Welcome to the Culturedome: Lexus, Mercedes-Benz Court the Highbrow Set at Art Basel Miami and SXSW
Unlike our self-proclaimed Big Tech saviors, carmakers still do the dirty work talking to real people, in the physical world, about what comes next.
There's a little bit of magic in everything / and then some loss to even things out. —Lou Reed
SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST
If you want to hear what automakers really think about the future of the car, it's best to slip outside the enthusiast tent and listen to them preach the autonomous gospel at places like SXSW, the music festival-turned-tech culture uberconference. In the automotive future being narrated to crowds of self-selecting early adopters, there's very little driving to be found; instead, that future is brimming with "mobility," a term that remains stubbornly vague but will certainly include the theft of your steering wheel at some point. To help explain this transition, there will be events like the Mercedes me Convention. (The "me" is in fact purposely lowercased—maybe someone thinks it suggests egoism rather than egotism?)
"The me Convention is about moving Mercedes from a company that produces hardware to a company that provides mobility," said Dr. Jens Theimer, Mercedes's VP of global marketing communications, speaking to a gathering of around 40 people at the company's SXSW media house in Austin, Texas. Essentially, me Convention is a festival-conference mashup concept that Mercedes takes on the road, for the right crowd, as a "discourse on topics of the future," as Theimer once called it.
The statement "moving ... to a company that provides mobility" could be read as nakedly hostile to the driving enthusiast—the savages at AMG would be mortified—but is perfectly fashionable at "South by," which was briefly, in the middle of the last decade, a launchpad for hot apps but has since sprawled across TV and film, music, comedy, and gaming, with talk titles like, "AI: Transforming Luxury, Fashion, and Beauty;" "VR's Implication in the Sports Industry;" and "Accidentally Making the Most Popular Podcasts Ever." It's Spring Break for entrepreneurial tech and culture nerds, where a hard-networking brogrammer, an anemic fanboy, and a digital marketing agency junior exec stand outside a bar racing to snag tickets to a surprise comedy show via the fittingly slick SXSW app.
In 2018, Mercedes-Benz marked its second year of official SXSW participation. The company sponsored Palm Park, a satellite hangout a few blocks from the Austin Convention Center; hosted talks with executives Britta Seeger, Wilko Stark, and Theimer; created something called the "Mercedes-Benz@SXSW Connect and Inspire Cube"; and gave rides in a zero-emissions Smart micro car that rolled around a downtown Austin street inside a giant inflatable hamster ball. (As I was being sealed inside the contraption I asked the driver what the whole thing was about and he said, "It's because, I think, in a zero-emissions vehicle you won't asphyxiate." I noted that given enough time we would certainly asphyxiate inside a sealed plastic container, just more slowly with a battery-powered vehicle than one with a gas engine, to which he shrugged and said "Yeah, I guess," and started rolling the ball forward with two-foot lurches. "Still Dying Inside the Hamsterball, Just More Slowly" would be a fitting tagline if Smart ever decides to take a hard turn into nihilism, like Arby's did.)
As expected, much of the automotive conversation at SXSW focused on autonomy. Something about the way automakers describe the self-driving future rousts my inner sceptic like a boot to the ear, even though the more I experience the technology itself the more feasible the wider endeavor seems. When I heard Dr. Theimer describe autonomous car passengers "acting like they do in a plane—they will read, sleep, eat, work, maybe watch films," my first reaction was to note that planes have pilots—plural—who are encouraged to do none of those things, and then I tried to conceive the blind trust necessary to let go of a steering wheel to take a nap when that nap might end with whiplash.
But it's become increasingly easy to talk myself in circles about self-driving cars. For example: commercial planes have pilots because the airline is hired to transport people, which makes human oversight a cost-effective safeguard against liability; future autonomous buses likely will have the same redundancy for the same reason, but cars owned by individuals won't. Or this: there must be a fundamental, human-centric bias that explains a preference for a New York City cab driver—an unknowable sample from the wildly divergent range of illogical, unpredictable, sometimes clinically homicidal human beings—over an autonomous car. Every livery ride is a gamble against death with a complete stranger holding the cards, and it's a choice we as a species make millions of times a day, utterly without thinking. We are all born passengers.
Humans turn mighty docile when faced with overwhelming technological convenience, like a dog having his belly scratched, whether that means paying ATM fees to access our own money or letting an integrated home assistant listen to our every word. This suggests the fight over autonomous cars is not about whether it will happen—it will—but who will get the money, and how. This explains the prominent Palm Park signage for Tidal, the streaming entertainment service now available in new Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The partnership was announced last year at the first me Convention, in Frankfurt, and warranted an Iggy Azalea concert; the press release from the event wastes no time in telling you, basically, the first taste is free:
Mercedes-Benz and global music and entertainment platform, TIDAL, have announced a long-term partnership – in the next few months, Mercedes-Benz customers that have connected their car to the Mercedes me Portal will be able to access a complimentary TIDAL HiFi membership. Customers will be able to stream more than 50 million songs, over 185,000 music videos and hundreds of carefully curated playlists, free of charge for twelve months in their vehicles, on their smartphones or on their music systems at home.
