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Google Car for Sale: Slightly Underequipped

Google will have to contend with the West's unique understanding of cuteness for its autonomous car to be accepted.

The Google Car prototype sure is cute. And as Megan Garber already explained on these pages, it’s cute because it hopes to convey familiarity and comfort while eschewing “creepiness,” that scourge of technology that arises when it seems out of place, over the line.

Garber rightly connects the Google Car’s cuteness to Japanese kawaii culture. Japanese cuteness produces a sense of protection and innocence that appeals to us; it is neotenic, deliberately juvenile. In Japan, this approach to cuteness has been ingrained in national culture. All Nippon Airways has a series of widebody Boeing jets with Pokémon livery. The popular character Domo-kun got his start as the official mascot of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. It even adorns cars, like the service vehicles for the Japanese air conditioning manufacturing company Daikin, which already way out-cute Google’s efforts.

A Daikin car, inspired by its mascot Pichon-kun. 

A diaspora of kawaii cuteness has spread through Japanese pop cultural exports like Domo-kun and Hello Kitty, but the widespread, official adoption of kawaii is still unimaginable in the West. Where it has taken hold, it has done so among a technologically-savvy, young elite. Many kawaii aesthetes are familiar with the pop cultural origins of their fancies, and many actively embrace and even fetishize Japanese culture, sometimes to the point of orientalism.

As Google adopts kawaii, it risks forgetting that a subtler, different sort of understanding of cuteness exists in the West. Western cuteness is harder to define than kawaii, but the best explanation I know of comes from the contemporary philosopher Graham Harman, who snuck a tiny theory of cuteness into his book Guerilla Metaphysics:

Cute objects are either lovely, or else they are delightfully absorbed in some technique that we ourselves take for granted. That is to say, certain actions are performed by certain worldly agents with a regularity and ease devoid of any hesitation. Horses gallop, donkeys eat, humans write letters, and native speakers of a language use it fluently. The labors of such agents become “cute” when they are slightly underequipped for their task: a newborn horse trying to prance on its skinny, awkward legs; a sweet little donkey trying to eat a big pile of hay with its sweet little mouth and tongue; a child handing us a thank-you note with imperfect grammar; a foreigner misusing our language in slightly incorrect but delightfully vivid fashion. In each of these cases, the cute agent is one that makes use of implements of which it is not fully in command.

While Japanese cuteness produces a sense of protection and innocence, this other sort accounts for a much broader scope of modest inability, one that has nothing to do with parental instinct and everything to do with the delight of slight insufficiency. Hello Kitty and Kirby and Pikachu appear rather than behave. They are cute in appearance, but profoundly competent in action. But in the West, a cute character or situation doesn’t just relate to its appearance and features, but also to its abilities.

This is where Google’s foray into cute design may rub a more general population the wrong way. In the West, cuteness doesn’t (just) define how something looks, but suggests that such a thing is not (yet) capable of behaving competently. And worse, we westerners have far less command over our understanding of domestic cuteness—it’s why we often deploy the knee-jerk dismissals of “creepiness” when faced with it.

The Silicon Valley tech set probably already appreciates the Google car in its kawaii sense of cuteness, thanks partly to the overlap between tech culture and Japanese pop cultural savvy. But as Google moves forward with its autonomous vehicles among broader communities and populations, it will be forced to contend with a contradiction: in America, a cute car isn’t just an approachable one, but also an untrustworthy one, a car that can’t do what it’s supposed to. Just think about the last cute car to try to go mainstream in America, the Mercedes-Benz Smart Car. It’s endearing, but hard to take seriously. Everybody loves an adorable ride, but nobody wants a vehicle making use of implements of which it is not fully in command.