Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Two-Wheeled Singularity

Readers to this blog know that from time to time I mention the Singularity, which, if science (and science fiction) writers are correct, will descend upon humankind sometime around 2045.  It’s the moment when machines will finally be smart enough to build even smarter versions of themselves, and build themselves into us, in ways that are so complex that no human intervention is, or possibly could be, required.

Nobody quite knows what the Singularity will look like--we have a fancy term for that kind of befuddlement called an “event horizon”--or how fast it will go, or if it means good things or bad for the human race.  (The first Singularity was the move from hunting to farming, the second the Industrial Revolution. That's two wins. Feels like we might be due for a loss.) Becoming one with machines frankly doesn’t sound like that much fun; it’s a kind of evolution, but one that Charles Darwin didn’t cover in his last chapter.

Needless to say, I was interested to learn that there was something akin to the Singularity that occurred in the United States in the 1890s.  First introduced to Americans at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the bicycle had by 1895 become a national mania all its own with bike clubs and weekend rambles convening from sea to shining sea.

We know a little bit about manias--what happened to genealogy after Roots, martial arts after Karate Kid, golf after Tiger Woods 1.0.  In fact, by the mid-1890s Americans had suffered through the first mania for golf and another for tennis shortly before the bicycle arrived on the scene.

By the 1890s, bicycle sales in the United States reached $100M annually, a most healthy industry for the times.  Everyone was riding.



In 1898, scientist and inventor William John McGee wrote about the bicycle in classic American terms; it “first aroused invention, next stimulated commerce, and then developed individuality, judgment, and prompt decision on the part of the users more rapidly and completely than any other device.”  It was not simply a hobby, McGee believed, but a technology that informed and uplifted in a uniquely American way.


My great-grandmother, Alice Conant, heading out in
style.  Note the smokestacks of the Gilded Age behind her.
Alice was born in 1870 and I won't even try to guess her
age in this picture except to say it's "circa close."
“For although,” he continued cheerily, “association with machines of all kind. . .develops character, the bicycle is the easy leader of other machines in shaping the mind of its rider, and transforming itself and its rider into a single thing.”  

Come again?  Machines develop character? The bicycle is shaping the mind of its rider, transforming the bike and rider into a single thing?  Isn’t that what happens in the Singularity, when human and machine become one?

Of course, we laugh.  How quaint.  But remember the first time you rode a bike, probably as a child?  It was an incredibly empowering experience, one step short of flying.  Imagine a nation of 60 million people being exposed to that phenomenon, nearly simultaneously.

It would have been nothing short of mystical, just as future generations will (laugh at us and) try to understand our reaction to the iPhone, which not so long ago was referred to by some as the “Jesus Phone.”  In other words, maybe we’re no less immune to mystical experiences with our technology now than we were in 1895.


The last time I felt like I was truly one with a machine--and the machine was in control--was when I was speeding down a very steep, ice-covered hill on one of those crazy flying saucers. People were shouting, "Steer by leaning! Steer by leaning!"


Right.



Anyway, that was my last brush with the Singularity, and, while it didn’t put me in the hospital,  it didn’t make me very happy, either.  Moreover, I have a wee bit of anxiety that when the real Singularity arrives and a Google goggle sprouts spontaneously from my cornea, the good folks in Silicon Valley are going to advise that my best option is to “Steer by leaning.”

What the Bicycle Did


Not only did the bicycle take our great-grandparents on a mystical adventure, but it did a couple of other important things for the country.  Bicycle ads were the first, for example, where women were depicted outside the home in non-domestic settings.   The bicycle club--like today’s Starbucks in certain countries--was a safe and acceptable place for members of the opposite sex to associate.


Riding a bike in a skirt?  But then
I remembered, when I was in
high school, the girls' basketball
team still wore skirts.  Fortunately,
we evolve.
 The bicycle was also an important family member of the primary mechanic trades, which descended from firearms to sewing machines to bicycles to the automobile.  Many talented mechanics participated in two or three of those trades during their lifetimes, shepherding knowledge across the decades and industries.  In American Tool Making and Interchangeable Manufacturing, Joseph Woodworth argues that the manufacture of the bicycle highlighted the capabilities of the American mechanic like nothing else—”in the design and manufacture of special machinery, tools, fixtures, and the installation of the interchangeable system of manufacturing in a thousand and one shops, once thought to be impractical.”  

Indeed, bicycle manufacture helped to develop sheet metal stamping and electric resistance welding techniques that Henry Ford would credit as important contributors to his assembly line.
.
On top of it all, the bicycle boom of the 1890s helped the nation weather the depression of 1893.


Pretty impressive, the America bicycle.  Of course, if you want to experience that same sense of two-wheeled Singularity now you have to cough up $5K for a titanium frame and wear a get-up that would fit well at auditions of the Big Apple Circus.  And then you can ride 35 sweaty miles on a Sunday morning with a dozen others from your local cycling club, show up at my local breakfast diner, take over all the tables so real customers can’t be served, stink up the place with your sweat and banana pancakes while you pour on the fake syrup and sneak outside for cigarettes and pretend you’re actually being healthy by cycling and then leave crummy tips for the wait-staff and the seat of every chair sticky from syrup and damp from your derrieres.



Oops. . . 


Didn’t mean for that to all come out, my serious cycling friends.  


But I must say, given the current version of the two-wheeled Singularity, a Google goggle in the cornea suddenly doesn’t seem so awfully bad.