The Problem With New Cars

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Our writer Ian Bogost wrote two articles last month that both left me wondering: What do our modes of transportation say about who we are? I chatted with Ian about the end of the stick shift, the wobbly rise of the e-bike, and why how we get around sparks such strong feelings about our identities.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


The End of Control

Isabel Fattal: You write in your article that you’ve driven stick shifts for the past 20 years. Why do you love them so much?

Ian Bogost: The inspiration for the piece was the end of stick-shift manufacturing because of electrification. It made me sad on a visceral level, and I started to think, Why? If there’s a loss, what is the loss?

I looked at a bunch of conversations on the internet and elsewhere, where people have this sense about why they drive their stick shift. They go through phases of justification for it. First they try to talk about its practical benefits, all of which don’t really apply today. Then you get left with this word: control. “I feel like I have greater control.” I feel like for me, and for a lot of stick-shift drivers, it’s a sense of being connected to a complex human-made machine that you feel in conversation with, rather than subject to its demands that you have to accept. That feeling is really rare now when it comes to interacting with devices of almost any kind.

A lot of people have real qualms about the relationship we have with cars in America—it’s about masculinity, the taming of distance and expanse. But we don’t need those things to take the driver’s seat, as it were, all the time. I got so many emails; people sent me mail. I think a lot of readers had this same feeling, and they wanted a way not to think of the feeling as only being about the questionable or bad things about automobiles.

Isabel: Right, missing your stick shift is not just some sign that you’re—

Ian: A gearhead. And the reactions were not gendered in that way at all. But I had been worried about it. Oh my gosh, I’m going to do a piece on this, really? So it was gratifying to see that sentiment resonate.

Isabel: You note that when the stick shift dies, we’ll lose “the comfort of knowing that there is one essential, everyday device still out there that you can actually feel operating.” Do you think it’s possible that any technology of the future will give us back that feeling?

Ian: I’m really worried about this. I did a piece a number of years ago called “Why Nothing Works Anymore.” I wrote about the automated faucets in public restrooms—where you’re putting your hand out, like, Can I get the water to turn on? There was a story I told in that piece about going to a restaurant that had a throwback aesthetic, and in the restroom there was one of those towel dispensers where you just turn the crank, and the towel comes out.

Isabel: I sigh with relief when I see those, honestly.

Ian: Right. You feel that. They’re less and less common. The direction we seem to be going with everything is that there’s more and more layers of remove from its operation. One of the reasons I wanted to do the stick-shift piece was that this felt like the end of something. And I don’t know if we will get it back, unless we design for it anew.

Isabel: You were much less enthusiastic about the topic of your next article, e-bikes. Can you explain why they’re “a monster made from bicycles and motorbikes,” in your words?

Ian: I got this e-bike a while back, and it just felt off to me. I was really excited about all the things that make people want to ride an e-bike—commuting without my car, getting outside. But it wasn’t ticking any of the boxes quite right for me. The piece was about why it felt to me that the e-bike was in this strange no-man’s-land between bicycles and motorbikes.

Isabel: Why do you think e-bikes haven’t managed to become cool?

Ian: I got a lot of flack for this from the bike folks, and some of it’s in the eye of the beholder. But if you look at the way that both bikes and e-bikes are marketed as “cool,” they often do so by looking more like motorcycles. Everybody knows that motorcycles are cool. They have a tradition. I think the reason people like Vespa motor scooters is that they have a cultural tradition; you can imagine getting on one and cruising around Rome or something. If you’re a bike person, then bikes are already cool to you. But we need something outside the coastal cities that are enclaves of urban-cycling advocacy.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Russian officials in several Ukrainian regions occupied in part or whole by Russia announced that “referendums” will take place starting later this week. This move, which is illegal under Ukrainian and international law, is likely a precursor to annexation of those territories.
  2. The 77th United Nations General Assembly convened today, the first time delegates have met fully in person in three years.
  3. A federal grand jury indicted 47 people on charges of pandemic-aid fraud. The suspects allegedly stole $250 million by billing the government for fake anti-child-hunger programs.

Dispatches

Evening Read
Yair Lapid, wearing a navy suit and tie, stands in front of a pair of microphones, with the EU flag in the background.
(Kristian Bocsi / Bloomberg / Getty)

The Man Who Could End the Netanyahu Era

By Jeffrey Goldberg

“Let us,” I said, “talk about the Netanyahu inevitability factor.”

Yair Lapid dead-eyed me as he formulated a comeback.

“Will you be kind enough,” he finally said, smiling, “to describe to the very smart readers of The Atlantic the office in which you are raising this issue?”

We were seated in the office of the Israeli prime minister. Not the principal office of the prime minister, in Jerusalem, but a satellite office at the Ministry of Defense, in Tel Aviv. Still, a prime minister’s office.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Chihiro and No Face sitting on the mysterious train line in 'Spirited Away'
A still from Spirited Away. (AJ Pics / Alamy)

Read. In her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, the writer Ariel Levy’s prose is immediate and often hilarious.

And check out the rest of our list of the best books for a broken heart.

Watch. Spirited Away, on HBO Max, is 20 years old, but rewatching the animated masterpiece is a gift.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Inspired by the concept of the “spirit animal,” I asked Ian what his spirit mode of transportation would be. It’s not a stick shift—it’s a sailboat. “I used to race boats in college, and it felt like the purest synthesis of nonmotorization and direct control I’ve ever encountered while moving myself through the world,” he said. (As for me: Does walking count?)

— Isabel

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