How much attention do you pay to the little pane of glass sitting in front of you in the car, whose only job it seems is to show you the past? It isn’t as if the silica derivative has any command over time and space, sitting as an archive of all you’ve done wrong in your path to the here and now. Its function is the epitome of simplicity – to serve as a guard against an attack from the rear. For isn’t that how we imagine the transgression of any lesser mortal behind us?
The advent of the rearview mirror in automobiles coincides with another great moment in human history – the First World War, though undoubtedly many intrepid souls would have used a handy mirror before that in their endeavour to drive the early car. Manufacturers soon saw the need to fix a mirror in a convenient place so that a driver could see the mayhem he left behind him among the horse carts and pedestrians. While the mirror itself is as old as civilisation, with both the ancient Egyptians and Chinese getting almost equal marks for their sheer love of looking at themselves, using it to see someone or something else is almost as revolutionary as using it to drive safely ahead. The honour of inventing the rearview mirror rightly or otherwise goes to a gentleman named Elmer Berger. As far as I am concerned, who else could have achieved such a magnificent task, but one with such a name – strong and with an allusion to a large reflective object in it.
Ever since, we have had the mirror as an essential part of our car – sometimes more than one. Can you imagine the tingle of excitement that passes through a car salesman as he extols the virtues of the car’s ORVMs and powered auto-dimming inside mirror? Do you think he manages to sell some more cars because of his conviction that more mirror is good and that if you have wing-like folding glass it’s even better?
You can jest, but you realise the value of a mirror when you lack one. We take having two wing mirrors and the inside pane as standard, but in some countries that’s a luxury. You can buy a car with only one wing mirror in India – but then in most parts of the country you have drivers who keep their far side wing mirrors folded even when on the move in the fear that they’ll bump or break the mirror on passing traffic, pedestrians or the stray cow.
In Oman the mirror is an accessory that can tell many tales of what’s happening in cars and on the roads. From the horrified look on a driver’s face as she sees a huge tailgating truck, to the “ouch” implied in a trainees screwed up eyes as you try to pass the drums test, to the concerned one as the flashing lights of an ambulance try to get through traffic, the rear view mirror is witness both to life and to death.
In some ways the rearview mirror is victim to its own usefulness – we notice things that happen in it, we never notice the object itself. Obscure, designed to exist without intruding into one’s forward view and about as tech heavy as glass itself, it can only be noticed in its absence.
If you have a philosophical bent of mind, then the mirror portrays every one of us – as the people around you acclimatise and cease to give you any attention till you pass away, with your virtues taken for granted and with your blemishes calling out for rapid application of a wet tissue, with your irreplaceable function easily replaced by a newer, larger, polarized version.
I feel that it’s just a matter of cost that keeps the mirror in its heyday. As the cost of tiny pinhole cameras and in-car monitors drop, more manufacturers will serve up the reversing camera as a replacement. The one thing that the camera and monitor combo can do is to flip the world into a non-mirror image. But to someone who has used the rearview mirror judiciously, avoiding the contortions of trying to see 180 degrees behind you in an owl-like manner, the net result of an over-intelligent system is to confuse. Truly there is no way a monitor will replace the simplicity, usefulness and sheer intuitiveness of the rearview mirror.