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Grave New World, by Wayne Batty

Volvo 360c sleep

Aldous Huxley got it wrong; the future is big data, anti-heroes and bedrooms on the motorway. Not very appealing, right? The good news is that the antidotes are books and classic cars. Stay with me on this one, we’ll get there in the end. 

‘It’s a bird, it’s a plane; no, it’s Superman.’

Delivered with giddy levels of 1978 Hollywood melodrama, you can feel the optimism. Superman, the movie, with its message of justice and hope, resonated with an audience looking for a hero. Just 40 years later, contrast that with the two taglines accompanying Marvel’s 2018 film release of Venom:

‘The world has enough superheroes.’
‘Embrace your inner anti-hero.’

As Dylan said, ‘The times they [sure] are a changin’’.

Soon we’ll be living in a completely subscription-based, cashless society, trading digital currencies for virtual services algorithmically selected for us by Einstein-besting Artificial Intelligence bots. The digital information and entertainment flow will be more flood than stream. Sustenance will be by drone-dropped ‘food equivalents’. On those rare occasions when you’re forced to leave your life cube, a driverless pod will whisk you silently to the nearest Ministry of Vaccinations Centre where you’ll be forced to queue for yet another multi-strain booster shot. These will hopefully continue to work and remain free of strategically programmed nanobots. Ha!, and we used to think James Bond’s world was pure fantasy.

This insatiable drive to connect everyone digitally through increasingly pervasive technology is slowly isolating us from physical reality. There are benefits, absolutely. The ability to bank from your bathtub, or confidently book a great room in a nice old lady’s flat in Bogotá has made life undeniably easier. But what’s the end-game? 

The real money-printing genius of Facebook, Amazon and Google isn’t the ability to spy on former girlfriends, order a next-day delivery of organic kelp crisps from Yokohama, or give sensible answers for ‘How to safely remove Skittles from a child’s ear’. No, the ability to collect users’ data is what makes them invaluable to everyone from advertisers to politicians to clandestine intelligence agencies. Not just for targeted advertising, big data will help computers do a better job than we can. If human machine interface is killing human to human interaction, where will the machine to machine revolution leave us?

Under the desirable guise of connected convenience, our humanity is being reduced to a brontobyte-sized pile of ones and zeros – we’re calculating ourselves out of the equation.

And the next battlefield is in our cars. Already more technologically advanced than a ’60s moon mission, every car maker is ramping up digital capacity and connectivity while systematically removing all things analogue, all in the name of autonomy. Sure, full go-anywhere Level 5 autonomy may be decades away but already many of today’s concept cars resemble rooms on wheels. At the 2018 Geneva Motor Show, Renault displayed the EZ-GO – a sort of angular garden greenhouse with sideways subway train seating. 

Renault EZ Go

Above: Front entry, London Underground seating and no steering wheel – it’s not exactly a motoring classic, is it? Photo by Wayne Batty.

Later that year, Volvo showed its 360c transportation concept – a gut bustingly bland, fully autonomous capsule that extols the virtues of sleeping on the go. There may be some folks who’d like a car with liquid gel mattress seats covered in bio-sensitive electronic fibres that pulse every time a stranger wants to ‘connect’ with them on social media, but that’s a whole new level of nouveau niche to me. Awful to look at, and literally impossible to drive (they have no steering wheels!), these are the anti-heroes of the car world.

Volvo 360c2Above: When is a car no longer a car? When it’s a boutique hotel instead! 

I still salivate over the lines of a Bugatti Type 35, get goosebumps listening to a V12 at full chat and an adrenaline rush carving up a favourite section of Tarmac. If you are reading this, you probably do, too. Real cars – most likely now called ‘classics’ – connect with you; they don’t try to connect you with others. Real cars have no means to drive themselves, instead they beg to be driven. They involve you in the process, requiring precision when slotting home the gears, measured brake and throttle inputs so as to not upset the balance pre- and mid-corner, and an ability to understand a communicative and weighty steering wheel. These cars are the real heroes of the automotive age.

Bugatti T35Above: This writer’s first encounter with the ageless beauty of the Bugatti Type 35 on a buzzing side street in Brescia for the start of the 2010 Mille Miglia. Image courtesy of Wayne Batty.

It's much the same with information and entertainment. How many streamed films have you sleep-watched your way through and afterwards cannot recall even the basic plot? Equally, endless scrolling on social media platforms, skimming the surface of everything in the universe robs your time and leaves very little worthwhile remnant. Gallingly, what does stick is usually content chosen for, not by, you. 

But take your time reading a painstakingly researched, lavishly illustrated, quality printed book and the rewards are obvious. A fine book is a work of art that informs and entertains but it’s also one that leaves you in complete charge of the process. Like great drivers’ cars, good books are satisfying to own and experience. They are tangible assets in a world gone virtually mad. Appreciate them while you still can.

Article by Wayne Batty

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Wayne Batty - November 10, 2021

I totally agree with you on useless tech – it just adds weight, complexity and cost. Enthusiasts want to drive their cars, they enjoy driving them, and they don’t need autonomous gadgets to help them do it.

Roy Vigus - November 10, 2021

Very good article Wayne, but you overlook the fact that people have to want new tech, just because its new does not automatically mean its any good.
As a petrolhead I have nothing against EVs , but unlike the government I think they are just another market segment, and will not be buying one for at least 10 years.
A good example of useless tech is the state of “driver aids” in current cars ,such as lane assist.

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