At Home, in a Car

by Venkat on November 5, 2012

Early tomorrow morning, I will pile stuff into my twelve-year old Corolla one more time, and make the two-day drive from Las Vegas to Seattle, via Twin Falls and Boise. My car (which I bought new in 2000) is now over 130,000 miles old and has sported license plates from five states. It has traveled with me from Austin to Ann Arbor to Ithaca to Rochester to DC to Vegas. That last trip was also a nomadic driveabout across the lower 48 that covered nearly 8000 miles over six weeks. Many of you have met my car. Some of you have ridden in it as well.

To the extent that there is any sign of external continuity to my adult life, it is tied up in this car. It has also been the only non-disposable physical part of my life for a long time. Since I arrived in America at age 22, I have not lived in a single place continuously for more than three years. In about a week, I will turn 38. I will have lived in 16 apartments/houses and half a dozen cities through my adult life. My digital life will have passed through half a dozen computers, email addresses and cell-phones.

For much of this time, my car has been the only physical anchor of my sense of place and self.

***

Car ownership is both the great unifying experience of American life, and its great sorting function. How you relate to your car(s) (and whether you choose to have one) reveals a great deal about you. I have come to believe that there are two basic sorts of Americans: those who like to change cars (and switch between ownership and non-ownership) whenever their lives move on, and those who only move on when they are forced to change or give up their cars.

As urbanization and Zipcar and Uber threaten the role of the car in American identity formation, us car-keepers are under siege.

Choosing not to give up your first car until it dies on you is similar to never moving out of your first adult home. It reveals a seeking of a sense of home in a messy world that is increasingly unkind to homebodies who like routinized lives.

But attachment to a car is not the same as attachment to larger fixed geographies. It is also not the attachment felt by true nomads, who live out of their cars and move very frequently.

***

I get attached to places, but not to unique elements of the local environment, or to specific long-term residents. Rather, I get attached to my own comfortable rituals in a given city; my own meanings (but not my own arrangements) imposed on external reality. It is a read-only attachment, but the reading is a rich enough process that the raw material does not matter. So I can get attached to what others would consider wastelands of strip malls and apparently interchangeable Starbucks outlets.  I get attached to my personally paved cowpaths of least effort living.

When I prepare to leave a city, I feel parts of my mind contracting into an indeterminate state of limbo, rather than being amputated and left behind. I seem to enter a state of behavioral suspension until I can re-establish the same rituals in the new environment. When I arrive and settle down again in a new place, it feels sort of like recompiling my rituals from source on a new computer.

This is why I can seem sort of half-dead just before a move. I’ve withdrawn my rituals and turned into something of a lame-duck ghost. It’s not just my stuff that’s in storage. Most of my mind is storage as well. I tend to slip away quietly, without much fanfare or going-away parties, unless people insist on them. It isn’t until I hit the road that I start to come alive again. When I arrive, I tend to get comfortable extremely quickly: so long as they are sufficiently abstract, restarting rituals is easy and quick. That’s practically the definition of a ritual.

I like to think of myself as a compiler. Not everybody is a compiler though.

***

I thought everybody had similar reactions and processed moving the same way, but over the years I’ve realized that others process things differently.

In particular, there is an opposite sort of personality that I call amputees. Amputees seem to feel a sense of amputation; a sense of either loss and mourning over a part of themselves left behind; parts derived from, and irreversibly attached to, a specific external environment. Amputation is mostly a traumatic event. Occasionally, it can be a cathartic one: a sense of freedom and elation at being able to cut away a toxic and gangrenous chapter of life.

Amputees move from place to place differently. Instead of contracting behaviorally, they get into a frenzy of experience maximization. They try to pack in as much of their favorite experiences as they can. They want to eat at favorite restaurants one last time and do all the local things they always meant to, but never got around to doing.  They want to meet all their local friends one last time. They want going-away parties. After they move, they like to visit the old city as much as possible until they settle in properly in the new city.

It can seem like they are packing away the freshest, richest memories possible. Often, they will take away as much of the local environment as they can preserve — stockpiles of non-perishable local foods are a common choice.

