Counterintuitive though it may seem, the modern explosion of digital technology should cue governments to invest in analogue, pro-social technologies. In the United States, the bicycle is the perfect starting point.
It took a long time for humanity to figure out that technology is not desirable for its own sake, and we appear bent on forgetting the lesson. Technologies are tools – nothing more – and tools may be useful or not, with infinite shades in between. The most instructive and extreme example from the historic ledger may be the atomic bomb. The development and use of this particular tool sparked immediate doubt and regret among its creators in the Manhattan Project. In 1946, some of the project participants reconvened to form the Federation of American Scientists and publish One World Or None (1). This urgent polemic weighed the pressing danger of nuclear technology alongside its conceivable benefits, advancing the earliest arguments for disarmament and the eradication of the very technology the creators had scrambled to bring forth.
At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humanity learned immediately of this technology’s potential costs, but the implications and costs of other technologies have taken longer to appear. The Arab Spring was accelerated by more or less organic posts on Facebook and Twitter, and the platforms were widely perceived as catalysts for democracy and progress. Until very recently, that myth has endured. What an age of innocence those years turned out to be.
It is, after all, difficult to imagine the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol, emerging as it did from outright fabrications about election fraud, without the gasoline of Facebook, Twitter, and Parler. Twitter’s suspension of the President is certainly one way to try and extinguish the flames. But it reads to me more as an admission of guilt than a correction of action. As several clever observers have remarked, the person with access to the nuclear codes has been deemed too irresponsible to have a Twitter account.
So Trump has access to the nuclear codes but he can't Tweet or post to Facebook.
— Andrew Ross Sorkin (@andrewrsorkin) January 7, 2021
Which technology, then, is actually the more dangerous?
Dangerous, and burdensome to boot. It often feels as though human life is saddled more heavily with its own creations than by natural threats. The baby boomers, to be sure, did not choose to have their childhoods traumatically punctuated with duck-and-cover drills in preparation for the day Khrushchev would press the button. Neither have Generations Z and Alpha chosen to come of age amid a blasted misinformation landscape where even the adults cannot agree on basic facts. Nor, for that matter, did they choose their own version of the duck-and-cover drills, now rendered necessary because of yet another technology: the semi-automatic rifle.
It is striking to note the similarities in tone between the mea culpas of the architects of social media and those of Einstein, Bohr, and Oppenheimer. As Bohr himself stressed, the stakes of the nuclear question were, and are, nothing less than existential:
“While the increasing mastery of the forces of nature has contributed so prolifically to human welfare and holds out even greater promises, it is evident that the formidable power of destruction that has come within reach of man may become a mortal menace unless human society can adjust itself to the exigencies of the situation. Civilization is presented with a challenge more serious perhaps than ever before, and the fate of humanity will depend on its ability to unite in averting common dangers…”
And here we likewise have it from Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president for user growth at Facebook:
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works […] This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other […] I can’t control [Facebook]. I can control my decisions, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit […] It was unintentional, but now you gotta decide how much you’re going to give up, how much of your intellectual independence.”
The beast is unleashed, and we are going to have a hell of a time as a species trying to wrangle it back in. And as both One World or None and The Social Network remind us, the idea that technologies simply happen is fictitious. Nuclear weaponry and social media were consciously developed by humans, for humans. We alone brought them into this world, and we alone can choose whether to use them – or not.
If the Capitol insurrection is indeed an inflection point, it represents an opportunity for society to reevaluate its current toolbox. Indeed, a realignment arising from necessity was already underway. The COVID-19 pandemic fueled a massive surge in bike ownership throughout the US, in which this author happily joined. But it has done the same for social media usage, contributing, no doubt, to the insurrection.
In the face of such chaos, which technologies should humanity embrace, and which should it spurn? I submit a guiding principle for consideration: Technology should be intrepid enough to enhance the human experience, but constrained enough to neither dampen nor destroy it. And under this principle, an ideal: A piece of technology that all others should seek to emulate, and upon which society should double down, is the humble bicycle.
To understand why, let’s place the bicycle in contrast with other forms of technology, then apply the principle. The automobile is a good place to start.
Do cars make the human experience better? In some undeniable ways, yes, because they expand the individual’s travel radius and reduce travel time. But do they also dampen things? Absolutely – one need look only at the ruinous master plans of American cities, in which the automobile has been given full reign and owns the right of way, for it to become clear that this technology has severely curtailed the urban experience. And what of destruction? The car fails on that count too, contributing no small sum to the ongoing pollution of the planet’s atmosphere via carbon emissions. It is a highly unsafe technology, as the Association for Safe International Road Travel notes: “Road crashes are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people aged 1-54 […] 4.4 million [people each year] are injured seriously enough to require medical attention”.
Social media, and indeed the internet more broadly, is fraught with similar tradeoffs. It places more information and mutual connectivity at our fingertips than prior generations could have dreamed of, but it does so at the cost of disconnection from the natural world and objective reality. That this dampens the human experience goes without saying. On January 6, we saw how it can destroy it, too.
