This sign always makes me think of Andy Crouch.
In his book Culture Making Andy talks about five key questions we can ask about any given cultural artifact:
- – What does it assume about the way the world is?
- – What does it assume about the way the world should be?
- – What does it make possible?
- – What does it make impossible (or at least very difficult)?
- – What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?
He gives some sample answers with reference to omelettes (yes, really) and the US Interstate (motorway) system.
His point is that an artifact – even one as simple as an omelette – never just pops out of nowhere for no reason. Sometimes the reasons are hard to imagine (when looking at a particularly useless and ugly piece of tat, a friend of mine is often heard to ponder, ‘Someone deliberately designed that…’), but often they are obvious – roads exist because people want to get from one place to another quickly, safely and without getting stuck in a muddy field.
What is harder to imagine is what this artifact makes possible, what it makes impossible, and what forms of culture might be created in response to it. Because just as artifacts don’t occur out of nowhere, neither do they occur in a vacuum without affecting anyone or anything else. Omelettes create the possibility for the creation of omelette recipe books, for a start. On the negative side, Andy points out, the omelette “might make heart disease possible, or a lot more likely, for many of its satisfied customers.” So there’s a thought!
But what does this have to do with a sign about paying for parking?
Alexander Graham Bell
Whenever I notice one of these signs, it always makes me wonder what Alexander Graham Bell might have thought of it. When he created the cultural artifact we know as the telephone, he could not have imagined that he was making it possible for a culture to arise whereby a person would be more likely to have a phone with them than a pocketful of coins.
Just think about that for a moment.
Bell was trying to make it possible for people to talk to each other when they were far apart.
When he made that famous first call to his assistant in the next room, the car had not even been invented. How could he possibly have imagined that within 150 years cars would be so prolific, and such a necessity, that people would be willing to pay to leave them by the roadside for a few minutes, let alone that this cumbersome device he was speaking into would be an easy, secure, accessible way for anyone to do that?
If you had asked him how his invention related to transport, he might have thought that it could reduce the number of mailcoaches on the roads, and possibly the number of journeys made in general, but not that it would be a way to pay for your transport.
Making privacy possible – and impossible
And think about privacy.
Before the telephone, and for some time after it, it was very hard to convey a message to someone in another town without everyone knowing about it. Think of all those Jane Austen novels with messengers galloping up and interrupting the assembled party with an urgent missive, or Shakespeare plays in which a vital letter goes astray, is read by the wrong person or is revealed to the assembled crowd.
The telephone made all that impossible, or at least very difficult. I can now talk to my friend in Eastbourne or my brother in California without anyone even knowing, let alone knowing what we’ve said.
Yet in the 21st century that is not strictly true. The recent Channel 4 series ‘Hunted’ – in which agents of the state gave volunteers one hour to disappear then tried to track them down within 28 days – revealed just how hard it is to be private. The runaways couldn’t use their mobile phones or they would be found immediately. Yet one woman thought she could get round this by using the phone in the office of a holiday camp where she and her friend were hiding. She called her family, the hunters noticed the unusual incoming number, traced it to the camp and missed their prey by minutes.
Both our corporate fear of terrorism and our personal desire for convenience and connection make it hard for anyone to maintain privacy (and that’s just looking at actual telephone use, not to mention all the other methods of connectivity that Bell made possible, like the internet!).
What’s my point? Simply that we have no idea what an impact we might be making with each tiny, incremental change. We can’t imagine how the world is going to change in response to or alongside of what we do, but you might make a tiny change today that makes it possible for the whole world to shift. In some ways Bell’s invention seemed useless at the time – so he could speak to the bloke in the next room – so what?
So what indeed.
Think about it the next time you see a sign, or a phone, or an omelette, or any other invention. Think about the chain of things that had to happen to cause that to come into being, and think about what it makes possible and what it tells you about the way (someone at least thinks) the world was, and the way the world should be. Read between the lines of everyday objects and you’ll find they have a fascinating story to tell about who we are.