Monday, September 04, 2017

Can you afford to be a technolemming?

In the 1990s I coined the term "technofascist" to describe the forces in the bike industry and their propagandists in the cycling press that insisted on ramming their innovations down everyone's throats. Recently I came up with "technolemming" to describe the consumers who self destructively run off the cliff en masse when the industry tells them that the newest great thing is just beyond the edge of it. There are more good reasons to avoid electronic shifting than to embrace it.

About once a week during the height of summer, someone comes into the shop where I work in a resort town because their electronic shifting has developed a mental issue. Among year-round residents, almost no riders own it. The ones who do are wealthy. In spite of this, the cheerleaders of over-sophisticated technology tout its reliability. Like many people in an abusive relationship, even the ones who are being kicked around by their temperamental lover swear that they still think it's worth it.

A misleading promo for SRAM eTap made it sound like they had developed electronic brakes. I had a good laugh over that for a few days until I double-checked before citing it in this blog. SRAM just has hydraulic disc brakes to go with their wireless electronic shifting. I had to perform therapy on an eTap shifter this summer. There's nothing intuitive about it. You have to learn and remember procedures, and be prepared to have nothing anyway if the batteries die or it develops any number of mysterious ailments of tiny circuitry. But its proponents fall back on statistics. More of it works than doesn't, and that should be good enough to get you to part with the coin.

I've also unstuck a few hydraulic calipers each season. Sure, brake cables can rust on a neglected bike, but sophisticated stuff rots and binds up in so many more and intricate ways. It's all great fun for the short-term addict, but it's an expensive relationship if you try to stay in it for the long haul. Crap that breaks and wears out in a few seasons may be good for the economy, but it is bad for our species and our planet. We've got to get into the habit of owning things for longer and spending whatever we spend on them to fix them, and to buy the time to use them. A bicycle used to be an elegantly simple escape from tweaky technology. The industry couldn't throw that away fast enough when the easy money hit in the 1990s. That's become the minority view of retro-geezers and weirdos. Even your stalwart "bikepackers" embrace hydraulics and suspension, judging by the photos. And those are still consumer activities that waste a person's energy on going away from their productive lives, rather than integrating their exertion into their productive lives.

Still without a car, due to a rather humorous setback suffered by my mechanic*, I rode my 29 commuting miles yesterday under threatening skies in the morning, and under the delivery of that threat in the afternoon. Given the wetness, I rode the old silver fixed gear, for ultimate simplicity. It had been perhaps a couple of years since I used it for a commute. Coming at the end of a week of full-distance commutes, it was kind of grueling. The temperature was in the 50s, with increasing rain for my whole ride home. People travel to distant lands to be this uncomfortable climbing mountains, or trekking across wildernesses, when they can be cold, wet, miserable, and totally thrashed just getting home to supper. I would not trade it.

I've had a lot of purely recreational adventures, all non-motorized. But the baseline through the decades has been bike commuting. Particularly once I moved to a rural area, I have not been able to live entirely car-free, but I will inject transportational cycling wherever I can.

Under the heading of adventure commuting, I did do park-and-paddle commutes in which I used my kayak to cross about four miles of lake and connecting channel, ending with a walk across town to work. Those were great fun, and did save some car use, but took about twice as long as a bike ride all the way from home. I did like the challenge of facing whatever the weather was dishing out: wind, rain, sleet, snow, fog, or placid beauty. Because lake traffic basically vanishes at the end of summer, I would push the season into darkness. Yeah, I might die out there, but you could have a car accident, too.

I would ski to work if there was enough graded width outside the travel lanes on the most direct line to town. Unfortunately, it would be a long, rugged bushwhack with the terrain as it is.

It is more beneficial, physically, economically, and environmentally, to use non-motorized ways to go places you have to go anyway. It is your physiology, your economy, and the environment in which you live that all improve as a result. And yet, because there are considerable social benefits, it's not just self indulgent. Traffic is eased, parking pressure is alleviated, and more people are in better shape.

A shift to durability and more physical engagement with our lives would require a period of adjustment. I don't bother to make a lot of noise about it, aside from my incessant personal whining, because so many people have so many valid excuses born of the technology, infrastructure, and attitudes we have evolved. If you're in a hurry -- and who isn't -- you get in the motor vehicle and mash the throttle. If you want to get a lot done with an awkward load of equipment across a wide geographical area, you use a motor vehicle. I have to borrow one tomorrow to take two cats for their routine vet checkups, because my car is still in the shop.

*The setback my mechanic had fits the theme of over-sophistication: He'd been stacking cars in his shop when he leaves at the end of his day, one on each lift, and another one parked below. My car was in the upper berth above a Mercedes. The Mercedes developed an electrical problem that made it immovable for about 3 hours while the mechanic sorted out its electrical issue (or dragged it away with a chain. He didn't say).

In many ways, I consider my life to be a series of carefully thought out mistakes, interspersed with impulsive blunders. I got here by a series of things that seemed like good ideas at the time. If I'd known how a lot of them were going to play out, I might have narrowed my focus earlier and lived an even less acquisitive life. But you can't change one thing without changing everything. Whatever alternate universes exist, this is the one in which I appear to be. In another one, my parents never met.


Coline said...

How I used to wish that my parents had never met...

cafiend said...

Coline -- I don't know what to say except that it's nice having you drop by.

Unknown said...

I have a Land Rover Defender (diesel - and not in the USA where they are cool and collectable but in southern Africa). It has one wire to the engine, which controls the fuel solenoid. Turning off the key turns off the fuel supply. That is the total extent of the critical electronics (it des have an alternator and battery, but neither are necessary for it to continue functioning).

It's not particularly reliable in a micro sense, with a number of foibles - but in a macro view it can soldier on for decades (it's already 22 years old) with simple repairs. While this comment is more appropriate to your subsequent post of technolemmings, I have a story about the one time I got my Land Rover stuck.

It was not in the wilds of Mozambique or Namibia (both places it has traveled) but rather in Cape Town - a huge city - where I was having new tires fitted. After an hour or two at the shop, it was almost ready when - poof! - the power went off. It was up an a lift with no way down, so I got a drive home and a ride back in the morning to fetch it. Technology!

cafiend said...

Indeed, Unknown. I told a customer just yesterday that the inconvenience of convenience is that we constantly have to adjust it. And in many cases, replace it outright.

I love how the story of a sort of routine modern glitch becomes much more interesting when it comes to us from thousands of miles away, too. Africa! Cool! Seriously.