What does a technosocial assemblage look like?

Well, it looks like this.

With its upright riding posture, eminently practical design and robustness of construction, the archetypal Amsterdam bike is an unremarked-upon everyday object of considerable beauty. More or less as soon as I touched down here, I conceived the idea of picking up a pair – one each for Nurri and myself – and having them shipped back to New York for us to ride there.

There’s a problem with this line of thinking, though, and it swiftly made itself obvious: there’s a profound relationship between everything that makes the bike experience here so wonderfully practical – the riding posture, the ability to ride while dressed in ordinary street clothes, the lack of a need to wear a helmet – and the entire public infrastructure of bikeways that supports this mode of use. Still more important is the extended context of social practices and agreements that enfolds rider, bicycle and path. The individual machine, separated from this culture medium, is just a fetish object (albeit an unusually comfortable one).

None of this quite means that I’ve given up on the idea of shipping some bikes home. They’re still pretty rad, and New York is flat enough for them to make sense as conveyance. But my enthusiasm is clearly for the place of the bicycle in Dutch society, every bit as much as it is for the object itself. The one, as beautiful as it is – and as infinitely easier to transplant – cannot substitute for the other.

14 responses to “What does a technosocial assemblage look like?”

  1. Neil Straghalis says :

    I had the exact same response when I was in Amsterdam for the first time earlier in the summer. To spend a day riding around the city is to fall in love with the completeness of it all; as you mention here the combination of the machine, the activity and the society surrounding it all come together in such a satisfying whole.

    Of course, in my hometown of San Francisco, the bikes themselves are wildly impractical, and I even live in the flatter part of town…

  2. Christopher Fahey says :

    Ha, I can see my old house in that photo! De Waag was basically a heroin den in 1992, but I know it’s all chi chi now. Same transformation as NYC’s Tompkins Square.

    In Amsterdam, I once saw a mother with three children riding by in a single bike: one in a handlebar seat, one in a back seat, and a third in a trailing caboose seat. Four humans, one bike. Just like an American family in an SUV. Elegant, but as you say, unthinkable without the larger cultural and infrastructural adaptations that enable this sort of thing to occur without resulting in hundreds of deaths.

    Ironically, although Berlin is a far more bike-friendly city than NYC, you do not see A’dam style bikes there much. Lots of mountain bikes and expensive road bikes, just like NYC, only much more expensive, usually.

    BTW, there are some great American manufacturers who make Amsterdam-style bikes, complete with built-in locks, sealed chains, upright posture, skirt/pants guards, etc. Here’s a lovely one from Electra:


  3. David Sleight says :

    This would rock, but you’re right–the implicit social compact that makes it tenable is practically non-existent in the States. All I have to do is summon the memory of nearly being run down by a 2-ton deathmobile on a luxuriously wide country shoulder somewhere in upstate New York to remind me of that fact.

  4. Jon Tan says :

    “Still more important is the extended context of social practices and agreements that enfolds rider, bicycle and path.”

    Hi Adam, I agree. I can’t help but think that bikes like those, and the beautiful Electra linked to by Christopher, create a different attitude in the rider. Changes in infrastructure and better tolerance could be facilitated by a more easy going attitude in urban riders. It’s chicken and egg though, the latter could be said to be caused by failings in the former.

    Over here, Bristol’s hilly old narrow streets demand more gentility from riders, right up until the point they bunny-hop their Cannondale F900 onto the pavement, irritate car drivers, endanger pedestrians and make me cringe as I ride by.

  5. Vidiot says :

    David Byrne:

    I realized that the helmet might be an interim thing. Although they might always be a good idea, the wearing of helmets implies that cycling is dangerous — which is often is in cities like NY and London. In other cities — Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin and Reggio Emilio — the bike paths and lanes are secure, so the riders don’t fell the need to protect themselves. They tend to ride upright, erect and appear elegant, well dressed and sexy. When a car would no more violate a bike lane than drive up on the sidewalk, and where even pedestrians stay out of the bike lanes, then the danger aspect goes away. Maybe some thrills do too. But that might be the price to pay. Living in NY used to be a lot more dangerous in general, but that’s hardly something to get all nostalgic about. So, while we might need a cool stylish helmet for all to be available now, in a more perfect world it will be optional.

  6. Abe Burmeister says :

    Sadik-Khan is a step ahead of you Adam:


    The funny thing is a lot of cyclists I’ve chatted with don’t really like this approach. It’s kind of a philosophical divide, there is an aggressive freedom in the lean forward and pedal fast NYC biking style that is threatened by the peaceful sensibility of the Amsterdam upright approach. There is no question the Amsterdam approach is better for the world, but man, it’s just not as fun is it?

  7. speedbird says :

    You know as well as anyone, I guess, just how addicted I’ve been to the kinesics of messenger-style engagement with the terrain. But consider (a) that just having the option to ease back is nice; (b) that I’m sure there’s a broader swath of folks in the general population who are scared shitless to ride in traffic; and (c) that not a one of us is getting any younger.

