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Affaire de Carburetor

Blinded by science, we're all being taken for a ride

by Scott McNutt

These days I own a newer model car. Once, to impress my girlfriend Luna with my mechanical acumen, I decided to show her where the carburetor is. After watching me wrestle futilely with the hood latch, she said, "I think there's a lever inside the car you have to pull first." Eventually I found it and popped the hood. We stared underneath for a moment. She said, "Is that the engine?" I said, "Where the heck is the carburetor?" She said, "It looks like an espresso machine." I said, "Wow, look at those wheels!" and slammed the hood shut. Apparently, cars don't have carburetors anymore.

They may have gone to that Great Garage in the Sky, but in my heart I'll always have a soft spot for carburetors. My fondness for them stems from memories of a simpler time. Back then, if you were a guy and your car broke down, you could announce with authority, "It's probably the carburetor," and your gal would beam adoringly at you while she jacked up the flat. Ah, those were the days!

In that unpretentious era, everybody understood that "It's probably the carburetor," meant "I don't know anything about cars." And folks didn't mind your ignorance. For instance, more than once I passed a gaggle of teenagers standing around a car with its hood up. Any one of them probably had more knowledge of cars in his left nostril than I had in my entire cranium. But when I waved and hollered, "It's probably the carburetor!" they always got a kick out of it. I know, because they always yelled and gestured back. People were so friendly then.

Those days are gone. If I yell, "It's probably the carburetor!" now, the kids yell back, "What the heck's a carburetor?" which is humiliating, because I have to admit that I don't know either. And never really did.

These days, car designs are wildly futuristic. And not just on the outside. New cars now have enough switches and knobs and dials and gauges and buttons and displays and readouts to put any puny Star Trek ship to shame. And male or female, automobile aficionado or not, we're all abysmally ignorant about these new, "improved" vehicles. Why? Well, just ask yourself why, after all these years, a new VW Beetle has been released, and why it looks like E.T. would be perfectly comfortable driving it. Clearly, the New World Order is building cars using technology from captured alien spaceships.

A lot of this new technology is supposed to improve safety, but you couldn't prove it by me. I'm scared to touch anything in my car. With all these newfangled gizmos, for all I know, turning on the windshield wipers may launch a nuclear strike against Russia. Every time I reset the mileage I worry I may be wiping out some small country that can't afford an anti-ballistic missile defense system. Anybody seen Guam lately?

Car repair also seems alien. Taking my car in for work now feels as if I've entered a parallel universe. This is because the mechanics look the same, in their grey-blue jumpsuits covered with grease (come to think of it, they resemble the "greys" ufologists are always yammering about...), but they now speak a completely foreign language. Our conversation goes like this:

Me: "So what's the problem?"

Them: "Hwarhwarhwarh warhwarhwarhwarhwar$752.45."

This is nothing like the old days, when the conversation went like this:

Me: "So what's the problem?"

Them: "Hwarhwarhwarcarburetorhwarhwarhwar$752.45."

I could understand paying that much when the problem was the carburetor, but paying $752.45 when I don't even know what the problem is...? Sometimes when they present the bill I am tempted to just leap into the car and drive off. But the car would probably automatically lock itself and start blaring "STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR! You have not paid your bill! STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR..." The lights would flash and the horn would honk until I sheepishly went back and offered my left kidney to cover the charges. And afterwards the car would tell me how embarrassed it was and how it couldn't take me anywhere.

You may laugh at the absurdity of a car being ashamed of its "owner." But it's a short drive from your car commanding you to "fasten safety belts" or "service engine soon" to it warning you, "That dress does NOT go with my upholstery." And it's not just cars displaying this kind of imperious willfulness. As digit-heads rush to "empower employees" by "interconnecting" us all through the World Wide Web, we've failed to consider how empowered our machines have become and how interdependent we are with them. The mantra "new and improved" (probably the slogan of the New World Order) has lulled us into complacency as our lives become ever more intertwined with despotic mechanical monsters.

Take, for instance, my computer at work: I didn't even have a computer when I started, and the Internet was just a gleam in Big Blue's circuits. Now, with ubiquitous "e" activities—email, ezines, ecommerce, e pluribus unum, e-i-e-i-o—I can't NOT have a computer. I am completely dependent on it. And my computer supervises me far more closely than any human manager ever did: It prompts me to open my mail; it sets up online conferences with other employees (at least supposedly it's humans I'm talking to); it reminds me that it's time for my 2 o'clock drug testing appointment. It's only a matter of time before it starts telling me when to take potty breaks.

I would go on, but my computer has just informed me that "A FATAL EXCEPTION HAS OCCURRED. THIS PROGRAM WILL BE SHUT DOWN." It's probably the carburetor.

March 23, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 12
© 2000 Metro Pulse