When they re-establish themselves in a new place, they seem to regrow behavioral limbs rather than merely recompiling them. Much of the meaning in their behaviors is derived from the environment rather than read onto it. This is a far slower process, since it requires rearranging local realities. It can take amputees months or even years to regrow an identity in a new place.

***

Many readers were unhappy with the cloud-mice/metro-mice distinction I offered in a recent post, and I think I understand why now. The distinction is too coarse. Compiler vs. amputee is one piece of a more refined model.

The compiler-amputee difference shows up most clearly in the idea of missing things and people. I am strangely incapable of missing things or people (which tends to upset and offend people close to me who are capable of “missing” me). I don’t really understand what that feels like. It isn’t that I don’t value things and people in my environment. I just don’t seem to process in the same way as many others do. It might have something to do with introversion, as I’ve speculated in the past, but I think there is more to it.

Amputees on the other hand, seem to love discovering the new unique features of their environment and constructing new identities with the new raw material. New city, new life is their motto.

They become truly different people in new places, and the new places become different because of them. Moving is rebirth. To them, the recompilers seem to live impoverished lives that limit their experiences. The amputees also are much less ritualized in their behaviors. The significant parts of their behaviors are the parts derived from the uniqueness in the environment, not their own heads. So these necessarily change too much to stabilize.

***

But back to cars. Being in a car on a move, especially an old one that you’ve moved with multiple times, can induce a strange mental state.

Every time I hit the road for yet another move, I find myself regressing into a spatially constricted, behaviorally suspended decade-long temporal smear.

Instead of being sprawled over a normal prowling territory of a few square miles worth of coffee shops, temporally constricted to the here-now, and  fully extended behaviorally, I am me-in-a-box, fifty-percent-uncompiled, limited to my car, but temporally sprawled out over a decade or more of moving memories.

To stick with the computer metaphor, it is like rebooting into safe boot mode. Not only is a lot of ritual behavioral capability in suspension, other rarely evoked ritual behaviors that are usually in suspension become active. Most important: there is a sense of safety and minimalism.

An American moving road-trip is a very special mental space. Your behaviors are the rarely-evoked ones that recur every few years, but do so very powerfully. The cues that trigger them have a special poignancy to them. Getting out to pump gas in the middle of a vast expanse of cornfields; seeing some familiar personal item like a backpack or a bicycle juxtaposed against a new background, these stimuli trigger a strange, rare version of you. Gas station coffee — vile stuff that I rarely drink otherwise — acquires a special hyper-intensity of flavor.

***

I was confused about the temporal sprawl aspect of moving for a long time because I used to conflate the age of a behavior with its temporal associations.

You see, the subjective feel of a behavior is related to the temporal associations of its most recent uses. These associations form an evocative cloud of feeling when you do the behavior. What you feel is some function of your current environment and the environments of the last dozen or so instances of that behavior.

A behavior that became ingrained at age 16, but has remained in active use since (such as driving, for me), is always associated with the present, because the most recent reinforcements of the behavior are all within a very small temporal window behind the present.

But behaviors uniquely associated with rare events like “moving” are temporally associated with a set of reinforcements that sprawl over decades.

So being in an old car during a move is like being in a messed up time machine that sends parts of you off to very different periods in the past. Engaging in rarely reinforced behaviors puts you into a state of cognitive-temporal sprawl.

For some of us, this state feels like home. For others, it is a state that terrifies.

***

The temporal dimension of local attachment is a subtle thing. Deriving your identity from the uniqueness in the environment compresses your sense of experiential time down to the here-now. Because reinforcements of behavior cluster in the present.

Amputees rarely experience cognitive-temporal sprawl because they work to avoid it. They tend to hate road-trip moves and prefer to fly and leave all the moving to the trucking company when possible. Truth be told, though I am pretending I have to drive to save money, that’s a bit of a rationalization. For a little more money, I could have the car shipped, and figure out another way to safely move the important stuff that I am pretending I have to move personally.

No, I like road-trip moves because the sense of temporal sprawl represents one of my rare experiences of a true sense of home.

