Monday, September 28, 2009

Buy Buy Bicycle

Oh goody, I've been wanting to use this graphic for a long time. The cartoon above is from 1895 and depicts one artist's adaptation of the monopoly octopus (monoctopus?), a popular image in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most often used to criticize steel, oil, railroad, or real estate corporations for grabbing up the competition and extending their nefarious tentacles into the vaunted realm of free enterprise.

The charming fellow above, however, represents "The Latest Octopus -- The Bicycle Trust." In the mid-1890s, when bicycles were such a big deal and bicycle companies were growing so fast, there was perhaps a legitimate worry that they would become just like every other big industry, ruled by a few and crushing out free enterprise (and the interests of bicyclists, as represented by the little fellow at lower left trying his darndest to pedal away). The Bicycle Trust Octopus already has the stores, the dealers and the bicycle racing industry in its grasp(s), with "high grade wheels" positioned strategically near the banner for the races. Hm, sound familiar?

With Interbike 2009 having recently finished up its annual orgasm of shiny bicycle gew-gaws, perhaps now is an appropriate time to state simply that bicycling shouldn't be about the stuff. Sure, the bicycle itself is "stuff" manufactured by a corporation, marketed, distributed, sold for a profit. I'm under no illusions that the bicycle industry is not an industry proper; rather, I worry that whenever we allow an industry to tell us what we want, instead of figuring it out for ourselves, we run the risk, as Benjamin Barber suggests, of becoming infantilized consumers, ready to accept the next attractively-packaged shiny toy.

This year, it seems, practical bikes were all the rage, and lots of big name manufacturers are putting out "city" models with fenders, chain guards, racks, even belt drives. I think that's great because it will undoubtedly get more people riding bicycles for transportation, which ultimately is the point of the machine. I'm not worried that transportational or practical bikes are going to "lose their soul" if they're made by big corporations instead of by custom builders. But I do wonder whether a lot of people are going to buy these bikes because they're told they're supposed to (for whatever reason seems appealing at the time), and then junk them when the next trend comes along (I predict it's going to be pennyfarthings). I sure hope not, but it's happened before.

Image: Chicago Tribune, 14 December 1895