Since earliest recorded times, humans have been known to make tools to interact with the environment. Tools constitute technology, and today technology constitutes the society. Technical devices have come to engender ways of ‘knowing’ the world and play a key role in embedding cultural practices, as much as shaping them simultaneously. So, the instrumentality of a ‘tool’ has long extended itself into an extension of one’s ‘being’. Political theorist Langdon Winner offers a profound yet simple example by imagining a scene of two people traveling down a street in the same direction. One of them, however, is walking down the road, while the other is a car. The ‘world’ offered to both them radically changes by virtue of a technological device possessed by one of them. While the pedestrian is slower, s/he has the flexibility to gaze at windows of different shops, stop for a small chat and so on. On the other hand, the motorist is faster given that s/he can avoid ‘obstacles’ on the road and focus on the road ahead. Things that invite a pedestrian’s attention turn into distractions for the motorist.
In the words of Winner, “Individual habits, perceptions, concepts of self, ideas of space and time, social relationships, and moral and political boundaries have all been powerfully restructured in the course of modern technological development. What is fascinating about this process is that societies involved in it have quickly altered some of the fundamental terms of human life without appearing to do so. Vast transformations in the structure of our common world have been undertaken with little attention to what those alterations mean.”
As an enthusiastic cyclist, the clash of ‘worlds’ on the perennially busy roads of Mumbai take a very literal turn. The effort put in climbing an uphill contour can’t be felt by a motorist who are literally transported in vehicles rather than using it. They can also be blissfully unaware of most topographical nightmares provided by badly maintained roads, as well as other sights and smells that any urban place is endowed with (Mumbai is especially rich in the latter). As a technology, the automobile, and the velocipede perhaps occupies opposite ends of a spectrum in terms of involvement and agency. As poet Christopher Morley writes, “In a car, you are carried; on a bike you go.” Many car enthusiasts describe a feeling of exhilaration while driving at top speeds across highways, but it seems to me the feeling can hardly be embodied in the way a cyclist feels the wind resisting the raw force pedaled into action by every muscle in the body. The speed achieved on a cycle does not rob one of the time needed to immerse oneself in the changing landscape. A cycle rides only as fast as it is pedaled, barring the downward slopes for occasional fits of giddy excitement. Even then, a balance ensues when one has to wrestle the way up again. Indeed a cyclical harmony. How can any car provide a similar sense of agency, when it uses what never belonged to us in the form of fuel, gas or electricity? It is energy devoid of feeling, and can thus only perpetuate movement without purpose. This is not to insult motorists, but to invite imagining the structure of a society in physical, and cultural dimensions if cycling were the predominant means of transport. Sue Macy describes how cycles became tools for the emancipation of women in the 19th century. Perhaps, now we need to be freed from the Faustian bargain made with automobiles and reclaim our bodies once more.