If you ever do a big road-trip move with an amputee, you’ll notice something: they will try their best to treat it like a vacation. They are amputated and hurting, and unprepared to deal with temporal sprawl (and indeed, through avoidance in the past, have a weakened capacity for it). So they normalize the experience as a vacation.

They look forward to the interesting sights and experiences along the way. They drown out their thoughts during the driving stretches with music or punch-buggy are-we-there-yet games. They like company to talk to. They nap when it isn’t their turn to drive.

For compilers on the other hand, with everyday behaviors in suspension, and temporal-sprawl-behaviors, normally in suspension, being active, a deep sense of safety and peace take over. I like the sights along the way, but I like the driving more. I turn off the music. I generally don’t like company unless it is exactly the right sort of person. I don’t nap when I am not behind the wheel.

***

I have been thinking about personality psychology a lot lately, and talking about the subtleties of the subject with many people (Greg Rader in particular).  There is an interesting way to map these ideas of car-changers/car-keepers and compilers/amputees to the Myers-Briggs model.

I think people like me — INTPs — are car-keeping compilers because we practice extroverted intuition and introverted feeling. 

To decide how we feel about something, we retreat inwards rather than acting out the feelings. But to think, we process outwards, using sensory raw material. So we read our own meanings into our environments, and have weak emotional attachments to environmental specifics. We think about external specifics, but feel about internal abstractions.

But there is also the idea that our environment is partly a matter of definition. Our sense of personal boundaries doesn’t stop at our skins. Humans have what Dawkins called an extended phenotype. 

This means that home is something very specific. It is the psychological boundary of self. Viewed in this light, keeping a car for 12 years, but shuttling in and out of cities relatively painlessly, reflects a pattern of identity formation that is unique to INTPs like me (and others who process similarly, since my model is coarser than the 16-type Myers-Briggs).

This also explains why I relate to my broader environment — the parts beyond my personal space — through a read-only mode. I read my own meanings onto the “outside” via instantiated models, but don’t feel the need to rearrange those realities. I can just see them differently.

So when I say I intuit outside, and feel inside, I am not talking about my skin. I am talking about my car.  I feel inside my car, and think outside it. This is why I am most in touch with myself during long drives: there isn’t much to think about in the featureless landscape outside, but a lot to feel.

Now people with the reverse pattern of processing, with extroverted feeling and introverted intuition, like ENTJs for example, are more likely to be amputees I think. They are relatively indifferent, emotionally, to their personal space, since much of their feeling is extroverted, in social space. They are much more willing and able to replace old things with new ones, since their arrangement of internal realities (in the extended-phenotype sense) is mostly utilitarian rather than ritualistic. When they move, selling or giving away old stuff is nowhere near as hard for them as leaving behind old friends and favorite haunts (unless the stuff involves sentimental memories rather than ritual significance).

As Greg explained to me, they also like to rearrange external realities — a write mode  — to conform to the visions they come up with through introverted intuition. The actual current state of external reality is just an annoying circumstance to be dealt with through transformation. Present reality is merely a problem to be solved.

 ***

I used to think I was an “unreasonable man” in Bernard Shaw’s sense of the term; that I would change the world to suit myself rather than adapt to it.

I now understand the Shaw quote is too simplistic. I am unreasonable in how I read the world. But precisely because I am capable of reading my own (usually unreasonable) meanings into just about any external reality, I feel little need to change it. I don’t adapt, but I don’t need to change the world to “be myself” either. I am unreasonable, but not a revolutionary.

Now the unreasonable world-writers, they are the ones who try to change the world because that’s the only way they can stay true to themselves. Steve Jobs’ famous interchangeable black clothes reflect his relative indifference and utilitarian, instrumental approach to arranging internal, personal realities. But he just had to rearrange the rest of the world to suit his personal visions. Of course, the fact that he was able to actually pull it off is a measure of his talent, but to the extent that there are lots of people who process things similarly, the Steve Jobs personality is actually quite common.

