Saturday, January 3
The morning of New Year's, I went over to Casey's place on the Hill so he
could tune my new (used) bicycle a little.
The bicycle is a beautiful thing, when you really look at it. In its modern
incarnation, it's that rare product of industrial technology that doesn't
appear to be poisoning the world. A mechanism which makes things more humane
rather than less. Even in terms of manufacture, though there are surely
problems, it requires vastly less in the way of energy and materials than any
other practical vehicle I can think of. (Leaving aside items like skateboards,
which seem to fall into a different category.)
In the realm of transit, if the "mid-sized" American Sport Utility Vehicle
is a cheap inkjet printer with a mostly empty cartridge, then the bicycle is a
fountain pen with a built-in reservoir.
When I was home over Christmas, I got to thinking about the garden cart my
parents have had around the place since I was a kid. It consists of two wheels,
four pieces of plywood, and some metal tubing + trim. Its construction is far
less complex than that of most bicycles. It's easy to load, capacious, and
surprisingly sturdy. The wheels are positioned so that the cart seems almost to
lift itself when you tug upwards on the handle. It moves easily over broken
ground. It stands square on one end for dumping or storage. It's hauled
firewood, seed corn, salt, concrete, compost, dirt, garbage, straw, drywall,
shingles, sheet metal, tools, chainsaws, an air compressor, lumber, furniture,
small children, and nearly every kind of garden-related utensil, product, or
My bicycle and my parents' garden cart share a lot of basic properties:
Simple in form, they also represent millennia of engineering, and benefit
immeasurably from standardized tooling. Despite all this iterative history,
their specific instances represent individual acts of design and craft. They
serve as direct mechanical extensions of the human body's existing powers,
don't require any additional fuel, and can generally be maintained by their
users with simple hand tools.1 Though each is the
result of industrial fabrication and supply chains, it's at least possible to
envision handmade models built on the same principles out of local
These are appealing technical properties, but it also seems to me
that if there are useful judgments to be made about the moral + ethical content
of technology, then they are especially good reference points. Good places to
start asking questions, at least.
I'm getting ahead of myself.
I've been a hopeless nerd for most of my life, and I was going through an
impressionable age at the manic height of the network-as-revolution 1990s. It's
hardly surprising, though regrettable, that I put my friends through at least
one phase of vapid claims about how "all social problems are essentially
technological". In an important sense, of course, I was right. You can't find a
human society without technological foundations, even if a pointed stick
doesn't look much like a Macbook.2 I still didn't
know what the hell I was talking about, and somebody probably should have
slapped me for getting so excited about such a cheap insight.
Some years later, I have a minor role in the technocracy, but I've pretty
well lapsed and drifted my way out of the technocratic faith. What I'm left
with is a feeling that technology, like geography and climate, exercises a vast
influence on the conditions of human life - and in much the same way: In the
sphere of technology, there are no incidentals, and the products of immediate
intentions aren't necessarily more significant than the products of
happenstance, accumulation, and drift. Nor are they necessarily less
significant, but it pays to remember that all but a minute fraction of
consequences are unintended.3
If this all sounds a bit deterministic, that's probably because it is.
BUT, I'm not trying to suggest that decisions about tech don't matter, or
that the work of designers, engineers, hackers, & technical folk in general
is just noise. Quite the contrary. I just think that conversations about
technology and civilization generally could use a much larger dose of broad
context and humility, a bigger and less category-bound sense of how things get
shaped the way they do.
So back to two-wheeled utility. The last thing I want is to become an
Ideological Cyclist Type. People who will tell you that no one in America has
an excuse to be driving a car might be more obnoxious than people who
will corner you at keg parties to rant about TV and
Wal-Mart.4 What I'd like, by the time I do drift back
into the territory of norms and judgments, is to know why tech like the bicycle
seems so unusual. I have this suspicion that you could get at a lot of the same
things by asking why everyone watches so much shitty television, but possibly
I'll do better with happy exceptions than with depressing standards.
A tiny bibliography:
Witold Rybczynski, One good turn: a natural history of the screwdriver
and the screw (Scribner, 2000).
Henry Petroski, The evolution of useful things (A. Knopf, 1992).