I was on a walk last night and started noticing the front ends of cars. Do we anthropomorphize cars, and judge them as we judge human faces? What message do we read in the headlights—the eyes—of this Volvo? Does our preference for eyes that are proportionally large to the face in which they are set (puppies, babies) carry over into cars?
And if the idea does, does the preference still? Might we prefer cars that are anti-cute? How is this linked to the passage of time and changes in automobile design? Car size varies tremendously with economic conditions and the price of gasoline, but what about the aspect, the personality of the cars we encounter? I think this Toyota looks angry. Do recent cars look angrier than older cars? Does the zeitgeist of each decade show itself in the cars produced?
And what of national origin? Do the Volvo and Toyota have different ‘aspects’, different ‘personalities’ to them than this Ford? This is only further confounded by the complicated ownership structures of multinational corporations—Volvo is owned by Ford; many Toyotas are manufactured in the United States.
Cars sit at the junction of utility and design. They are unnecessary in a way, or less than necessary: Cars simply happen to be the way we transport ourselves, but they do not have to be the way we transport ourselves. And now that they’re here, we will do with them what we will. Like cakes, they have both outside and inside meaning.
[UPDATE: Moments ago, I opened Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things, which I’m reading for my material cultures seminar. In the book’s second paragraph, Petroski neatly elucidates the wider question of this post: “If form does not follow function in any deterministic way, then by what mechanism do the shapes and forms of our made world come to be?”]