Riding the line

· Essay

Background

“To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes–a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance– with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”

Attitudes toward technology are beset by an extremist, binary division. The above quotation from Jonathan Franzen (2013) and its especially Luddite leanings are mirrored by equally zealous rhetoric from proponents of techno-utopianism. Both approaches are dogmatically rigid; neither acknowledges the conditional agency of technological artefact–the fact that technology only operates when a human thinks about or uses it–or the non-finality of technology–that technological progress is entirely linear. Over the next few pages, I will analyse the discourse surrounding motorcycles to exemplify the conditional agency of artefacts to develop a more total account of technological ‘topianism’– the ultimate goals and consequences of a technological society–that avoids both iconoclasty and lofty ideals.

Displacement versus replacement

Both Luddism and techno-utopianism subscribe to a formulation of technology that seeks to “replace the natural world”; they only differ in their propositions of how that replacement will fare for the human race. Such attitudes depend upon the framing of technology as an end in and of itself, rather than a means to other ends. Regardless of how the techno-social interaction is modelled, it stands that this depiction of technology is at odds with reality; technology is a tool. It may shape us, or we may shape it, but it does not exist independently of human desires or goals, nor is it somehow divorced from reality and capable of conjuring its own space for humans to occupy–this is the essence of conditional agency.

The other failure of Luddism and techno-utopianism is their incredibly naive tendency to formulate technological progress as linear. Both philosophies hinge upon the ‘finality of technology’–the idea that each technological update solves some problem in part or entirely for every stakeholder under the sun, without introducing any problems of its own. Needless to say, this is a deeply problematic conceptualisation, and again one that is at odds with reality, lest we’d all be walking around with the same model of smartphone and wearing the same pair of shoes. There cannot be a world brought by technology that is free of resistance or a mere extension of the self because that same technology is what creates resistance, or at the very least, doesn’t address all the resistance it purports to solve. Technology can be seen to remove the ‘superficial friction’ of some process or experience–think logistics, like travel time or amount of sweat shed–while at the same time preserving or even introducing ‘essential friction’–think deeper problems, like where to travel to or why sweat should be shed for that particular task.

Conditional agency and the non-finality of technology elicit the understanding that technology exists to facilitate–to displace, not to replace. That displacement is twofold: first, it displaces the natural world from a site of inaccessibility and situates it within, or closer to, that new human realm, without changing its fundamental resistances. In other words, a gentle bending, rather than a breaking, of the natural will. Second, it displaces the natural world by the insertion of a human world that similarly brings its own set of resistances.

Post-Luddism

Technology, then, does not represent a force for the replacement or destruction of the natural world (which word you pick depends upon which extreme you subscribe to, dear reader). This paves the path for a reduxing of Luddism and techno-utopianism by recognising displacement over replacement. Post-Luddism is a Luddism informed by techno-utopianism, or vice versa. Post-Luddism understands technology does not occupy a position of totally destructive or totally constructive power, but instead a position that facilitates the creation of a human world, the integration of a natural world, and the preservation of the experiences and resistances of both.

Facets of post-Luddism

Facilitating the natural

Understanding technology from the post-Luddite perspective necessitates an appreciation of how nature can be integrated into the human world without being erased or assimilated. The motorcycle offers an exemplary demonstration of technology existing to or imagined as facilitating the natural.

Sociotechnical imaginaries of the motorcycle capture a patently liberating machine. The motorcycle is imagined as a tool to emancipate the individual from the confines of the human world. It frees the human experience from the walls of the human world and pushes it into the natural world, or, alternatively, it closes the distance between the natural world and the human world and reintroduces the natural world into the human experience.

As denizens of the capitalist world, let us lean on what we know to capture precisely those imaginaries and illustrate the post-Luddite perspective; the humble, oft-loathed, primetime-interrupting advertisement. Advertisements offer a unique insight into sociotechnical imaginaries– their depictions of a technology must resonate with the viewers (i.e.: be held by the wider population) in order to translate into sales, but they must also present technology in an ideal or novel way that pushes the boundaries and status quo of the viewer in order to be seen as offering a worthwhile product. For these reasons, advertisements deliver an excellent view into both the idealised and realised imaginaries of a technology. Understanding the idealised and realised imaginaries show the desired endgame for a technology based on the current accepted reality of that technology. In short, they are an accurate depiction of the essential characteristics of a technology, and why the technology is used.

