The gateway question to the Science and Technology Studies (STS) program at Stanford is deceptively simple: “do artifacts have politics?” An affirmative answer leads to four wonderful years at Stanford studying the myriad ways in which artifacts do, indeed, have politics – and the insights gained by considering technologies as social actors.

The car and its paradoxes offer a wonderful place to begin to explore these questions. At once an icon of freedom and mobility, the automobile has also brought unprecedented regulation in the form of policing, traffic and auto regulation, and commuting expectations. At the same time as automobile sales indicate the health of the economy, they drain the average American income by a solid ten percent. The car enables the wildest adventures and sucks us in to time consuming, polluting, traffic jams. In short, there is nothing straightforward about American automobility. Both awesome and horrible, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, the car offers enthusiasts and critics alike an opportunity to understand how artifacts have politics.

In my experience teaching a similar class from 2001-2003, car enthusiasts can be quick to understand social analysis as “negative.” But STS methods focus on more global developments and questions and shy away from misleading judgments. To be sure, in our Revs-sponsored Car Culture class this Winter quarter, we studied issues that we wish had been otherwise, such as the scandalous use of lead in gas for decades despite the known devastating health effects, and the twentieth century global politics of oil and the military. However, rather than studying these from an activist stance, we examined them to better understand the history and vectors that enabled such decisions to be made.

We also examined the ways in which women used the car early on. They drove around the country spreading the notion that they should get to vote for the President. They also personally purchased of automobiles to use in WWI as ambulances that they then repaired, redesigned and drove – radical actions for women of the era and ones with longstanding consequences for both the war effort and women’s social advancement.

My goal in this class was to give students tools to understand the subtle and not-so-subtle politics at play in the development of US culture over the last century, and the ways that the car intimately influenced American life and identity. In the final analysis, the car and American history can’t be distinguished, and it’s that embeddedness that the course sought to better understand.

In addition to a series of readings and lectures on the interstate highway system, Norman Bel Geddes, the rise of the suburbs, early car development, the legal history of the car, and the development of car safety in the 1960s, students worked on two hands-on projects for the class.

The first assignment offered students the opportunity to complete an “ethnography” of intersections, and the second involved a group project in which students identified and fixed a transportation break-down.

In completing an ethnography of an intersection, students built on their experience with the intersection from different points of view (driver, cyclist, pedestrian, blind or elderly person, etc. etc.) to better understand how the technical design of the place impacted the abilities of users to complete their goals. Students were able to see and experience, in a new way, how “choices” are not always free, but come already circumscribed within a set of limited possibilities – in this case the possibilities offered by cement, lights, cars, and so on.

Students worked to understand the micro-technologies (curbs, noise) of intersections that attempt to control and direct behaviors that can result in the direct collision of fragile flesh with sharp metal. From there, we could also better understand how technologies always work to further certain interests over others, sometimes without adequate appreciation of what those might be and leading to a host of unintended consequences. To that extent, students also learned tools from anthropology that can aid in forwarding innovation and user-centered design.

 

For the second project they went to the drawing board to redesign an aspect of transportation. The final class of presentations led to a tremendous firework of ideas. One group redesigned the Bart system, making it much easier for riders to identify stations and navigate the system. Another documented the confusion around Stanford’s own Marguerite shuttle bus system, noting also how humiliating it was to wait, alone, for a bus and not knowing quite when it would come and where it would go. A redesign of the stops and the maps led to some clear improvements in the systems. Other groups redesigned shuttle systems on corporate campuses, Stanford University cycle bottlenecks, and car transportation devices to alleviate traffic congestion. These were all tested on user-groups who gave valuable feedback to a new generation of car culture designers.

(Photo via San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

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