Cultural Lag

Robert Oppenheimer, pictured above, was a brilliant scientist with a specialization in nuclear reactions. He led the team that developed the first atomic bomb for use by the US military in WWII. More than 75 years have passed since Oppenheimer’s work killed something like 400,000 people, and people are still arguing whether what transpired on the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a necessary part of ending the war or a gross abuse of power on a scale that humanity simply didn’t possess up to that point.

Oppenheimer came to see that he’d participated in a grave evil, that his work had been used for a purpose well beyond his moral comfort, that he’d been blinded by his passion for the science and his naive belief in the goodness of other people. He spent the following decades putting himself in political peril (including having his security clearance revoked) as an advocate against nuclear proliferation.

As one of the smartest guys in any room, you might have thought Oppenheimer could see where his research was headed, but he didn’t.

This is a classic and dramatic cultural lag, the delay between new technology being introduced and the prevailing culture developing a mature ethical attitude towards it. In this gap, all sorts of problems become evident. As a bike guy, I’d argue that we are still living in the cultural lag between the invention of the internal combustion engine and a well-developed sense of its proper application. Global warming would be one of the consequences of our short-sightedness on that one.

As an example in the cycling world, there is carbon fiber. Once we learned that it could be lighter and stiffer than the metals we’d been using, we stopped thinking too much about its toxic manufacturing process or where it would end up if it broke or we were done with it. I don’t think there are too many carbon TT bike frames in the great Pacific trash gyre, but it’s true that disposing of carbon fiber is more nettlesome than the oxidization processes that liquidate old metal frames and components.

This is not me throwing stones. I own plenty of carbon fiber. I own an eBike.

eBikes are also currently proliferating inside a cultural lag. Where should eBikes be ridden? What is the right top-speed for an eBike in rush hour traffic? In congested urban areas? What trails should eMTBs have access to? What infrastructure is necessary to support eBike safety over and above the structure currently in progress for pedal-only bikes?

What we know is that eBikes are a faster, easier way to get around than their non-motorized siblings. Once batteries reached a certain capacity at a certain size, we unleashed the hounds, leaving all the questions in that last paragraph to be sorted later and ad hoc. We know, from <ahem> previous mistakes that this is not the way to go about things, but there are two particular glitches in the human psyche that doom us to repeat ourselves ad nauseam. The first is a preternatural prejudice towards reaping rewards in the present as evidenced by the Stanford Marshmallow Test. The second is an inability to foster collective responsibility in any scenario where benefits accrue to some powerful subgroup.

If all this sounds doom-and-gloom, I’m sorry, but I have some good news. As cyclists we live ahead of this curve. We are already in the breakaway, if you will, and we can make smarter choices, set better examples, and reduce the lag that will certainly arrive when a million cheaply made eBike batteries head for landfills or fights begin to erupt over trail access for motorized riders. The answers to these questions are seldom easy to find, but if we’re thinking about them now, we reduce the time it takes to find the right path forward.

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