As touring cyclists, the bicycle is undoubtedly central to the experience. The technology of the bicycle becomes our predominant method of transport. However, even with slightly more than a week of road under us, we have naturally begun to see it as more than just that. It’s almost silly how we give a steel frame and two wheels that much emotional investment. We call them names: Trudy, Martha, Gio, and (tentatively) Walla Walla. Those with new bikes worry about scratches, dings, dents and persistent KTM (Malaysian railway company) stickers. Anshuman even has his own ritual of elaborate bicycle maintenance that he religiously follows to keep Gio well-oiled and happy. For most of us, the bike goes beyond merely getting us from point A to point B. When we lock and chain them up at night, we do so not only because we fear losing our means of transport – but also because the bike holds sentimental and emotional value in its connotations of home.
While highly idiosyncratic and personal, these notions on our part may guide us towards a deeper understanding of man’s conception and relationship with technology. In some way, our concept of the bicycle has broadened beyond the utilitarian appreciation of its uses. Perhaps technology cannot exist in isolation – but must be assessed from its dynamic and relationship with its users, and its resultant effects. Arnold Pacey’s triangle of technology practice is a framework which may be helpful in helping us understand this phenomenon. Ultimately, Pacey believes that a technology never ever stays as merely that; the effect of man’s changing relationship with any technology has effects which ripple out through time, geographies and cultures. In response, Pacey invites us to look beyond the ‘restricted meaning of technology’ to notice the inevitable cultural and organisational aspects of technology, in the triangle of ‘technology-practice’
We’ll use the bike as an example to try to grasp this ‘general meaning of technology’.
Includes the technicalities of how the gears interact with the chain, crankset and casette to produce multiple speeds, how the inner tubes need to be of a certain PSI in order to perform optimally, how the braking different braking systems utilise (V-brakes, cantilever brakes etc.) different mechanisms in order to be effective
How the bike may develop as a status symbol which functions as a signifier of wealth, sophistication or privilege (those snazzy sport bikes?); how the bike may be used as a symbol or a carrier of deeper and less obvious ethical codes or values etc. (the green travel movement heralded by the return of the bicycle?); how the bike may enable a new and different kind of cultural movement, lifestyle or aesthetic (the huge impact of the bicycle in cities like Hanoi or Beijing?)
How the bike inadvertently or perhaps intentionally includes or excludes different social subgroups; how the use of the bike organises whole industries, employment options, economic prospects (what about the global movement of bicycle production from all over the world to predominantly China? How does that affect these countries?); how the bike enables or discourages certain forms of economic activity etc.
While we will undoubtedly learn much about the technological aspect of the bicycle on this trip – whether from bicycle maintenance 101, patching and replacing tubes, or from hunting down obsolete bike parts in Thailand – I believe that the real story lies beyond that first cursory look. We hope to glean more of the bike’s cultural and organisational aspects through photos and stories of the bikes we see along the way. We aspire to tell the compelling story of the technology-practice of the bicycle throughout Southeast Asia, and in so doing, hopefully uncover the bigger story of its peoples and its places.