There are few byproducts of our brave new world as self-aware as the cube car. This phenomenon — be it the Kia Soul, the Scion xB, the Honda Element — mocks the practicality of its automotive predecessors. It knows that it looks bizarre. I feel a particular connection to our postmodern society when these Lego-like quadrupeds zoom past me toward our mutual extinction. And though the cube car found its beginnings in a practical vehicle, the modern-day vehicle is anything but.
First came the Jeep. Invented as a military vehicle during the height of World War II, the Jeep was built for maximum utility. Its cube shape houses a metal cage so that if it rolls, the car’s precious human cargo avoids physical damage. The army Jeep was produced in an olive green color for blending into the natural terrain. The vehicle is rugged, made purely for function and efficiency. Since its inception, the army Jeep has looked weathered and old. It was new to itself and its function for global warfare, yet old to us. World wars that affect some Americans personally for others seem to have happened a million years ago. The creation of the factory line appears to be an ancient memory. Though it was a modern invention in its own time, it is part of the long-ago dawn of industrialization. In its era, most commodities were mass-produced for their practical applications. Now, we are far past the age of production based on human needs. The cube car as we know it was not invented out of necessity.
Although the cube car finds its roots in military vehicles, it makes a mockery of the original Jeep. The necessity of its square shape was taken from its practical predecessor, yet the modern cube car did not inherit the roll cages of the military vehicles before it. The modern cube car has no official reason for being a cube, no metal skeleton within its angular frame. It displays its sharp, otherworldly body, appearing as though it is not of this planet. The cube car is bought and sold in neon hues galore, unlike the dusty shade of green that came before it. The cube car has no urge to conform to the natural world. This is because the world that made the cube car is not a natural one.
The cube car is an incredible reflection of our time. While it is hard to comprehend the peculiarities of the world we live in, these boxy little vehicles somehow help us do so. By simply existing, these vehicles illustrate just how many modern inventions are completely unnecessary. Cars never needed to be produced in goofy shapes and colors. Embodying this lack of connection to human necessity, the commercials of the Kia Soul do not depict people driving the car. Instead, we see animated, talking hamsters. Kia’s marketing department knew better than to promote the Soul as a necessary purchase for the daily commuter or the soccer mom. Thus, they chose to place personified rodents in the driver’s seat.
We are no longer consuming out of need, but out of wants. In the same vein, most things we consume are distractions, a way to step outside of our reality. This could be said for many other post-y2k inventions, namely social media.
Social media blurs the lines between humanity and technology. Online, it is not only desirable but potentially achievable to appear perfect. There is a shared longing to transcend humanity with an ideal appearance. We hope to forget our human qualities — our freckles, our blemishes, our crooked teeth — by seeing the likes and comments on our posts. Like many people, I participate in social media myself despite its probable harms to my mental health. And why do I even post a picture? To feel connected to another person through the separation of our screens?
The effects of social media are part of the existential problem of Generation Z. Like other people my age, I’ve spent the better half of my existence in the glow of the blue screens that have both illuminated and accelerated life on earth. I ponder the perpetual overstimulation from which we suffer, the same overwhelming emotion that leads me to wear headphones in public without any music playing through them. I turn to the internet for comfort — I plug in, I scroll, I stare at the megapixels that illuminate my screen. I mistakenly think my anxiety comes from the material world around me. Though it’s obvious that our technologized existence is the source of this anxiety, I still blame my genetics or more organic causes for my perpetual nerves. My depression and anxiety were forged by the hands of Mark Zuckerberg. The endless scroll and its echo chamber of auditory and visual loops help explain the disconnect from humanity that I often feel engulfing me. Most of the time this detachment scares me, but sometimes I crave it.
Before I transferred to the University of Michigan, I lived and studied in Chicago. I’d spend my free nights at the three-story Uniqlo that sits precariously above Michigan Avenue. This practice was a sacred departure from the perils of my real life, while simultaneously a venture from the public world and the strangers that consume it with me. In the seemingly never-ending store, I could escape the unhappiness that I felt in social situations, as well as the anxiety I experienced in crowds and subway tunnels. Under the glowing ticker tape of sales, the glass walls and the robotic roll of the escalators, I was free from my human condition for a matter of minutes. I wouldn’t buy anything because I felt guilty purchasing from a corporation that pays its workers pennies per hour. Instead, I’d wander the glossy tiles in a dream-like saunter.
It was in this hyper-sensitizing space that I could shed my human needs or desires. I was automated. The sky full of bright LED lights over my head was the surgeon’s lamp, and I was the freshly lobotomized patient.
While I no longer live in the orbit of that almighty Uniqlo, I see a green Kia Soul and am transported once again to that realm of automation. My stride clicks into a robotic rhythm and I observe the cube car as though it were my colleague, my friend or even of my same genus.
After the Industrial Revolution, the human population boomed, the production of commodities sped up, and the world began to die. Amidst our current ecological collapse, we are expected to maintain business as usual. We are expected to crave the same modern tradition of the nine-to-five in a world that threatens to end in a matter of decades. We are challenged to set aside our true fears of the future and continue to exist as though nothing is wrong. And to trudge towards our demise, with smiles on our faces, we must take on a rather robotic mindset.
There is no happy way to see the present state of the natural world. There is no future to look forward to while climate disasters happen more frequently and pandemics like our current one become more common. We cannot bear to remind ourselves of this horrific truth. To cope with inevitable madness, we launch forward by inventing ideas that do not reflect our humanity. Maybe we do this to try to forget that our world is dying. We do not have to focus on this sad reality when we make new, bizarre distractions for ourselves.
Like influencers and cube cars. Humans never needed them, nor did they make our lives any better. But they divert our attention away from the withering planet we live on.
I oscillate between my human sadness for our dying world and the automatic daily motions required for life in the end times. I must forget that everything I hold sacred — nature, friendship, food, water, myself — is on the precipice of death. Instead, I revel in these things while I, and everyone else, still can.
I hug my friends. I eat ripe fruit. Every now and then I see a cube car and I laugh to myself.
Statement Columnist Martha Starkel can be reached at email@example.com.