When the steering wheel and pedals are gone, a car—even an entire automotive brand—will likely be defined by features such as streaming entertainment services or gaming graphics packages or a productivity-focused suite of apps. Cross reference a vehicle's real-time GPS coordinates with everything being listened to, watched, used, or interacted with inside that vehicle and suddenly you've got an endlessly churning supply of almighty Data, the gold with which all roads to future profitability are paved. Make no mistake: Mercedes-Benz might sponsor Conversations About Big Ideas at Palm Park, but the company is also at SXSW to learn how to listen to every interaction with its customers like Big Tech does. Which is to say, profitably.
"The future will be funded by surveillance capitalism," sighed a ruffled British man from the stage of a talk called How to Fix the Future, into which I had wandered at random towards the end of my last day at SXSW. "We feel disempowered, we humans," he droned on. "We've been promised digital paradises, like the Socialist paradise, and the Maoist paradise, were promised to us before."
The SXSW app buzzed my phone, notifying me that Tesla CEO Elon Musk was scheduled for a surprise talk, then prompting me to book tickets, then almost immediately informing me tickets were no longer available—an efficient little three-act tragedy delivered, unprompted, via push notification.
"A loss of agency," the man sighed from the stage. "It's humanity's perpetual crisis."
Buried within a non-stop party scene is a million-square-foot convention center with sprawling acres of paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures, videos, and various installations that defy easy categorization; this is the official "art" of Art Basel Miami. Much of it is name-brand, either by artist or gallery, and it attracts a gaggle of billionaires who swoop in on private jets to scoop up whatever they fancy in the days before the show officially opens.
But Miami itself is permeated with art during Basel. It is impossible not to wander into a pop-up show, or come across an installation tucked into the corner of a restaurant or book party, or notice, from a block away, Damien Hirst's gilded mammoth carcass sculpture "Gone But Not Forgotten" standing sentry at the Hotel Faena. There is so much art during Basel that an unfocused visitor will either become blind to it without the framing effect of a museum or a gallery, or mistake for art anything that exists within a properly suggestive context. It's an almost perfect Duchampian meta-commentary on modern art, fueled by party drugs and set to an EDM soundtrack.
I was lucky enough to have as unofficial tour guides—for the art, that is—two experienced arts and culture correspondents: a boyish, affable Belgian ex-pat living in Mexico City and a dauntingly fabulous Manhattanite fashion writer. Neither had a driver's license despite being, as I was, a guest of Lexus during its sophomore Art Basel Miami program. The arts demographic is not overly concerned with burnouts and lap times.
Lexus's Art Basel patronage is heartfelt—it's essentially a sanctioned passion project between two friends in the Toyota/Lexus communications shop—and deliberately understated. There's no assault of garish corporate signage, and unlike the gray Audi sedan dropped awkwardly into a corner of adjacent rival DesignMiami/, no graceless shoehorning of product into the artistic landscape. Instead, as part of the Lexus Art Series, the brand again hosted several Art & Innovation talks with partner Whitewall magazine: "Art as Activism: The Role of the Feminist Artist;" "Supporting Artists in 2018: Alternatives to Patronage;" "From Idea to Mass Production: The Journey of Artists and Designers;" and "New Cultural Hubs: How Art Transforms Neighborhoods."
Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s Calty Design Research, participated in the latter two sessions, discussing in both practical and philosophic terms how massive international automotive entities can and should think about art, the environment, technology, and corporate responsibility. Hunter is tall and fit, with a distinctly Midwestern geniality shining through his Southern California tan. Originally from Detroit, he received his BFA with a concentration in transport design from the College for Creative Studies before going to work at Calty Design Research's Newport Beach, California headquarters, in 1982. (Calty now has satellite operations in San Francisco and Ann Arbor, Michigan.) Hunter trained as a fine artist before his career at Calty, and uses the word "inspiration" often but without the soulless, buzzwordy inflection that executives develop after too much media training.
"If we as a company really want to do something unique, really cutting-edge, we're probably not going to find that inspiration in the car world," he said.
