He takes in another lungful of processed air and lazily drags a laser beam across the flat surface upon which his elbows rest. Tiny muscular actions from his right forefinger are translated onto electronic pulses, retransmitted into radio waves, decoded and sucked into a labyrinth of digital circuits before emerging onto a reactive visual surface that relay his commands to another human on another continent. Their work begins as his ends. He shuts down his electronic space, sucks in some more water cooled air and for the first time in many hours uses muscles to raise his frame from its fully adjustable cradle. Now he must go home. But altitude and distance separate him from his abode and both must be conquered.
He tackles altitude first, some two hundred feet that separate him from the subterranean lair of his abode seeking machine. To the right a vertical passage leads its way down with concrete formations placed at regular intervals preventing the occupant from entering freefall. However, our subject turns left and waves a plastic card at a sensor to usher a glass door aside. He takes four more steps into a corridor where others wait in anticipation. A dull whirring in the wall ends with a “ping” and two metal doors slid open revealing a mirrored cubicle semi-occupied with humans tactically trying to avoid each other’s gaze. Two more steps and he joins the party and one minute later his descent is complete. The doors part to reveal the machines, neaty grouped between concrete columns silently awaiting the orders of their masters.
He reaches into a trouser pocket for the command module. An effortless click awakens his machine which greets him with two flashes of its yellow eyes and a cricket like chirp. The command module allows him entry to the machine and he lowers himself into a nest of technology carefully assembled to comfort and safety of those who travel within. A single press breathes fire into its transit mechanics, another boots entertainment systems whilst four more lock on to satellite networks and plan his route home. The machine is there to make it easy for him, light presses of fingers and feet power it forward and guide it from the labyrinth into the outside world. He retrieves another device from his trousers and more fingerwork results in a message relayed through the air above him to his wife informing her that his journey has begun and she may begin proceedings to receive him at home.
On the street he encounters more machines and more technology designed to ease him safely home. Lights advise him to pause whilst other machines cross in front of him. Other machines wink at him to telegraph their intentions whilst digital panels warn of potential obstructions ahead and advise of appropriate action to take.
He remains surrounded by familiarity and comfort. Encased in technology with the sole purpose of easing his navigation through life. Every opportunity has been taken to remove physical burden from his existence. In other lands other men know only suffering, their days are bent and broken by the physical demands of simply staying alive. Our man knows not of these lands. This is his choice and he’s issued electronic orders to his portable and desk based communication systems to only deliver him the news he wants. Another modern device used to protect, comfort and cushion.
The machines are all working and his progress is now smooth. Powerful lights cut through the darkness surrounding him and he relaxes into the ebb and flow of the other machines seeking their way back to abodes. Then he encounters one upon a different machine.
The other man took another path. Not through necessity but through will. He’d always known of the machines and many years previously had surrendered to them in a similar fashion. Yet sat inside them he’d felt unfulfilled. Something was missing? Sights blocked by their rapid transit across the earth. Sounds negated by the explosions emanating from their bowels. Smells covered up by chemical sprays and ejected by conditioning systems and the sheer physical experience of making one’s own way across the world. He found another machine that delivered experience rather than stole from it. This machine came with a catch, it had no engine, he’d have to power it. And so he did every day on his way home from work.
His machine was propelled at a speed of 16 units along a section of the land that had been set aside for machines in transit. This section had been surfaced to ease the progress of the machines and marked to guide them safely along it. The people had decided that this section should be limited and regular signage advised that 40 units was the maximum allowed. 40 self propelled units were out of the question for the engineless man, however, those with power were capable of many more. And convention forced each to attain and maintain the maximum wherever possible.
He stares forward into the slim tunnel of light created by his own power via energy transfer from rotation to photons. And then he hears the noise and his shoulders begin to tense. It’s a low pitched rumbling comprised of air being pushed roughly aside mixed with the impact of a thousand rubber hammers hitting an unyielding tarmac surface. The noise intensifies as his tunnel of light is augmented by that of the approaching machine and it’s now that he feels the anticipation that plagues each traveller upon a human powered machine.