    This is one of those cases where preserving the real pleasures of full-on street riding for a relative few has to be trumped by the potential upside of a much larger percentage of people comfortable with getting around town on two wheels.

    Mind you, I think it’s a little bit of a false dichotomy you’re drawing. The city’s got enough room for both approaches. (“Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”) And finally and sadly, a moot one, since I don’t in my heart of hearts believe that anything short of oil at $150/bbl will get the majority of New Yorkers onto bikes.

  8. Christopher Fahey says :

    I will end up with an Amsterdam-style bike when NYC’s crime is so low, and when I am so rich, that I can lock it up outside in my crime-free prosperous neighborhood. Or when I am rich enough to have a street-level carriage house I can roll the bike right into. Until then, the only way I will end up with one of these is when I move to Amsterdam for good. Which isn’t out of the question.

  9. speedbird says :

    I will end up with an Amsterdam-style bike when NYC’s crime is so low, and when I am so rich, that I can lock it up outside in my crime-free prosperous neighborhood. Or when I am rich enough to have a street-level carriage house I can roll the bike right into.

    Both good! The important thing is, you’ll be riding one of these.

  10. Joe Lamantia says :

    Adam –

    I’m with you on the tremendous beauty (and in many ways the outright superiority) of the Dutch integration of bicycle riding into the daily fabric of life on every level. It’s in no small part due to this way of life that I persist in riding my bicycle to work here in NYC, despite the many ‘challenges’ that require overcoming in order to do so.

    But something about this post and the ensuing comments gives me an itch that needs to be scratched. After a re-read, I think I’ve realized that it’s the framework used to approach and drive the whole discussion: yes, indeed, the subject at hand is a technosocial assemblage, and describing it as such is *technically* accurate.

    But doing so stops short of recognizing and embracing the depth and richness of the cultural context and view of life that makes the creation of this sort of wonderful system (and it’s various ‘components’ – the bikes, the signal systems, the legal codes, the learned behaviors, the physical infrastructure of roads, the provision of storage and other locations in settings for living / working / public space) socially and politically possible in the first place.

    Basically, I guess I’m saying that we can only come closer to realizing something this good in America by moving beyond thinking of it as a technosocial assemblage, and progressing to the point where we identify these sorts of experiences as examples of the way that a much more holistically balanced pattern of living could, or perhaps should – though I think we’d need to find an American version uniquely suited to our landscape / climate / outlook – take form.

    In other words, the Dutch are able to enjoy this sort of technosocial assemblage precisely because they’ve integrated all it’s various interdependent layers and aspects into the fundamental ways that they conceive of and define the proper nature of cities / life / the built and natural environment, rather than externalizing and abstracting it as a concept that requires distinct framing in the first place.

  11. speedbird says :

    I’m not sure there’s actually much daylight between your position and mine, Joe. At least in the way I think of these things, the technosocial assemblage “Dutch bike” is ultimately so edgeless that it fades exactly into “the fundamental ways that they conceive of and define the proper nature of cities/life/the built and natural environment.”

    Within the ambit of my (no doubt limited) understanding, anyway, this is the way actor-network works – IIRC, Latour insists that there’s no such thing as a “social” realm external to other registers of consideration (i.e., political, economic), and that the whole of a body politic constitutes a coherent field of mutually-conditioning influences.

    All of this is my way of saying: yes, I agree with you, all of the factors which distinguish riding in Amsterdam from riding in NYC are fundamental, probably not easily accessible to conscious retrieval and analysis, and surpassingly difficult to transplant. (See, for example, what happens to the simple idea of a bike lane when transliterated into New Yorkish.)

  12. Retro Bicycles says :

    Give me an old cool bicycle, and I’ll ride around the city for days.

  13. John Appleton says :

    I am yet another who has been seduced and now in love with the Dutch bicycle (though I hear that some Scandanavian bikes can be quite fine too). All of this without having been on one. I was in Amsterdam last summer and instantly marveled at the bicyle and riders. My wife and I did have a beautiful bike ride with a group at a conference, but we ended up having more American style bikes at our disposal. I was very disappointed.

    I would like to add a couple of comments to the discussion that involve engineering, posture, and philosophical approach. I am a teacher of the Alexander Technique and watch people move alot. The bicycles had a feature that made them more appropriate for good use of the body. The front fork is sloped more, sending the front tire further forward and bringing the handle bars back more towards the rider. Both seem to be an advantage to unstrained bike riding. The front fork forward means that the rider would feel more like a passenger on the bike and turning would be less jolting, since the arc of change would be further from one’s center of gravity. Since the handle bars are more sloped back towards the rider, he or she can “stay back and away” (An Alexander Technique phrase) and enjoy “being” and being the recipient of a beautiful ride with beautiful views (other beautiful upright riders included) rather than feel they have to “do” the bike ride, which always induces extra unnecessary effort, at any speed. Of course, people have their own preferences, but I wish we had a slew of these bikes (perhaps made of lighter material in the Americas to give us an option.

    Any young entrepreneurs out there?

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