In this technology-driven world, how do we humans interact with the machines around us? In my mind, there are at least two categories: (1) letting the machine control you, (2) you controlling the machine.
One of the biggest differences in my mind about my car vs. my bicycle, is that it’s not so easy to change parts around in my car. Sure, I can look under the hood, check the oil levels and if I tried really hard, perhaps I could change a few easy parts: a wind-shield wiper or something. It would be a lot harder to swap out the seats, carpet or any machinery inside.
On a broader level, I’m not even sure how it really works. It wasn’t until I was really studying bicycle gearing that I started to understand how a stick shift car operates. It’s easier of course, to see what’s going on with your bike as there’s no hood to take off. As I’m biking, I can look down and see what front chain-ring I’m in.
All of our slick hardware these days – this MacBook Air, an iPhone, a Garmin, Jawbone, iPod, microwaves even – all lock us out of any inside components. Somewhere in between the low price of gadgets, the high turnover of our manufactured obsolescence and attention spans and yearly product cycles, we let ourselves get locked out of any way of controlling the machine. We can’t see inside of it to see how it’s working. On our favorite, beloved Apple products, we can’t even replace the battery.
Sure, you can download apps to your iPhone or laptop, try to get a mechanic to fix a microwave, but you still can’t add new tasks, change their functions. We are stuck. Controlled by the machine. Once it’s broken, we are doomed.
The cycle just goes: Purchase, use, buy more accessories for it, re-charge, use until the battery dies (or you buy another one), throw away the product and said accessories, repeat.
Learning bicycle mechanics and more recently, programming, has put me out of that boring cycle. I’ve put my 1993 swap meet Bridgestone XO-3 through at least five iterations now with narrower up-right handlebars, platform pedals, wider tires, new rack and panniers. I experimented with what saddle and handlebar height I liked better, what handlebar tape I preferred, which location for the brake levers were best for city riding.
After many experiments and parts swapped, the bike fits on me better and is more like a natural extension of my limbs. I’m a rolling, two-wheeled machine.
Every time I change out parts, your body will notice how it has to change its actions to better fit the bike. I don’t have to brake as early or as hard, not that my levers are right by my hands. I’ve aligned the derailleur so many times, I know exactly how many gears I have and where I need to set the shifter to get it there. The bike does not control me; I control, shift, twist and change it to my needs. I don’t have to look down at my gears — I can feel where it is. If there’s ever a derailleur hangup, I can hear it and usually, fix it with my hands. As long as I keep the chain lubed and tires pumped, my body can move over 15 miles per hour, no sweat.
“And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” — Steve Jobs, 1990
But have you ever watched someone bike up a hill in his largest (hardest) gear? It’s painful to watch. He might not understand why he’s in a gear that’s too hard to pedal, and might not make it up at all. You cannot let the bike control you.
To me, this is the key between merely consuming the machine and controlling it.
If a bicycle is a computer for our minds, we must learn how the machine talks, listens and understands the commands we give it.We have to learn how to get it into the right gear to go up hills or down. Fix flats and bugs. Keep the chain and battery in top shape.
This is what is missing from our education today. When I hear a school district is buying everyone laptops, iPads, the new technological phenomenon the skeptic in me thinks about how we’re just teaching our children to follow the corporation and consume, consume, consume. Buy more apps. Nag our parents to buy more TV shows or games. Yet we aren’t teaching the most crucial thing: how to make apps and games, how to open up the iPad and learn to speak its language and make the iPad to things for us.
In my 6th grade driver’s ed, I learned how to drive and how to consume more gas. I didn’t learn how to fix flats or even really how cars worked. Looks like our schools may be headed towards teaching how to buy apps, change your typeface on your PowerPoint, take photos with PhotoBooth and Instagram — but will they teach how to make apps and talk to the machine?