The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Dashboards, and the Meaning of the Body

This is a page from my car's owner’s manual. It identifies all the lights that could light up on my dashboard for various reasons. Additional indicators that aren’t identified are Temperature Gauge, Tachometer, Speedometer, Odometer, and Fuel Gauge.

That’s 21 indicators of various sorts. This does not include controls for windows, door locks, radio, windshield wipers, or headlights. Suffice it to say, the number of controls and indicators in a basic car today exceeds 50.

Each of these indicators symbolizes something about the car. Many of them represent not just a thing but a “system” of things. If the “charging system indicator” came on, it could be a bad battery, an alternator, a belt, or something else. From that standpoint, the indicator light represents a whole category of things. When it comes on, I don’t know why. That’s why I take it to the mechanic.

With so many different indicators, it’s fair to call the car a “symbolic environment.” A whole world of symbols exists inside my car. Some I have an basic understanding of, but many more I don’t. Yet, each light contains meaning, even if I don’t know what that meaning is.

21 symbols. That’s 5 symbols fewer than the English alphabet. But in my car, each symbol has many possible meanings in ways that single letters don’t. Thus, “reading” a car’s instrument panel is like learning a language.

Now contrast the car with the bicycle. My bike is pretty simple: 2 gear shifters, and 2 brakes. These two shifters, each with numbers, will tell me what gear I’m in, but I have to do the math myself. Most other information about riding my bike is what my body tells me. It’s internal information. It’s intuitive information.

My body has basically identified four categories of bike riding: wind-at-my-back, uphill, hot, and fun. Now these intermingle, but there’s really no language to speak of—everything is intuitive and visceral. My knowledge is kinesthetic. And, I don't really need it to be more articulate than that.

Inside the car, on the other hand, every dimension has been measured, clearly (if arbitrarily) defined, and explicitly articulated. The dashboard cater to the parts of the brain that reason with a “symbolic system” similar to the alphabet, or to math. The car prioritizes the brain over the body. That’s where meaning is, according to the car. The only visceral sensation in a car is in acceleration. Otherwise, that sort of knowledge is relegated to the backseat. No wonder we speed: We long to be whole people with sensing bodies, not just brains behind the wheel. But the car dis-integrates us.

By contrast, a bike integrates the individual. It communicates meaning but not symbolically—not through a dashboard. Instead of measuring, defining, or explicating meaning, it conveys meaning intuitively, generally, and implicitly. The body engages in a less articulate, but no less meaningful, way. Communication is intuitive and integrated, but it is not less valuable. To believe otherwise is simply to accept the car’s assumption: that symbols mean more than the body’s other forms of communication. Meaning need not be articulate to be meaningful.

The symbolic environment of the car divorces drivers from their surroundings. The world becomes less real and more symbolized. The driver is distanced from the natural world by a set of abstractions. The bike, by contrast, makes very few abstractions. The natural environment is not mediated by a set of symbols on a dashboard. The natural environment is integrated into a bodily experience of it. The world is internalized on a bike in ways that the car simply discards as irrelevant.

Does it matter that our technologies impose symbolic environments and distance us from our surroundings? Does it matter that we don’t internalize the world? Does it matter that our bodies are discontinuous with nature? What does it mean for our bodies? What does it mean for how we think about the world and understand it? What does it mean for how we think about meaning and how we decide what is meaningful?