Sunday, January 21, 2007

contemporary convenience in 4-D?

Car culture has been accused of promoting anonymity, alienation, and the disruption (or at the very least, dramatic change) of day-to-day human interactions, through which relationships have, in it's absence, been built. In that critique, the car's accomplice and territory has traditionally been suburbia or sprawl. However, I came across evidence today which seems to suggest an approaching ubiquity of people living, eating, and socializing (either in person or via cell phones) in our cars. I got the chance to observe this cultural value/behavior manifested in the use of an interactive built response. A severed city block in the vicinity of the Guadalupe and West 9th Street Moonlight Tower is occupied by two large motor banking stations, the frequency of their likenesses along my route through downtown attesting to the percolation of suburban car-culture convenience to the core of the city.

For awhile, they stand eerily vacant. I choose one to observe. Skeletal structure, a mechanized trellis, organizes flow of traffic from one large drive into seven smaller function-specific lanes, in plan reminiscent of Alexander’s description of tree organization.

A thoroughfare of street traffic is interrupted when a turn signal is activated by the driver wishing to make a transaction. He navigates through the manicured labyrinth of curbs, one-way drives, and tiny islands of grass and concrete leading to the banking sequence. Red and green lights, as well as signs, inform the driver of which lanes are open, and for whom. Is he conducting business? No, it is personal banking. He must wait in line, leaving vacant the six other lanes. There is subtle hierarchy. How high one sits in his car places him physically above or below the eye level of the operator. The customer must reach out and press a button, await a response, and communicate intention through verbal statement, and subsequently, the papers he must place inside a plastic tube, which is shot through the structure’s appendage to reach the operator, who remains encased in it’s bulletproof belly. Facial expressions and intonation become diluted over incrementally (the distance being a multiple of a car lane-width) farther separation. Over especially large distances, communication changes even more. It almost becomes irrelevant that the operator is visible, and the goal of the exchange becomes focused on clarity of message (i.e., shouting at the box), sparing unnecessary subtleties. The device shoots the cylinder back, concluding the transaction. A last verbal acknowledgement is exchanged, and person and pod move back into the larger stream of traffic.

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