There is another litmus test that functions wonderfully as a technology evaluation shortcut, and that Palihapitiya alluded to earlier: Would you give it to a child? Giving a child an automobile is, of course, out of the question. Society intuitively understands that a car is a 3,000-pound weapon in waiting, though this wasn’t the case for nearly 40 years following the technology’s invention. And by all accounts, giving a child a smartphone seems to be a very bad idea, as well. There has long been suspicion that using such devices interferes with cognitive and social development, which the scientific literature on the matter is now confirming (2). But as soon as kids can walk, we can and should put them on bikes. There is no need to fear that this particular tech will degrade a child’s attention span, endanger them, or radicalize them. No – one puts a kid on a bike, then watches them grow.
And what of the benefits later in life? Adults, after all, are serious creatures with serious pursuits, and they require intellectual nourishment. Luckily, as any cyclist knows, there is more than enough room for refinement, culture, and even obsession in this realm. Take, for example, the perpetual quests to make bikes lighter, faster, and more responsive. The development of carbon fiber frames, itself a relatively recent achievement, has revolutionized the sport. The oldest bike manufacturer in the world, Bianchi, has even started placing countervail material, with a viscoelastic structure that cancels out vibrations, at strategic points in some of their bicycle frames. The material, which comes straight from aerospace innovations, both reduces rider fatigue and extends the lifespan of other components on the bicycle. Such changes enhance the cyclist’s abilities without fundamentally altering the analogue experience of riding. This is engineering at its finest, and that is only the tip of the iceberg for all the technical nerds out there.
Cycling is a fun outlier among hobbies and sports, being simultaneously inclusive, accessible, and elite, depending on how the enthusiast wishes to go about it. Sure, a CEO can drop $13,000 on a Pinarello Dogma, but is their experience that much better than that of the cashier who picked up a rusty old fixie for $50? Not for a moment. The trails are free, and they unite people across socioeconomics, politics, and cultures like few remaining activities.
Such connections transcend human civilization, because having a relationship with the natural world is essentially mandatory for cyclists. Screens and headphones are put away. Riding requires the psychological mapping of local environments, putting people in touch with the physical scale and ecological diversity of their neighborhoods – and those of others. Automobiles, for the record, do the opposite, turning miles into abstract quantities, placing people in bubbles and removing them from the process of travel itself. Airplanes do the same, on a far greater order of magnitude. But on a bicycle, you feel what a mile means, and you experience it intimately.
Start taking regular rides, and amateur meteorology suddenly becomes a rewarding pursuit. In turn, this makes one more attuned to the unseasonably warm weather conditions that are becoming chronic in many regions. All of which helps to take the climate change issue from abstract to personal, local, and concrete. It’s tech a Luddite could love. And it’s green.
But aside from shouting from the mountaintops about the joys of bike ownership, what can be done to shift the technological zeitgeist? A dry policy suggestion may be just the ticket. Of the toxic technologies mentioned above – nuclear weaponry, high-capacity firearms, and social media – all three have been the beneficiaries of direct government subsidy and support. In 2014, the gun manufacturer Remington received $68.9 million in state government subsidies just to move one of its plants. Facebook received $333 million in public-money subsidies between 2010 and 2018. More than we would like to admit, our playthings follow from policy.
Government seldom receives high marks for acting creatively, but it will on rare occasions act in favor of the practical. The US Congress’ decision for pandemic relief checks could well cover an additional effort to subsidize bicycle ownership for every individual that wishes to opt in.
There are reasons to take such a proposal seriously, with analogues in tax subsidies for both home ownership and car ownership. The government could execute the program through a domestic bike company such as Trek, appropriately headquartered in the manufacturing rust belt state of Wisconsin. Job creation amid a recession? Check. An activity suitable for social distancing? Check. And in the long term, the inroads such an effort could make against what is arguably America’s stickiest public health challenge, the obesity epidemic, is nothing to sneeze at. After the pandemic, if tens of thousands of Americans begin commuting to work via bicycle instead of by car, the environmental implications could be significant.
Homo sapiens, by dint of our natural history, are definitionally pro-technology. But the specifics of which tools we use, and when, how, and why we apply them will be the subject of debate as long as the species endures. Accordingly, we must realize that every second spent on social media instead of riding a bike, cooking a meal, or reading a book is a choice. The modern human can vote with its attention span just as it can vote with its wallet (3). And amid the latest dystopian development in which the validity of democratic votes is called into question, the ability to vote with behavior may represent the last vestige of uncorrupted human expression.
- Dexter, M., and Way, K., “One World or None: a Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb”, New Press, 2007.
- Rikuya, H., and Katsura, T., “Association between Mobile Technology Use and Child Adjustment in Early Elementary School Age.” PLoS One, 2018.
- Odell, J., “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”, Melville House, 2019.