Fire off a YouTube query for motorcycle ads, and you’ll be presented with the quintessential post-Luddite video playlist. Across the heterogeneous cultures of motorcycle riders, from off-roaders to racers, from Eastern to Western, from retro to bleeding edge, at every turn, the motorcycle is imagined in the same fundamental way. Take the Ducati Diavel 1260–an urban, thoroughly fashionable and futuristic motorcycle. Although the advertisement begins with a dark, cyberpunk alley illuminated only by neon and the motorcycle’s headlight, by the halfway point of the video, there isn’t a city in sight. Instead, the motorcycle is shot carving through canyons, flanked by trees, mountains, and otherwise rugged terrain (Ducati 2018). Moving on to the Kawasaki Ninja H2–the world’s fastest production vehicle, a supercharged behemoth capable of shredding rubber to the tune of 400 km/h. The ad begins with an engineering rundown, with stats and specs flowing across the screen describing the immense engineering complexity and finesse. Again, by the halfway point of the video, the motorcycle is riding on a road surrounded by savannah, with summits in the distance (KawasakiUSA 2014). Moving onto something endowed with a smaller engine, and at a more entry-level price point, is the unapologetically retro-Americana Harley Davidson Iron 883. Old-school through and through, and an extremely American counterpoint to the fast-paced Japanese Kawasaki, the Iron is again seen riding through sweeping plains and natural beauty (Spain 2013). And finally, to the smallest of the small, the least sporty, the least powerful, the most practical; the humble Vespa. At first, it appears scooters may be the exception to the rule, but soon, all fears are allayed as the bike smoothly sails along the Mediterranean coastline (scooterfilm 2019).

Nature isn’t the point here, however. Rather, it’s not the whole point. Each of these videos starts out in a aggressively human location: a decrepit city, an airport hangar, a garage, and a small, ancient town. Even more interestingly, at almost the exact halfway point in each of these videos, the motorcycle ventures out into nature. Each of these advertisements, and undoubtedly hundreds more, hits you over the head with imagery of a merging of worlds, of a displacement of worlds. The technological artefact in question–here, the motorcycle–bridges the gap and space between these two realities. It displaces them, makes them less separate, and brings them into one another. Neither world is outright replaced, nor do they lose their most important traits or resistances; the mountains are still rugged, the roads are still treacherous. Perhaps most importantly of all, the motorcycle, despite being the product that is being sold, somehow doesn’t take center stage. The technology plays a concurrent, rather than primary, role. It sits alongside the marvel of nature and human coming together. This is the post-Luddite view in action–a technology that displaces, rather than replaces; a technology that does, rather than is; a technology that is a means, not an end.

Although they may be termed imaginaries, these conceptualisations are incredibly reflective of reality. The post-Luddite imaginaries of the motorcycle, then, are reflective of a post-Luddite reality. Applying similar analyses to other artefacts would undoubtedly uncover similar imaginaries depicting technology as a means, not an end. Although the specific displacements of nature into the human world may be harder to grasp for a blender than a motorcycle, they are certainly present.

The human world

I mentioned that Post-Luddite displacement entails more than the movement of the natural world. The second facet of displacement is the introduction of, or growth of, a human world adjacent to the natural world. This may immediately seem to support Franzen (2013)’s “extension of the self”, but we must remember the non-finality of technology precludes a resistance-free world–superficial friction may be gone, but essential friction still remains. Coupled with the fact that conditional agency extends human agency, and thus human problems, technology does anything but create an entirely responsive world. The human world is one distinctly defiant of techno-utopian visions of a resistance-free world. Rather, it is characterised exactly by the challenges and obstacles it presents.

Same world, same problems

Technology does not always do what it sets out to do. Every artefact is a compromise–some problems get addressed, some problems are made worse, some are ignored entirely.

Technology is a tool that displaces and facilitates–we’ve established that much. It displaces and facilitates almost anything, but especially social relations and interactions–that is, social networks. Technology has conditional agency–agency that is dependent upon human action and interpretation. In that way, technology can be seen to extend human agency–it facilitates and displaces more than humans can alone, but it does so with the imbued values and actions of whoever is operating it. The resultant techno-human social networks, or actor networks, exacerbate the existing social relations and processes in any given frame. In other words, technology doesn’t create a world free of resistance because any worlds it does create are in part shaped by a multitude of heterogeneous human actors who will always resist against one another.

Where can we see technology exacerbating human problems? In the venerable motorcycle, of course. Actually, not quite–we can see it in the actor networks surrounding the motorcycle.

Since the 1950s, when the motorcycle first became cheap enough for middle and lower classes to afford, the motorcycle has been associated with, and contributed to, a culture of rebellion and law-breaking. Back then, they were called greasers and rockers, and they were leather-clad wannabe racers who celebrated the fact that they didn’t fit in. Now, they’re called 1%ers, a term derived from the maxim that 99% of riders are law-abiding, ‘normal’ citizens.

Outlaw culture and several gangs would be nothing without the motorcycle. At the very least, they would be less intimidating and less prominent. That hints at the significance of a technological artefact in constructing certain social worlds–in this case, the motorcycle and bikie gangs. It goes without saying that a law-breaking gang makes for a resistance-free world, so we arrive at the conclusion that even if technology “replaces” the natural world (it doesn’t), the human world that it replaces the natural world with is far from truly responsive, or a mere extension of the self.

New world, new problems

Technology does not always do what it sets out to do. Every artefact is a compromise–some old problems get addressed, some problems are made worse, some are ignored entirely. Deja vu, I know, but here, I want to discuss how technology doesn’t just exacerbate the old problems, but introduces new conundrums of its own.