The more common story of this personality type is repeated growth and amputation of new cognitive limbs. Cycles of loss and renewal. Sisyphean struggles, and swings between despairing resentment and ecstatic expressive living. Steve Jobs’ externalized personality never suffered significant amputation, so it kept growing and growing. Till it took over a significant portion of the world.

This suggests that the Shaw quote can be turned into a 2×2 that contains all 16 Myers-Briggs types. You’ve got the unreasonables (barbarians) versus the reasonables on one axis (the settlers), and the readers and writers on the other axis.

That gives you the unreasonable world-writers like Steve Jobs, the unreasonable “refactored perception” world-readers like me and other INTPs, and the corresponding reasonables on the other side: people who have all those restorative, healing, defending, preserving instincts in Myers-Briggs territories that are totally alien to me (SJs, SFs mostly, I believe; I am not very clear on this subject).

I’ll leave this to others who understand Myers-Briggs and related personality models better.

***

Unreasonable world-writers rearrange the world within their sphere of influence — the Jobsian reality-distortion field represents an extreme case — as much as they possibly can. They live frenzied lives within that sphere. The past is just data. The present is a problem to be solved. The future is just an extended test of the robustness of their externalized realities to amputation. They are the barbarian drivers of creative destruction. Apple’s iconic 1984 ad is iconic because it frames the Mac as a creative-destruction force, not just a creative force.

Unreasonable world-readers on the other hand, tend to leave reality itself mostly untouched.

Mostly, they rearrange reality only within a minimalist personal space. They do so to the extent needed to support the perceiving needed for externalized intuition to work, and only within a reliable safe zone. So peripatetic city-hoppers like me limit ourselves to a few workspace tools of some ritual significance, functional tools to block out or amplify parts of the sensory environment, and cars. Their extended phenotype is a metaphoric microscope and defensive wall.

Those who own homes spread themselves out a little more (and act like Englishmen in their castles).  But even they don’t feel like putting a computer on every desk, or projecting forceful beliefs about what smartphones should be like, onto others.

The violence and barbarism in their mode of being manifests itself in the models they make up for themselves. These they share to the extent they need to, to make a living.

External versus internal creative destruction. If the driving ambition of the former is to remake the world for others until it looks and feels right to them outside, the driving ambition of the latter is to rewrite history for themselves until it looks and feels right inside. To the extent that they don’t need to pay the rent, they don’t feel the need to share their models of the world. Newton and Gauss, famously, kept much of their thinking to themselves.

While my output is much less earth-shaking, I keep much of it to myself as well.

I suppose this is why writers (of words, not worlds — to write words is to read worlds) actually seek out literal nomadism. Writing is a minimalist way of rearranging the world, and mobility is an efficient way to turn concrete behaviors that depend on specific contexts into reified, abstract behaviors that can serve as robust rituals across contexts.

I sometimes wonder about how the two modes interact. I suspect very badly, unless the world a specific reader-barbarian reads helps a writer-barbarian figure out exactly what he or she wants to destroy and remake.

Otherwise it is a clash of unstoppable force against immovable object. One tries to transform the world; the other tries to read changeless stability into it.

***

So far, I haven’t had to change. One day, I will need to sell my car. I wonder if that will force me to change. Or perhaps I will find a stable enough physical home that I finally feel comfortable extending my phenotype into a larger space, and get even more set in my ritualized ways.

I think I’ve done enough of my growing up that losing this particular car, or moving to a Zipcar future, will not traumatize me too much. But young INTPs just getting started are going to have to grow up with much less nomadism, and perhaps no cars to grow old with, let alone free homesteads.

Perhaps their identity formation will shrink radically to the limits of a computer backpack, a coffee mug, and a stable email address.

And that is not an isolated change. The world overall is becoming far too complex to read and write in barbaric ways. The next Steve Jobs will face a world that’s far harder to rewrite than the world of 1979.

The return of the barbarian seems increasingly unlikely. The farmer-settlers might have won. The barbarians will have to remain with the much more limited business of hacking.

