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This serves nicely as an index of a shift in our relationship to machines. Lubrication has been recast, for the user, in the frictionless terms of the electronic device. In those terms, lubrication has no rationale and ceases to be an object of active concern for anyone but the service technician. In a sense this increases the freedom of the Mercedes user. He has gained a kind of independence by not having to futz around with dipsticks and dirt rags.

But in another sense it makes him more dependent. He has outsourced the burden of paying attention to his oil level to another, and the price he pays for this disburdenment is that he is entangled in a more minute, all-embracing, one might almost say maternal relationship with … what? Not with the service technician at the dealership, at least not directly, as there are layers of bureaucracy that intervene: the dealership that employs the technician; Daimler AG, Stuttgart, Germany, that holds the service plan and warranty on its balance sheet; and finally Mercedes shareholders, unknown to one another, who collectively dissipate the financial risk of an engine running low on oil. There are now layers of collectivized, absentee interest in a car’s oil level and no single person is responsible for it. If you understand this under the rubric of globalization, you see that the tentacles of that wondrous creature reach down into things that were once unambiguously your own: the amount of oil in your crankcase.

It used to be that, in addition to a dipstick, you had something called an “idiot light.” One can be sure that the current system is not referred to in the Mercedes owner’s manual as the “idiot system,” as the harsh judgment carried by that term no longer makes any sense to us. By some inscrutable cultural logic, idiocy – that is, a lack of involvement – gets recast as something desirable.

It is important to understand that there has been no high-tech development that makes it no longer important to stay on top of oil consumption and leakage. With enough miles, oil is still consumed, and it will still leak; running low on oil will still trash the motor. There is nothing magical about Mercedes, though such a superstition is encouraged by the absence of a dipstick. The facts of physics have not changed; what has changed is the place of those facts in our consciousness.

Mental and bodily involvement with the machines we use entails a kind of agency. Yet the decline of such involvement, through technological accretions intended to make our machine less obtrusive, is precisely the development that makes for an increase in autonomy. Is there a paradox here? Not having to futz around with machines, we are free to simply use them for our purposes. There seems to be a tension between a certain kind of agency and a certain kind of autonomy, and this is worth thinking about. In particular, there is a tension between autonomy understood as the limitless choice of an unfettered self (let’s call this freedomism – the anthropology that is tacit in much advertising) and the kind of agency that is exercised in any skillful performance.

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering or learning Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. An “authoritative structure which commands my respect” is not a commodity. Consumerism might be understood as the tendency to replace such demanding structures and disciplines with undemanding, quasi-substitutes. As Albert Borgmann writes, a musical instrument is “arduous to master and limited in its range,” whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available.

The modern personality is being reorganized on a predicate of passive consumption and this starts early in life. One of the hottest things at the shopping mall right now is a store called Build-A-Bear Workshop, where children are said to make their own teddy bears. I went in one of these stores and it turns out that what the kid actually does is select the features and clothes for the bear on a computer screen, then the bear is made for him. Some entity has leaped in ahead of us and taken care of things already, with a kind of solicitude. The effect is to preempt cultivation of embodied agency. Children so preempted will be better adjusted to emerging patterns of work and consumption. It will not strike them that there is anything amiss in the absence of a dipstick in the Mercedes.

Adapted from Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, first printed in The Hedgehog Review Summer 2010. Former executive director at the George C. Marshall Institute, Crawford resigned in 2001, accusing the think tank of acting as a mouthpiece for Big Oil.

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