Writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne lived through the first blasts of the industrial revolution and imagined the future based on what they perceived as a quickening of technological progress. Wells and Verne communicated through the written word, pen on paper, just as I did when I was kid. The IBM Selectric is what passed for technology then. In the space of three decades, fax became e-mail, wires became WiFi. I can post the printed word to a world wide network that didn’t exist then, from a device I couldn’t have conceived of, typed on a bare piece of glass, with my thumbs.
Ray Kurzweil wrote “Over time, the “order” of the information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival) increases.”
This is a melodramatic way of inching up to the issue of cycling technology. By comparison to computer science, there is almost no one working on the bicycle, and yet season-on-season we march forward. Cassettes widen. Gears shift more smoothly, more accurately. Brakes get more powerful and modulate better. Everything gets lighter.
On the face of it, progress is good. None of this means we enjoy riding our bikes any more than riders of the last century did. The root level joy of riding a bike doesn’t correlate to unsolved engineering problems. Independence, speed and escape never get more or less valuable.
It’s not the fact of progress that is good or bad, but rather the manner of it. Half-baked solutions get recalled. Proprietary systems, special brakes, new dropouts, hubs, bottom brackets, might all solve some basic challenge or attempt to improve on the current standard, but when they aren’t backwards compatible they make spare parts back-stocks obsolete or trap a rider in a proprietary system.
My sense is that too often companies want to release products before they’re ready. Lazy engineering closes off evolutionary branches with closed standards, owned by their originators. Is this what comes of too much market share consolidated in the hands of too few? My own ethos is one of collective progress. How do new solutions carry forward past achievements? If we took a little more time to market, could we render everything that’s old, new again? Probably not, but the current trend of instant obsolescence (e.g. chainstay Di2 batteries) doesn’t take the bike in any direction I like.
What do you think? This week’s Group Ride asks, is cycling technology headed in the right direction? How do you feel about proprietary standards? Are bikes legitimately getting better, or just getting different?
Image: 1866 Boneshaker