But for now, I am going to enjoy being home for a couple of days. It might be the last time for a while.

otoburb November 5, 2012 at 8:36 pm

“I am strangely incapable of missing things or people (which tends to upset and offend people close to me who are capable of “missing” me). I don’t really understand what that feels like. It isn’t that I don’t value things and people in my environment. I just don’t seem to process in the same way as many others do.”

I’m glad I’m not alone. My wife could never understand this.

Isaac Lewis November 7, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Me too. I have long wondered if it’s the result of some unexamined childhood trauma (my parents divorced when I was very young), but I honestly suspect that it’s just a character trait.

I find it hard to imagine that other people are doing stuff when I’m not around. It’s like they cease to exist or something.

Emil November 5, 2012 at 8:45 pm

From Vegas through Twin Falls and Boise… and Portland (Oregon)… traveled many times… via different routes. 93 rules. Do you need tips about where to stop… may be Jackpot at the border between Nevada and Idaho… or may be even up in Sun Valley. But that was more than 10 years ago… don’t know how places might have changed.

Yes – “there isn’t much to think about in the featureless landscape outside, but a lot to feel.”… and very true: “Gas station coffee — vile stuff that I rarely drink otherwise — acquires a special hyper-intensity of flavor.”

Metatone November 6, 2012 at 6:10 am

I get into this state when I go on long-haul business trips.
It’s a very peaceful state.

Avi November 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I think this is a more accurate reading than the field mouse/cloud mouse distinction. I do wonder what manifestations these take at the extremes, does a world reader overly concerned with rewriting their own history become a narcissist? At what point does world writing become obsessive-compulsive disorder? I would suggest yes, which provides a bit of a verification on your theory. I do think that the overwriting of the words reader and writer can be a bit confusing.
It’s interesting that you mentioned writers of “words, rather than worlds” being world readers. If a writer writes fiction, are they also world writers? I was reminded in particular of a quote by Joan Didion describing her approach to writing, but then noted her addendum:
INTERVIEWER: You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why.
JOAN DIDION: It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream…Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.

Kay November 7, 2012 at 1:05 am

Isn’t “world reader” another word for “philosopher” – or is this identity too contentious because “philosopher” may be just that but at the same time it means something very specific for us which is shaped by a contingent history of reading the world which narrowed down to a thin thread of scholastic ( = academic ) topics and debates which is more concerned with canonical texts and the hypertext of commentary on those than it is with the “world”?

The other obvious contender for “world-reader” in the modern world would be “scientist” but science leaves us with a chaotic disorder, which is the effect of its close reading. Instead of a grand architecture of the mind which can be contemplated while the reader stands with both feet in reality, which is what science traditionally meant for us, it leaves us back with some pattern in datasets and stochastic transitions between them. Empiricism eats theory for lunch and the world becomes something which may not even worth the effort to understand it while it is obsessively monitored. For a world to appear and a reader to read it, it needs to have the right distance which is neither that of the hypertext of philosophy, nor the one of the data porn of contemporary science with its instruments, algorithms and databases.

RG November 7, 2012 at 4:10 am

Oh, so many statements that give shape to some of my partly formed thoughts…

I wonder how much of all this is applicable without the ritual part.

And the car.

In India I suspect many people probably experience similar feelings when moving in a train rather than a car.

winterspeak November 7, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Venkat

I think it is you “P” in INTP that makes you a world reader instead of a world writer. At least in part.

Because while it’s true INTPs have Ne (extraverted intuition) and Fi (introverted feeling), Ne is second, and Fi is fourth! Those are pretty far down the functional type list. According to the construct, INTPs apply careful logic to their internal world, and then creatively apply that to the external world. So you see see them write articles where they make a number of precise distinctions (the unkind call them pettifogging) and conclude by making some outrageous statement about the world that seems to come out of nowhere.

Sound familiar?

But the game is about making distinctions and ruminating on what they might mean for reality, P means that they don’t seek closure, they like to see additional possibilities at every turn. And since everything generates more possibilities, why try to change anything in any particular way?

I have heard INTP is common in academics.

