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Biases in technology – The case of the bicycle

By Ooi Kee Beng [PEM August 2011 Editorial]

Most of us are prepared to accept the notion that Science is objective. The application of Science, however, is another story. Technology is driven not only by the matrix of demand and supply, it also springs from cultural biases.

Once a new technology has rooted itself, society cannot help but be formed by it. Man may have constructed Machine, but once it’s there, it is Machine to makes Man. Information and Communication Technologies are a case in point. We cannot now imagine social life without them. The automobile is another example of a technology that has shaped our world beyond recognition.

But when immersed in the world it created, we find it hard to identify its culturally contingent nature. What we can do is, take a closer look at some popular invention whose impact on daily life has diminished—the bicycle. I remember living in Beijing in the late 1980s, when the self-propelled vehicle was king. It decided the slow pace of life; its accidents were seldom serious; it allowed one to enjoy – or be annoyed at – cyclists pedalling by shouting archaic revolutionary songs at the top of their rough voices; and there was no competition over who had the fastest or most expensive model.

Those were the social conditions when the bicycle was the vehicle of mass transportation. The choice of technology does decide how we experience life in general, and how we relate to others.

In little Penang, where the car is king, there is no reason why we cannot encourage the return of the bicycle, and enjoy its social fruits. All we need are low-tech innovations such as safe cycle paths and lots of shady trees. What a life-style revolution that would bring, and what a green reputation that would give the state.

Interestingly, the bicycle actually hastened the emancipation of women in the West by giving the fairer sex a mobility that was not possible before the vehicle appeared. It freed women from cumbersome corsets and long skirts, and clothed them in more rational attire. As I said, technology is never culturally neutral.

To conclude, there are at least two features in bicycle designs that are worth mentioning, and which reveal hidden biases. First, so-called male bicycles have a high cross-bar between seat and steer, and female bicycles have one that is placed as low as possible. Apparently, that difference is to allow dainty women to mount the bicycle in a decent manner. But as any man who has had to break hastily and drop from his seat will tell you, a so-called female bicycle is to be preferred, infinitely.

Second, the right-hand break is for the front wheel and the left-hand one is for the back. This favours right-handed persons who can thus break their back wheel intuitively, which is the safe thing to do. Left-handed persons risk flying over the handle bars since they are bound to break their front wheel first, thanks to the biased design.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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