Segway or non sequitor?

By Fhar Miess
The Alarm! Newspaper Collective

In December of 2001, inventor Dean Kamen unveiled his newest development: a two-wheeled machine called the "Segway Human Transporter (HT)", which looks remarkably like a push mower, but functions as a small one-person vehicle. The machine, which comes in both consumer versions and customized versions for corporate clients, weighs some 65lb. and is able to travel up to speeds of 12.5 mph. Through some very sophisticated engineering and a parallel system of microprocessors that surpasses the computing power of many desktop personal computers, the machine is able to respond to slight tilts and shifts in weight so that it moves forward as the driver shifts forward and stops when he or she stands up straight. The Segway HT can turn on a dime by the use of simple handlebar controls.

Segway LLC (the partnership which Kamen formed to develop, produce and market his invention) boasts an executive management team with some impressive credentials. Members of the team have cut their teeth working for such heavyweight organizations as Subaru, IBM, the Rand Corporation, Johnson & Johnson Medical, Inc., Ford Motor Company, General Electric Company, The Gillette Company, Martin Marietta Data Systems and various arms of the United States Government.

Segway LLC's business savvy and its executives' years of experience in corporate culture show through. Until the personal consumer version of the Segway becomes available, the company is focusing on marketing to large corporate clients. The Segway HT's major selling point, according to its manufacturer, is that it "increases worker productivity by allowing workers to do everything more efficiently. Greater speed and capacity will enable them to carry more and cover greater distances. Machines can be outfitted with customized accessories, allowing workers to transport enough equipment to perform multiple operations and reduce the need for re-supply trips." True to standard corporate rhetoric, these machines are represented as "labor-saving devices" which are liberating to workers. The Segway HT is billed as a solution to repetitive stress and other work-related injuries, although not in order to improve health and safety for workers, but to "allow" them to remain on the job longer. The Segway HT will not "allow workers to do everything more efficiently"; it will mandate that they work more efficiently. Such technological tools do not save labor, they exploit it in order to enhance productivity.

As for the personal consumer model, Segway LLC executives remain confident that the Segway HT will fundamentally change the way people move from place to place in their personal lives, as well as at work. They likely derive this confidence from their army of lobbyists urging state and federal legislatures to revise laws prohibiting motorized vehicles from sidewalks. Many other individuals and groups, however, are not so buoyant about this eventuality. Consumer and medical groups such as the Consumer Federation of America and the American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, are pressing for greater restrictions on the speed at which these vehicles may travel and the safety gear their drivers must wear.

Others are not so circumspect. "I think the Segway is evil," says Christopher Congleton, half jokingly. Congleton is a graduate researcher at the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis. "Like any transportation tool, people don't think about anything beyond the direct experience of the technology itself—they don't consider the effects on public space from a mixed-use environment populated by Segways.” As Congleton notes, the Segway is not without its analogs in the realm of motor vehicles: “The Segway is the pedestrian SUV: although lacking the emissions and inefficiency of its larger cousin, the Segway caters to similar character traits as most SUV markets. It may encourage a new class distinction with aristocrats atop elevated roving pedestals dominating those on foot. One can imagine a sidewalk with varying densities and speeds of traffic, with the Segway marginalizing the elderly, the multimobile ["the disabled" in common parlance], children, and those who cannot—or chose not to—afford the Segway.” Referring to the possibility of road rage spilling over onto sidewalks, trails, and other mutli-use and pedestrian areas, Congelton claims, “the chance for injuries could be high, quite possibly stemming from intermodal aggression."

But, as noted by Chris Carlsson, one of the progenitors of "Critical Mass", "there's a huge market for finding ways to move people around in ways that negate their ability to propel themselves under their own power”. At first glance, one would be tempted to think that many of the wonders of modern innovation are the result of pure laziness. But, upon closer examination, it becomes abundantly clear that innovation has been driven by some very industrious individuals who are not content to allow simple laziness to determine product demand. At the same time as these individuals manipulate demand for "labor-saving devices" through cunning and aggressive marketing ploys, they operate organizations that mandate high levels of worker productivity. Laziness is not an inherent human trait; rather, it is a by-product of a sped-up workforce with little or no control over its own productive activities. After working 50, 60 or more hours per week in an environment where productivity is paramount, is it any wonder that we find it hard to derive satisfaction from such quaint activities as walking, kneading dough, growing food, or any number of other activities made obsolete and horribly “inefficient” by new-fangled techno-fixes?

For the most part, Dean Kamen has in the past stuck to medical gadgetry, his most recent invention before the Segway HT being a self-balancing machine for wheelchair users. Of Kamen’s over 150 US and foreign patents, this is his first major invention developed without regard to any discernible medical condition…or is it? Is it not possible that the Segway HT was developed for a consumer base that has been crippled in even more profound—if less obvious—ways? In Japan, they at least have a word for this condition: karoshi, which roughly translates as “death by overwork.”

It is no surprise that a group of career corporate executives such as those who populate Segway LLC should find it mutually beneficial to partner with a man most well-known for inventing high-end gadgets to facilitate the mobility of disabled people. Why should they limit themselves to the congenitally sick and the accidentally disabled when there is money to be made from those maimed—with symptoms ranging from simple laziness to diagnosable karoshi—by an economic system they have invested their entire careers into perpetuating? After having broken our legs, literally and figuratively, they are eager to find someone to develop some value-added crutches they can sell to us at a premium. As long as we fail to recognize how the crippling work habits we've inherited have been foisted upon us, we will remain perpetually frustrated by technological solutions that are in fact nothing more than disempowering half-measures by design. This inhumane feedback loop will not be interrupted by government or industry because both depend on it. It can only be interrupted by each of us as producers, consumers and living, breathing, loving human beings determined to make our destinies together on terms we've decided collectively.