Trains, Cars, and Tech
The Evolution (or Depreciation) of our Human Perception
The above painting is called Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich. It is the considered the poster child for the Romanticism movement, which strove to illustrate intense, emotional, aesthetic experiences especially when it comes to witnessing sublimity and beauty in nature. Gaddis John Lewis, in his book The Landscape of History, aptly interprets this piece as “suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it.” I cite this art piece not to discuss Romanticism, or to describe our relationship with nature but rather to look into our visual language and perception that allowed these discussions to be possible in the first place. We will revisit this image at the end of this blog and, hopefully, it will, by then, become clear what I mean by “visual language and perception” that has now been drastically changed and replaced through trains, cars and tech.
Trains, first introduced in the 19th century, was a revolutionary technical innovation for transportation. However, overlooked is the equally significant impact/revolution it had on our visual language and perception. Before the train, the main mode of transportation was by carriage and horse, which were fast but not nearly as fast. The speed of the train drastically changed our sense of time by collapsing it; going from one location to another took very little time. Our sense of distance was also consequently warped, collapsing the scale of the world. Most importantly, for the purposes of this article, it warped our way of perception, collapsing landscape and space into flat, two dimensional, series of images.
Look at this image above. The landscape outside of the train window becomes a series of flattened images moving at immense speed from one to the next. Perspective, depth, scope, context, presence, meditation all dissolve within the train window, because none is as important and sacred as speed. Bygone are the days of truly witnessing and experiencing landscape like Fredrich’s Wanderer has and acknowledging the sense of space and one’s presence inside of this space. Ultimately, we become disinterested passer-biers, rather than wanderers and active participants, like these travelling companions inside of a railway car below. Overall, before I lose you too much, the train introduced a visual language of images, to perceptually operate by representations rather than things themselves with an emphasis on speed.
The car incorporates similar elements as the train: speed. However, one stark difference and characteristic of the car is its ubiquity. The train reinterpreted the landscape and nature; the car, due to its ubiquity, terraformed the landscape or more precisely, architecture. Architecture stopped being intended for people but rather people in cars. The beauty in design, form and concept were disregarded for the importance of disseminating information, particularly for people zooming by at 50mph. This ended up taking shape as the image above, text, Text and TEXT. There is no place for subtlety and interpretation, there is only room for speed, convenience, and information.
So where are we now? The image below succinctly summarizes our current visual language and perception. Does it look familiar? It builds upon all the aforementioned elements and changes brought by the train and the car: speed, ease of consumption, everything is an image, dissemination of information shaped by speed etc. Even visually, there is somewhat of a resemblance to the window of a train or car, scrolling through the landscape. One can even posit that the computer and today’s web applications would not have existed without the precursor of the train and the car. Not because they derive technologically but perceptually. We would not be able to visually comprehend what we see on a daily basis on the web if not for the drastic perceptual changes brought upon by the train and the car.
Now begs the ethical question which is what I am most interested in. Is this an evolution or depreciation of our human perception? Should we mourn for the loss of the original Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and that way of seeing? I say yes, and I am driven to reintroduce these lost humanistic elements (in this case our old way of seeing). In a future blog, I might focus on how this might look like, especially in the tech industry with recent examples.
Also, I feel like I did not come across as clear and eloquently as I would have liked so I highly recommend these resources for further reading.
The Railway Journey — Wolfgang Schivelbusch
Disenchanted Night — Wolfgang Schivelbusch