A Social History of Your Car’s ‘Check Engine’ Light

Kevin BorgCritical Connections Public Lecture and Mini-Seminar
Kevin Borg (James Madison University)

Public Lecture: January 22, 2015 / 5:00 p.m. / Peter Graham Scholarly Commons / Bird Library

Mini-Seminar: January 23, 2015 / 10:00 a.m. – Noon / Special Collections Research Center / Bird Library

(Both events are free and open to the public, but advanced registration is required for the mini-seminar. To register, contact scrc@syr.edu or at 315-443-2697)

Rare is the motorist today who is not baffled by what to do when their automobile’s “Check Engine” light comes on.  We depend on our cars yet have little understanding about how they work or what to do when they fail.  So when that light comes on, even though we can detect no new noise, vibration, or other sensorial manifestation of trouble, we take the car to a mechanic.  But what does this light mean? Why is it there and why is it not more helpful?  This presentation will explore the interwoven social, technical, political, and environmental histories that converged to create this ubiquitous and ambiguous warning light, and in the process will show that the social, personal, political, and economic meanings of complex consumer goods do not end with their creation or with their use.  Their repair is also fraught with meaning.

For more than a decade Dr. Borg has been studying and writing about automobile repair, auto mechanics, and the creation and maintenance of sociotechnical hierarchies in American auto repair shops. In these shops consumers have interacted with workers whose technological knowledge is crucial to motorists’ needs but whose social status has long been stigmatized.  By the latter half of the twentieth century the social friction caused by this asymmetry of social class and technical knowledge between consumer and mechanic was layered over with increasing consumer frustration with the poor quality of the cars manufacturers sold them in the first place.  At the same time politicians responding to the growing consumer and environmental movements brought new, very public, attention to the business of repairing cars, ultimately mandating new cars display a “Check Engine” light in the instrument panel.  This presentation will argue that the “Check Engine” light is a symbol of the limitations of late-twentieth century consumer and environmental advocacy.

The presentation will close with a call for additional histories of the cultures surrounding the maintenance, repair, and durability of other artifacts and products as a means to help shift attention from our myopic fascination with the inventors, producers, and consumers of new things.  Understanding how we make things continue to last and work—and the social meanings we construct around those processes—might help us glean some wisdom for approaching our current global environmental situation.

Critical Connections Mini-Seminar:

“Using Geospatial Technologies to explore the history of Automobility in Syracuse, New York”

Lately, Dr. Borg has been exploring ways to use geospatial technologies such as Google Earth and ArcGIS to research and teach local and regional history in the late 19th and early 20th century.  This mini-seminar will explore how we might apply these techniques to the history of automobility in Syracuse NY in the early twentieth century by digitizing, georeferencing, displaying, and analyzing Sanborn insurance maps, city directory data, and other sources.  Participants are encouraged to bring their laptops, loaded with Google Earth, to the session and work with the spatial data provided.





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