not that “God exists” but that there could even be an infinite thing – not that all Christians going back to Paul have made this metaphysical error). But I do not mean to resort to metaphysical argumentation to bolster my case, to provide “more evidence” for my direct experience. In fact, metaphysically it is always possible, when going beyond experience, to argue flawlessly for an assertion and its contradiction (this is why Kant calls the antinomies of pure reason, the proofs and disproofs of God, the proofs and disproofs that the world is infinite and that time is infinite, all cases in which pure reason theorizes about objects which are not possible experiences for us).

Rather, what I want to describe, what the train reveals, is that “I” am so much more than the stability which you can speak to as the “same person” day after day, this year or the next. I am that, of course, but I am also the plenitude of my immediate experience, changing constantly. When I am on the Empire Builder traveling through the Rockies, I am literally a different arrangement of parts than I am when I am traveling through the plains. We would normally characterize someone’s desire to take a journey, especially a scenic one like this, as a desire to have particular experiences. We call this sort of recreation rejuvenating, inspiring, and this is not false. However, it might be better to think of these “experiences” as literally new ways of being-a-self, new ways of setting oneself into arrangement with a world one is not “opposed to”, but which one is always “together with”. Perhaps all desire might be dispelled in this way – certainly we can think the desire to have a coffee or a beer or see a friend or write a paper as a desire to put oneself into a new arrangement with “one’s surroundings” – which means in the larger, extra-stable sense of “I”, to “Be someone new”.

This meditation is of course not only at the end of a railway journey (which has been amazing, and relatively inexpensive. In a future post I will discuss pricing, other possible trips, and make recommendations. Unfortunately, being in Canada makes taking the Amtrak a bit more difficult), but of a summer of travels. In some important sense, my “I” is richer, enlarged, more inspired than it was two months ago, thanks to a cross country drive, travels around B.C., seeing my favorite people in the world, and becoming a long distance train travel aficionado. It is also enriched by having friends in Montreal, having a reason to head in that direction by rail. What is required now, however, is a bit of a closing in, a return to academic life, and an attempt to find anew some value there.