“Will this be the one? Will this be the one? Is it going to hit me? Is it going to pass me? Is it going to be close?”
Bright lights ahead compound the stress and increase the maelstrom of noise that surrounds him. He grips his machine with new intensity, resigned to the answering of his question, the outcome of which he has little control.
The question is answered. It’s going to be close.
The powered machine sweeps by leaving a gap of half a metre. To the resident of the powered machine this feels safe. His systems register no change as he passes, his travelling line is entirely unaffected by the unpowered object and his visual and audible inputs remain undisturbed. Most importantly his forward progress has been unempeeded and he has been able to uphold convention. 40 was reached and 40 was maintained.
Our self powered traveller had an entirely different experience. The powered machine pushed aside a volume of air into his path that messed with his forward trajectory and sensory systems. His ears were filled with this rushing air, his eyes confused by the melding of light in front of him and his nervous system pushed into overdrive by the proximity of such huge momentum. He was momentarily encased in a cloud of fumes expelled from the rear of the machine. Sight, smell, taste and sound all disturbed by this close proximity. Touch the only sense allowed respite for them encounter.
He raised an arm in weak protest which went unseen. The occupant of the faster machine had no compulsion to look back at the obstruction he had successfully negotiated. He continued with his forward focus using miniscule muscular efforts to direct his machine onwards.
The protesting arm dropped and its owner thought to himself “Why?”.
“Why did he have to do that? Why did he pass me so close? Why couldn’t he have waited a few seconds more and given me a wider berth?”
“Does he not realise the fear? Does he not understand the consequence of us coming more than close?
“Why why why why f**king well why?”
- an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.
That all sounds desperately dystopian doesn’t it? A place where one man can improve the life of another by a short pause, a brief press of a left foot, a raising of a right foot and a small drag upon a steering device. A lack of recognition that within their shared environment he has the superior technology, superior comfort and superior protection. Yet he decides to act selfishly in order to speed his forward progress and be fed some thirty seconds earlier.
But it isn’t dystopian. It happens to me every week. It’s real and I’m the man on the unpowered machine. The technology is real as well and my nemesis is not always a man. But it is always an occupant of a powered machine who faced with the choice of giving me space or powering through chooses the later. And I continuously ask myself “Why?”
Last week I manufactured my own theory. These can’t all be bad people, surely they don’t spend their lives outside of the machines pissing on the chips of others. I bet some of them give change to the homeless, give up their seats to old ladies or dress up as fruit for Children in Need. At these points they see themselves as human and empathise with the plight of humans around them. Why don’t they empathise with me? Do they not see me as a human?
And that was it.
I’m not human to these drivers. I’m “cyclist” or more pertinently “obstruction”. The do not see a mass of muscle, flesh and blood fighting its way home they see something getting in the way. Something that has no right to be there that should be removed. Something not worthy of due care or consideration.
So I decided to try and change their view in the only way I could within this environment. I labelled myself human. I took my large courier bag and defaced it with reflective strips spelling out “H U M A N” in large capitals. Hopefully this would elicit some change in behaviour, grab a little bit of attention and possibly cause some pause for thought.
I’ve cycled my HUMAN bag for a couple of weeks now and the results are looking positive. Of course this will be my epitaph ..but riding with my HUMAN bag has reduced the count of close passes. This has been especially effective out of town where drivers have a few moments longer to read my words and react accordingly. It definitely has had some effect. The fact that it has is dystopian in its own right. Why the hell do I have to label myself human in the first place? Why do we need constant reflective reminders that we should be avoided rather than hit? Why is it so hard to make a few simple muscular adjustments that allow your vehicle to pass me without causing stress.
Why can’t I just be human without having to tell you what I am?