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Against gorpcore

We have to develop and embrace aesthetics that inspire the imagination

Gorpcore became a fashion trend during the late 2010s into the 2020s, with its surge in popularity linked to the coronavirus lockdowns. The term is used to describe clothing fit for outdoor activities yet used as a style outside those environments. The obvious irony of gorpcore is that it has garnered appeal in a time where sedentary behaviour is the norm among much of the public. Even going outside at all was labelled as dangerous during the lockdowns, which in the United States were around the longest on the West Coast.

In its simulation of utilitarianism, and pretence to seriousness on this basis, gorpcore is the leading visual signifier of Silicon Valley spreadsheet brain. In the shape of Tesla’s Cybertruck, it is set to appear in your rearview mirror soon.

Looking for all the world like a cyborg armadillo cross-bred with a toaster, the Cybertruck appears as it does, if we are to trust Musk biographer Walter Isaacson, as a consequence of an intervention by Saxon Musk, the teenage son of Elon, who asked “why doesn’t the future look like the future?” As a consequence of this juvenile question, more normal pickup designs were discarded in an attempt to bring to the roads of the US Sunbelt a vehicle out of a 1980s low-rent sci-fi TV show.

A video clip of Franz Von Holzhausen, head designer at Tesla and a genuinely talented industrial artist, depicts him cringing slightly perhaps introducing the 6,603-pound stainless-steel Dorito to a quizzical audience, suggesting that although the vehicle might not appeal to everyone, it acts as a conversation-starter. It has been described by Instagram commentators — the most brutal and judgemental audience of aesthetics one can encounter this side of high school — as a “meme vehicle”.

The superstitious observer may wonder how many years’ bad luck — including the Musk calling-card of missed deadlines — come from Von Holzhausen smashing an alleged “bulletproof” Cybertruck window on stage, but one cannot accuse the two men of lacking the ability to embrace self-deprecating humour. Today the incident has become part of the carmaker’s corporate lore, appearing as an Easter egg in the completed vehicle.

Von Holzhausen’s inspirations and overall outlook on design are or were rooted in the Bauhaus movement, which centred not just honesty in materials but human-centred product development. This ethos seems to be part of Von Holzhausen’s character. As one of the longest-running senior employees at Tesla, he is among the “angels” orienting the company, and Musk, to ordinary auto concerns, such as creating a low-priced, mass-market model, when he is in a bad mood.

In Musk’s more goofy and lighthearted moments, this sort of humanism is on display. But the Cybertruck represents the dark side of his character, the so-called “demon mode” described by Isaacson. It also is the product of more than 30 years of social trends towards increasingly apocalyptic thinking.

Paranoia, fear of crime, and hungerfor security have long been identified as central socio-psychological background to the rise of the SUV and trucks in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. A staple of the American highway at the turn of the millennium, the light truck reached its initial apogee as a pop-political symbol in the Tonka-like shape of the Hummer H2. The vehicular avatar of neoconservatism in the suburban homeland, an H2 had none of the actual military capabilities of the Humvees engaged in war in Iraq but as a petrol-guzzler extraordinaire, undoubtedly gave its own imperative to a fight cynics ascribed to U.S. addiction to oil.

This living fossil met its end with the bankruptcy of General Motors in the Great Recession, at a time of $4.00 petrol nationwide and Peak Oil — a notion increasingly mainstreamed not only in the bowels of the localist and doomsaying blogosphere.

During the Obama era, the SUV was rehabilitated in a feminised format in the shape of the “crossover”. The soft and rounded lines of the recession-era Chevrolet Traverses and Toyota Venzas — shorn of the SUV label, appeared as a minor moment in the #girlboss and #metoo move in the direction of equity between the sexes, levelling ride height with the work trucks and tractor-trailers of US highways. This included a huge focus on vehicles capable of holding dogs.

By 2016, the fracking boom and the resulting plunge in crude oil prices led palaeontologists in the marketing departments of the automakers to excavate the light truck in name and appearance. This led to a culling of the family car, but also something weirder; the addition of “off-road” accessories including plastic cladding, roof racks, all-wheel drive, and a taller stance to some sedans and station wagons. Few if any of these cosmetic enhancements actually improved the capacities of these cars.

