Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Company cars as status symbol

Metafilter pointed me to a BBC documentary with a series of interviews with men, apparently travelling salesman, who talk about their [company-provided] cars, and the status they display, and empower, in situations of driving, and sales, and society. The power of conformity. Some of them explicitly mention wanting specific cars in order to exhibit a certain status, and others abhor those cars for being associated with that same status (because they want to be recognized as higher-status).

I found that I kept waiting for the punchline. It sounded so stereotypically consumerist, so hyperbolically, purely brand-oriented, that I was looking for winks to the camera. Modern insincerity.  (Or at least an explicit brand tie-in --- they relentlessly repeat the brand names and features and status --- apparently tie-ins are modern, too.) But it seems irony is a twenty-teens modernity, because these interviewees don't care about alienating the viewer. They frankly discuss the importance of cars-as-status-symbols in their lives in a way that I find appalling.

For example:

  • One guy changed his car from the standard car that went with his job to something cheaper and more fuel-efficient, for reasons of economy: "What a disaster that was. My business failed, and I lost a lot of money, I lost my nice big house, and it was even a major factor in the breakup of my marriage." @44m30s Subsequently, he got a new job, which came with a Mercedes, and was trying to "rebuild" his life.
  • Regarding different models: "The big difference between a GL and a GL-A is the A. Because the A stands for: I am bloody brilliant, I am quicker than you on the road. It is an extension of a man's ego. ... an A badge on the back, it means, 'I've got status,' that's what it means."
  • On working up the corporate ladder in order to obtain a better car: "I'll die! If I have to work until I sweat blood and die, I'll get one of them." @31m

It's weird to hear people talk so earnestly about these markers of social/consumption status that are all (1) no longer relevant, and (2) so outstripped by today's markers. All the cars they are driving are old and unremarkable now --- clinging to them seems quaint. But of course we have modern equivalents (flashy smartphones come to mind) which will look just as dated to future critics. And as arrogant and insufferably classist as these interviewees sound, we produce much more abhorrent media in much greater volumes to repulse our future descendents (certain reality TV, youtube channels, vine ephemera, and whatever the latest thing is... micro-vine? snapchat?).

Part of me is worried that I am disdainful of these rapacious car-drivers because I think myself better than them, which is just as icky. I want to be incomparable to them. I don't have a job as a salesman, I don't worry about the letters on the backs of cars that indicate the specific luxury options. I reassure myself that possessing and identifying this worry means I don't actually compare myself to them, but then of course if I need reassurance it's because we are comparable. And so on. It's a vicious mental cycle, the sort of thing that reading too much LessWrong all at once can induce.

Basically they're all just signalling, which I am fine with. It seems like it should mean nothing, but then again, it means something precisely because they all care so much. Repeatedly the men talk about how they are more courteous on the highway to cars that outrank them, and how they spurn cars that are inferior. It seems a strictly enforced hierarchy, then: "better" cars pass ("You're just acknowledging that he's got more power than you." --- I think he means physical engine power, but of course it seems to be social power, too), and "worse" cars are not allowed to pass ("... his attempt at overtaking me has failed, and that's a success." 23m20s).

What I have condensed from LessWrong, SlateStarCodex, and elsewhere on the intellectually-self-improving, hyper-literate internet, is that identifying signaling is useful in finding a way to interact with the system that works towards your own goals, or helps reveal underlying truths. So, as with all slightly unpleasant experiences, I can perhaps focus on a positive takeaway --- learning by contrast --- from this variously unpleasant, infuriating, and unsettling clip.

Spoiler alert: there never was a punchline.

This post's theme word is parping "that makes a honking sound." Via Miéville's Kraken, p.257. I thought it was a tuba, but the unusual parping sound originated from a roadside dispute between cars.


G said...

Far from being the "intellectually-self-improving, hyper-literate internet" SSC and LW seem to be the part of the internet that thinks it is better than all the other "irrational" parts.

A defense attorney I know told me about a client convicted of fraud. The witness testimony was from all these people who admired the accused's Ferrari and therefore assumed he knew what he was doing with their money.

Lila is a complex system. said...

I admit I haven't explored the LW community much, but on SSC I find that the posts and comments are usually both respectful and interesting, even when engaged in argument. I don't get the impression of superiority-over-the-outgroup-of-irrationals that you see.

The story about the Ferrari is believable, and disappointing.