Mobilizing Vehicles for Change
Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic
Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept. 2007)
Much of magic(k) is an attempt to augment our natural abilities; to provide us with a supernatural physicality to overcome the obstacles of the material world. Nowhere is this more evident than in our efforts to move our bodies and our belongings from one place to another. Even some of the most famous illusions in stage magic have focused audience attention on bewildering levitations and miraculous transpositions. From the ingenuity of our ancestors who recognized the unique properties of rolling discs and floating hulls, to more mystical means of mobility such as broomsticks and flying carpets, we often underestimate the magic(k) of re-location. The banality of modern transportation not only distances us from our point of departure but also from the journey itself. Too easily we forget that vehicles are equally the means of conveyance and the agents of transmission.
Let’s face it. Rarely do automobiles function like ordinary tools used to simply accomplish the task at hand. Quite the contrary. Low-riders, hot rods, and pimped out SUV’s merely begin to scratch the enamel that glosses over our collective obsession with the means of transportation. Beyond the mods and custom accessories, motor vehicles themselves become points of departure, rather than the mere carriers of goods and bodies. With names like Cougar and Jaguar, Bronco and Mustang, Thunderbird and Skylark, cars and trucks are transformed from mere technologies into totemic objects imbued with a sense of power and identity. The Cherokee and Navajo are equally stripped of any real identity as a people and forced to participate in a fetishistic masquerade. Mercury and Saturn are likewise invoked. Even Mazda shares a name with Zoroaster’s divine King of Light, the likely religious precedent for benevolent monotheism (Persia, 7th Century BC). If we look beyond the gods and planets, we see the Astro, Aerostar, and Nova (which translates in Spanish to “doesn’t go”). And let us not forget American Motor Company’s subcompact Gremlin which scratched its way into 1970s obscurity along with its ’80s offspring the Spirit. Indeed, the magic(k) of transportation lies buried deep in a veritable scrap yard of consumer manipulation, hollow fantasy and a lost sense of adventure. But we can salvage something of worth from amidst the rot.
Just as the introduction of the great iron horse changed the way travelers perceived time and distance, so too are our senses manipulated by contemporary forms of locomotion. No one can deny that we experience the world differently when we ride in a glammed-out gas-guzzling behemoth, a compact beater, or on a two-wheeled dream machine powered by our own two legs. And fewer are denying the material effects of our choices as well. Even the vestigial cynics of global warming—folks like G.W. Bush and some CEOs in Detroit—are finally acknowledging the links between climate change and fuel consumption. Perhaps this has something to do with an unpopular war that consumes nearly 400,000 barrels of oil per day just for military usage alone (approx. 144 MILLION barrels a year). Or maybe, when automakers like Ford post record losses (nearly $12.7 BILLION) they’re finally forced to reckon with the dissatisfaction and/or guilt of the consuming citizenry. Either way, we seem to be moving in the right direction, although we’ve still got a long way to go.
Technological innovations can carry us into a future either golden or grim depending on how they shape our realities. We trust enough in the laws of physics and the intelligence of engineers to ensure our confidence in the ability of a great hulking chunk of metal to float speedily though the clouds and deliver us to our chosen destinations. And rarely do we account for the great paradox of travel: our simultaneous conveyance across thousands of miles of sky while cramped practically motionless in the same small airplane seat wedged between two snoring salesmen. With the exception of the occasional trip to the toilet, we go absolutely nowhere. Yet, when we disembark several hours later we find ourselves in another land far from home. Logically, of course we understand how this happens. However, for all intents and purposes it wouldn’t really matter if the airplane were actually a sci-fi teleporter that took five hours to program once you were inside of it. In fact, it’s almost too easy to imagine a futuristic teleportation station where travelers get crammed into small seats in stuffy cabins with meager entertainment options and crappy snacks as they wait for hours for the operators to adjust all the right settings to get everyone to the proper destination.
Fortunately, we’ll probably never have to endure that bleak future. According to a de-commissioned research document funded by the US Air Force in 2004, the possibilities for teleportation are limited and fairly undeveloped. (see “Teleportation Physics Study” by Eric Davis, Federation of American Scientists) Limited, mind you; not “impossible,” “improbable” or even “non-existent.” Although the report does rule out Star Trek-style teleporters as an option, it suggests the need for additional research in psychic teleportation, worm-hole manipulation, quantum entanglement and extra-dimensional travel. It also cites Chinese studies claiming that children have been used in double-blind and triple-blind laboratory tests to successfully teleport a variety of small objects including radio transmitters, chemically-sensitive paper and live insects. Sound too weird to be true? Maybe. But the fact that the USAF actually funded the research is not the least bit in doubt since their spokesmen have publicly commented on the study in major news media. But before you get too excited, experts largely agree that we’re a long ways away from any practical applications of such theoretical physics. Still feeling a bit eager? If so, ask yourself if a teleporter truly existed, would the auto industry or Big Oil welcome it with open arms? Would it be turned into public transportation, or would it be restricted to those who could afford it at a premium? Would it be a public domain technology or would it be limited to the military for covert use long before the public was even informed?
Don’t misunderstand. Our aim here is not to promote a conspiracy theory about the secret existence of bizarre military technology. After all, why wander down a murky alley of speculation when we can cruise a stretch of established fact. Take for instance the Pentagon’s newly released “Active Denial System (ADS).” If the strangeness of the aforementioned teleportation study caused you a minor meltdown, this one’ll really fry your brain. Literally. The ADS is a giant heat-ray mounted on a military Hummer that is intended for use as mobile crowd control by beaming out a silent, invisible wave that heats up people’s skin up to half a kilometer away. This futuristic sci-fi vehicle is already developed and ready for deployment in situations where people might ordinarily be subjected to water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray and/or rubber bullets. If you thought Hummers were repulsive before, just wait until they start showing up at your local peace rally. Like most military technologies that eventually steer their way into the consumer marketplace, Raytheon is also manufacturing a commercial model they call the “Silent Guardian.” Care to invoke a “Silent Guardian” for your next birthday party, BBQ or bar mitzvah? We called Raytheon to inquire about the purchase price (in dollars, not souls) but their “business relations development associate” has yet to give us a fixed number.
The illusion of technological neutrality is left stranded by the wayside when we consider how the vehicle so often predetermines the nature of the voyage. Just as a train is limited to travel only where the tracks lead, so too can we predetermine some of the future destinations of society based on its machinations. While technology and magic(k) enhance our abilities to navigate a variety of terrain, they are not always free to embark on the path of our choosing. As such, it’s important to develop the right vehicle for the right journey, both literally and metaphorically.
A vehicle for change does not need to be complicated. All that is required is a bit of consideration regarding where you want to go and how you might go about getting there. Obviously if you’re trying to get to a city 300 miles away, riding a tricycle isn’t the easiest way to go. Hitchhiking, jumping a train, driving, riding, or flying generally tends to be more expedient. But if the destination is less concrete, then the mode of transportation may not be so obvious. Look for existing forces that are already flowing in the direction you want to go, and harness them for the ride. The right vehicle for the right journey might just be a remote-controlled car, a smokescreen, a bicycle-repair clinic, or the rolling thunder. But it probably isn’t a giant heat-ray mounted on a Hummer.