By contrast, INTJ start with Ni, and then follow-up with Te. So they come up with associative connections in their rich (messy) internal world, and then try to see if it’s logically true or applicable in real life. Since they are J, they like closure — checking things off the list — fewer possibilities. They are also quite isolated from the world around them, so can spend a lot of time trying to change the world — ineffectually if the change requires people.

INTPs can view INTJs needlessly cut and dry, absolutist, and close minded. INTJs can view INTPs as pedantic, willing to spend hours talking about differences without distinctions, and ultimately ineffectual because they never actually do anything.

I exaggerate, of course.

Mark Louther November 7, 2012 at 8:38 pm

This is an interesting post, for me because of what’s left out: institutions, how they handle nomads, and the participation of all kinds of personality types within them. Examples that pop readily to mind are the Mormons, IBM and other big consulting firms, the multinational manufacturers, the State Dept, etc. They have ready-built identities to confer on (I’m _this_ type of Gypsy), and services to offer (this is the neighborhood where _we_ live) to their nomads regardless of their individual amputee/compiler status.

To me, more interesting still is _your_ relation to institutions and especially the ones you choose to belong to. It appears that you exclusively select for institutions where you are a consumer, and a purely voluntary one at that (e.g., I have this hunch you don’t introduce yourself at the local Hindu temple when you land in a new place but you make a point of visiting the 5 closest Starbucks).

There are also national associations of interest (Mensa, Rotary, cycling, etc.) which I imagine you also avoid (I have another hunch that you don’t keep your University alumni club updated on your new physical addresses or go to their social mixers). Perhaps the closest you might come is that you check out the local franchise of one of the national gym chains.

Institutional identity whether of “career” (in the old sense) or of “interest/talent” accomodates both compilers and amputees, so if I’m right, it’s outside of the scope of your analysis but nevertheless interesting that you avoid this version of “rootless” but non-consumer identity.

A stimulating post.

dan November 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm

love your writing and ideas!

Alexander Boland November 14, 2012 at 9:09 am

There may be writers and readers, but it seems that the one constant that links them all together is that every human being is still primarily driven to fend off entropy by preserving a sense of self. That said, I think you’ve already implied this in tempo with the metaphor of “narrative tetris.”

Katin Thehat November 15, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Ahhhh! 2 weeks & no posts.

I just recently found this blog, devoured (most) of it – really enjoy your way of synthesizing many different angles into fresh takes on hard or complicated subjects.

And… of course, I love the Be Slightly Evil & the Gervais Principle posts — still waiting on part V of that.

I know your life is in flux, just wanted to say we miss you & hope to hear more fine, nuanced thoughts flow from your confusion-defeating keyboard very soon!

Paula November 20, 2012 at 1:30 pm

a few years ago I had the experience of being truly homeless for about two months, and I lived in my vehicle. When I tell people that they are horrified — but in fact, I got over the initial shock almost immediately and ended up loving the whole experience. It certainly helped that my vehicle was an ancient but still ghetto-fabulous conversion van, complete with an electric fold- down bed that doubled as a small sofa during the day. My road trip rituals became my everyday norm and I had no opportunity to experience my surroundings in anything but read-only mode for an extended period of time.

Since then I relate very differently to my environment. My car feels permanent; my house does not. My mobile turtle shell is secure; no rental agreement can ever feel as secure as my car again. The prospect of buying a house feels like amputating my turtle shell. What I “miss” is the cognitive sprawl. I LIKE living in minimalist, safe-boot mode. I dislike having to reinstall myself into some new OS and then spend months tracking thru the unfamiliar config files. If it matters, I am INTJ.

The Great American Road Trip is such a part of American culture I have wondered what its demise will mean for the American psyche more generally. There’s never been a time in our history that we did not have access to the safe-boot cognitive sprawl of moving on, that temporary space between what was and what hasn’t yet come to pass… America itself is supposed to be a kind of permanent limbo, changing government every four years and high physical and social mobility. We’ve pinned this part of our national identity on our cars and by extension on oil, and without that symbol, we’ll have to devise some other way to enter into that temporary cognitive autonomous zone. Other cultures have figured out ways to do this that keep them sane, but I’m not so sure Americans are up to the challenge.

Comments on this entry are closed.