People are constrained by their imaginations.
I’ve begun to question whether really new and radical ideas are ever likely to catch on anymore, simply because people have a fixed idea of what something ‘should be’, rather than judging the individual merits of the actual invention. When a technology is really disruptive, or requires new infrastructure and behaviour, it can take forever to (or never) catch on. Ultimately this will affect our future.
We can design and 'technologise' our way out of a million and one problems, but attitudes must change or inventions will simply go to the dogs. I think that’s why Segways don't (won't) work in the UK - the Government epitomized this lack of foresight and imagination earlier this year when it used the Highways act of 1835 to effectively ban this transportation device which was invented at the turn of the millennium. (And yes, as you may point out – there were very few cars around in 1835 to say the least…you should see what the Highways act had to say about them)
Segways are lovely, fun things to be on and technologically they're incredible. It’s easy to knock them, but when people actually try them out, they have a habit of becoming instant converts. The problem is that, like Will Self in last Sunday’s Independent, most people don't see how it would be a step forward to replace a bike with a Segway. In some respects it wouldn’t, but that misses the point, that if we’re going to remain mobile in the future, we need to start experimenting with devices like the Segway, as a possible solution to the problem of cars in cities.
Many inventions, including quite possibly the Segway, will fall by the wayside whilst we do this, but why does that mean we should give up and accept what we have at present? Imagine if we’d crushed the optimism that led to the development of a plane like Concorde, simply because it was a bit different to the type of planes flying around in the 1960s.
In the context of the city, the Segway has not been the success its inventors had hoped for because it offers the sort of experience mainly wanted by the people who’ve already left their cars behind – people who already ride bikes. That people in cars not only carry ‘stuff’ – difficult on a Segway - but more fundamentally, are in a car precisely because they want to avoid the experiences a Segway offers – proves the device’s undoing.
Sociability, openness, and the opportunity for interaction with others, in a liberal, utopian sense is not really what cars are about. Yet no designer of ‘alternative transportation’ seems to have grasped that people buy cars because they want to be enclosed, cocooned, cut-off. A car is utterly antisocial on one level. It's exclusive. Driving a car, you're a member of a special, successful club. What is often credited as Margaret Thatcher’s quotation about this clearly still rings true:
“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”
(I have one year left until I'm deemed a failure…)
The other oft-missed point is that people very rarely buy cars for practical reasons. Fundamentally, they buy what they want – it’s an emotive, not a rational process, buying a car. Which all suggests that the current generation of car driver is unlikely to ever ‘get’ a device like the Segway. They don’t want one because they see it as pointless, and until designers start developing solutions to the problems of mobility that people actually 'want', this situation is unlikely to change.
Imagination - designers, the public, politicians - we could all do with being a little more open minded.
Posted on 28th November 2006 by Joseph Simpson