I could prove this to you by the simple tenet that right now, there are multiple models of motorcycle simultaneously available for purchase, but that would be rather anticlimactic. As dull as it may be, though, this fact is rather instructive–no single artefact can single-handedly address every problem for every individual. Examining the social construction of an artefact demonstrates just how little finality there is to technology and erases any assurance that it is capable of, or seeks to, create a world free of resistance.

Turning to our prodigal child as an example, let’s take a look at the MotoGP. MotoGP is the current creme-de-la-creme of motorcycle racing. Million dollar machines dripping with engineering prowess, sophisticated electronics, and space-age materials scream around tracks upwards of 250km/h–and that’s on practice laps. These machines have constructed an entire social world–the world of motorcycle racing–yet this world is a far cry from the docile playpen Franzen (2013) describes. There is resistance in the new world because its participants are heterogeneous, and their experiences are different.

So far in the 2019 season, Yamaha bikes are having very varied results. In MotoGP, there are several teams competing using bikes from the same marque. Although the factory Yamaha team uses an all-new 2019 model, other teams are free to mix and match parts across generations. Invariably, most teams end up using a very similar configuration simply because it’s tried and tested. Valentino Rossi, touted as one of the greatest riders of all time, has been vocal about just how similar the bikes are this year: “From what I know... the four bikes are very similar”, going on to elaborate that “the engine, the chassis and everything is the same” (Beer and Gruz 2019). And yet, Rossi, competing with the factory Yamaha team, is falling behind the satellite (independent) Yamaha teams. When questioned why, after a comparison with another rider, he shrugs and says “He is able to enter the corners very naturally. In that area, I don’t feel very comfortable” (Beer and Gruz 2019). Clearly, not a world that is a mere extension of Rossi’s self.

But the resistance doesn’t just end at general skill on a particular bike, it even comes down to variations on the most specific aspects of the bike’s feel. The factory MotoGP team manager, Massimo Meregalli, when asked if the bike could be improved, offers that “with the electronics we could make the power delivery smoother... in this area we have to improve”(Morrison 2019a). But Wilco Zeelenburg, manager of the satellite Yamaha team Petronas SRT, is asked why his racer, Fabio Quartararo, performs so well, Zeelenburg says Fabio does better simply because “he’s very smooth, so he suits the Yamaha” (Morrison 2019b).

Even in this new world created by a technological artefact, there is resistance. That resistance arises because of non-finality of technology; there is no one solution offered by technology because people are heterogeneous and plural, and technology is socially constructed to meet the plural needs of those people. To put it bluntly, as long as there are two people left on the planet, technology will never create a resistance free world.

Nor does it try to. I mentioned that there are multiple motorcycles offered for sale right now, and multiple offered by the same company. Technology has conditional agency–its goals are not its own, but the goals of its creators and operators. So, then, if there are multiple iterations of an artefact in concurrent use, and those artefacts only have the goals of their humans, then it stands to reason that technology does not seek to create a world free of resistance; it doesn’t aim to offer a single solution.

Conclusion

Phew, that’s a lot of motorcycles. I’ll forgive you if you’ve started to run out of fuel (pun very much intended). But what a ride it’s been (sorry); we’ve seen the motorcycle do everything from harness the natural to create the human. Importantly, the motorcycle as a technological artefact never replaced the natural world, but merely displaced it closer to the human one so we could enjoy it more. It never replaced the natural world with a human one, but merely displaced it so that the two could sit side by side. And even in that human world, the motorcycle never made a world that is a mere extension of the self–partly because it just facilitates the existing human world, which is full of resistance, and partly because in the new worlds it creates, the people making and operating motorcycles know that they could never please all the people all the time, so why bother trying to?

Of course, it could be that the motorcycle is an anomaly, and that technology broadly does try to rid the natural world. But at the very least, we have a strong counterpoint; although it may be a while before the Luddite/techno-utopian divide is bridged by post-Luddism, the beginnings of a bridge are starting to form.

References

Beer, Matt, and David Gruz. 2019. “Rossi: SRT beating works Yamahas with same bike in Jerez MotoGP.” Autosport. Autosport.net. https://www.autosport.com/motogp/news/143174/rossi-srt-beating-works-yamahas-with-same-bike.

Ducati. 2018. “Ducati Diavel 1260 - So Good to be Bad.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lZDatAzPEA.

Franzen, Jonathan. 2013. Farther Away: Essays. Picador USA.

KawasakiUSA. 2014. “Kawasaki Ninja H2R Official Action Film – ‘Built Beyond Belief’.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBL6BYP8kbA.

Morrison, Neil. 2019a. “EXCLUSIVE: Massimo Meregalli (Yamaha) - Interview.” Crash. Crash.net. https://www.crash.net/motogp/interview/914792/1/exclusive-massimo-meregalli-yamaha-interview.

———. 2019b. “Exclusive: Wilco Zeelenberg Interview.” Crash. Crash.net. https://www.crash.net/motogp/interview/922284/1/exclusive-wilco-zeelenberg-interview.

scooterfilm. 2019. “A compilation of vintage Vespa commercials.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dq3PXBCMEog.

Spain, Harley-Davidon. 2013. “Harley-Davidon Iron 883.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lExpvE2SH28.