At the same time, SUVs themselves have become more and more aesthetically rugged, without actually regaining any legitimate off-road capacity they had at their inception. This marked the beginning of automotive gorpcore — a trend that shows no sign of declining. Indeed, by the 2020s it had spread to entire product lines; more recently, even sports car icons, including the Porsche 911 and Lamborghini Huracan, have been given the gorpcore treatment with “Dakar” and “Sterrato” appearance trims.

it over-caters to a comparatively small group of those that aspire to a hard-edged spray-deodorant edginess

At the apex of this pack of predators stands the Cybertruck. But there is a distinct limit to its appeal. It’s achingly and cartoonishly masculine and its appearance is polarising. The Cybertruck’s angular design is such a stark contrast to the Bauhaus curves of the rest of the Tesla line-up, many auto industry insiders allegedly doubt von Holzhausen actually designed the car. Like Elon Musk’s rebranded and reformatted version of Twitter, it over-caters to a comparatively small group of those that aspire to a hard-edged spray-deodorant edginess that repels all those that have any conception of design as something deep, subtle, or seductive.

Perhaps the most globally heralded automotive designer, 85-year-old Giorgetto Giugiaro, described the Cybertruck as the “Picasso of automobiles” as it decomposes all expectations of reality. It is arguably ambiguous as to whether this was actually intended as a compliment.

The Cybertruck has been promoted as a project meant to pioneer new manufacturing technologies for Tesla rather than as a best-selling vehicle. This highlights the truly revolutionary central characteristic of Tesla’s business.

Tesla is, to a greater extent than other Western automakers, built around a vertically integrated manufacturing system. As General Motors, Ford, and other automakers with production in the US have long outsourced a huge amount of the design and manufacturing of vehicle components to outside companies, Musk has sought to centralise the entire production system under his command.

At some level, this may appear to be a consequence of the billionaire’s micromanaging control-freak style. However, it also mirrors the strategy of China’s EV industry, generously sponsored by the state. The most formidable player, BYD (acronym for Build Your Dreams), outright owns key facilities.

Among auto industry veterans, Tesla is increasingly considered unstoppable in the U.S. market due to its approach of unifying all design and engineering elements at the start at the level of the company, a move that allows the dramatic simplification of vehicle making and the elimination of separate components in many areas such as electronics and bodywork. In normal automakers, engineers and stylists have famously warred with each other with accountants having the deciding opinion. The Tesla synthesis leads to a reduction in vehicle weight — absolutely essential given the heaviness of EVs — and also means fewer people, and eventually, more robots are needed to assemble a car.

In the process, it creates cars that cannot be feasibly repaired in the event of a crash. A Cybertruck’s stainless-steel bodywork would be laughed out of any collision repair establishment in the country as a lost cause, and even if physically possible to repair, the cost of doing so would ensure almost every crash would be declared a total loss. Even normal Tesla sedans are too challenging to repair for many mom-and-pop collision repair enterprises. As Tesla appears to be a revival of US engineering prowess at the highest level, it is creating cars that are a reflection of the increasingly deskilled US population. The Ford Model T was built around an average rural farmer’s tool armoury and practical know-how, with applications as a tractor, plow, a fire truck, and general workhorse. The Cybertruck, meanwhile, cannot be fixed or modified even by most members of its engineer-class core audience.

Eventually, Tesla intends driving itself to be a chore to be automated. In an interview with a Chinese media organisation, von Holzhausen waxed lyrical about the prospect of self-driving capacities giving valuable hours back to the driving public. People only have one life to live, after all. The dream of in-car subscription consumerism has been a glimmer in the eye of both media moguls and automakers dating back to the 1990s. It was a vision parodied in Pixar’s 2009 Wall-E, which depicted hopelessly inert humans consuming mindless video chats in connected extraterrestrial vehicles. Whether our own self-driving future is so disturbingly macabre depends on one’s faith in humanity’s tendency towards creativity and a demand for a higher ideal of freedom versus a vision of societal morality that values desire as the highest ethical good and equates this with liberty.

It is unlikely Musk will be the one to deliver this good, at least to Europeans. BYD’s vertical integration is even more advanced than Tesla’s and the company may have a cost advantage of around 25 percent compared to Western competitors.

Perhaps more importantly, its designs are not angry but round and adorable. Cuteness is its own sort of assertiveness, and in aesthetic and name, BYD’s vehicles – the “Dolphin” and the “Seal” appear positively diminutive compared to the Cybertruck.

Behind this seemingly innocuous appearance though is mass distribution, mass appeal, and a seductive sucker-punch to Tesla. Musk has admitted that BYD is so powerful at the level of cost and manufacturing advancement that most of the Western auto industry is doomed without tariff barriers.

Given that politicians increasingly see economics through a New Cold War lens and are desperate to protect voters’ livelihoods, Musk may have more of a chance than he thinks. Nonetheless, the Cybertruck hype dynamo fails to inspire imaginations outside a narrow segment of extremely online audiences of the already all-in. Unless a u-turn away from gorpcore is made, it is an approach probably doomed to fail.

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