At Art Basel Miami 2017, the "cutting edge" descriptor belonged to artists Lonneke Gordgin and Ralph Nauta, also known as Studio Drift, who shared the stage with Hunter during the "Idea to Mass Production" talk. The duo was about to launch a swarm of hundreds of autonomous drones, programmed to reproduce the organically reactive flight behavior of a starling flock, as a moving "sculpture" titled Franchise Freedom. The project was a decade in the making from concept to execution, and was scheduled to launch into the night sky over the South Beach shoreline the next evening.
Coming from a comparatively sleepy backwater like New York City, Miami nightlife during Art Basel is a fucking trip. Life starts at midnight with a pounding house beat and herds of polished statues tottering the sidewalks in outfits that clearly took hours to arrange despite containing very little actual clothing. Elective surgeries have become so expert that, except for geriatric giveaways like a cane, or pants, age is nearly impossible to determine outside of 10 paces. Nightclubs play music so loud as to render it an indiscernible roar, and lines of people without clear beginning or end snake across downtown sidewalks, presumably leading into various parties but possibly just looping back into one giant feeder line, an endless ouroboros of expectation.
Above all of this, 300 hundred glowing drones lifted off from the beach and formed a silent, undulating organism that dipped and twisted in the air before breaking itself apart, piece by piece, a procession of drones following one another back down to earth, to dock.
Rome is known for the vast starling murmurations that surge and swell and break like roiling black waves across its skyline; Franchise Freedom had none of that speed or complexity but something about it felt, if not alive, then vital. It was a small, loose sketch of an animal behavior so feral and complex we still don't comprehend it: as recently as the early 20th century, the scientific community was still attributing flocking behavior to a "group soul."
But the potential application to autonomous automotive technology is obvious—imagine a moose wandering onto an 85-mph highway full of self-driving cars that maneuver around the animal like school of mackerel around a marlin—and in fact, Franchise Freedom was co-developed with BMW. It could easily have been a demonstration at SXSW or the Consumer Electronic Show, in Las Vegas, except for the fact that I was watching it from the balcony of a South Beach luxury hotel standing next to Paris Hilton. It was art, sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from technology, trying to conceive an innate animal impulse about which we understand so little it might as well be magic.
Humanity's loss of agency may be our perpetual crisis because we spend so much time working on it.
BIG TECH'S DEATHLESS FUTURE IS A LAUGHABLE SHAM
Here's what art comprehends that technology, by nature, can't: failure and death are fundamental and as such cannot be programmed out in subsequent iterations.
Big Tech sells quite a different pitch: Through technology, a perfect world—which from a commerce perspective translates to, Until a perfect world, more technology. It's as greasy a bit of hucksterism as dick pills or all the benefits of exercise, without the exercise, and accordingly some people believe it with the same fervency that turned those other examples into billion-dollar industries. Believing in the impossibility of something for nothing must serve some higher evolutionary function when you're a slow, weak, chewy delicious animal, because somewhere along the way, we as a species developed a sucker gene.
Automakers, unexpectedly, have landed on the side of art in this debate. Legacy automakers are intimately aware of human cost: death has been an unintended consequence of the automobile since cars were invented, and for this reason, I trust automakers more than any Big Tech company. Carmakers have developed a natural caution which works to my advantage as a consumer. And relative to the Technology-Utopian complex, even the largest automotive conglomerates operate within a fundamentally humanist viewpoint: instead of boring gargantuan holes of indeterminate purpose under major metropolitan areas or unveiling laughable meditations on platform-induced Nirvana, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus and other automakers are at SXSW and Art Basel and race tracks and dealer conferences and car shows and Fashion Weeks and food literacy, spending money to interact with gawky, erratic, indecisive, real people—faces and all.
Harvesting human perspective in the physical world is expensive and inefficient and almost impossible to turn for real profit, but it keeps conversations grounded in reality, and the reality about our autonomous future is that it will always and only ever look like this: an incrementally better, slightly more convenient, somewhat less arduous version of whatever constitutes the reality of the time. Some people will be tickled, others will grumble that it should be better, most folks won't much notice. Private industry will argue with every level of government over who pays for what. Systems will age and fail at inconvenient and dangerous times, like they do now—we may indeed nap and work and watch films in our self-driving cars, but stuff is going to break and go wrong, like always, and people are going to die, like always. The tech and car companies both should be forced to say that frequently and out loud, no matter how it affects stock prices. This resurgent technology worship, as if the aim of Silicon Valley weren't world-eating corporate profits but benevolent godhood, is creepy and sad and needs to stop.
People will die from self-driving cars just like people die from peanuts and bagel slicers and mislabeled medication, and from cancer and war and plastic dry-cleaning bags and having their faces torn off by pet monkeys. There is nothing we cannot use to kill ourselves, technology is both sail and anchor, and if you hear anyone telling you otherwise be sure to keep a hand on your wallet.