One benefit of an academic career is that a few personal eccentricities are tolerated, and even encouraged as long as we meet our spiralling performance targets, many of which contravene academic freedom. In my case, aside from some strong views on ethical academic practice and publishing, I ride a rather exotic folding bike to work every day at the University of Melbourne, and it ends up folded in the corner of lecture theatres where students fail consistently to marvel at its engineering design and its self-evident contribution to low-emissions urban mobility. In 11 years I have driven to work about three times. I also prefer that my main means of written communication is a laptop and paper – no smartphones and tablets, which simply overwhelm and frustrate me with their app-based software, size, and provocation to be instantly connected and available. This means writing and preparing teaching materials is done in a concentrated spell in front of a decent laptop screen or monitor, at home, at work, or out and about. The laptop, on which the Journal of Political Ecology is also prepared, is carted about on the bike, as all my students know.
Frankly, my family hate me using the laptop. When we used to have office PCs I stayed late in the office, but now they say the laptop renders me ‘absent’ from family life, while present physically at home. It signifies the type of mismatched life-work balance that infests almost every academic career, as work pushes into the interstices of domesticity (except for those annoying people who are too efficient for that). In Melbourne’s overpriced inner north where I live, our small house lacks a decent workspace, so I am frequently found at the kitchen table checking emails, grading or editing student papers, running my academic journal or just writing. My laptop ends up co-mingled with dinner, discussions, and school homework tasks. I am a bit better at separation these days, after a sharp telling-off (while my family members then got a smartphone and tablet in 2015, reducing the power of their critique somewhat), but everything I need to do seems to require a screen, and the important stuff can’t fit into an 8 hour work day. The computer even gets whipped out during meals with friends to resolve idle debate about historical events and personalities, or to provide directions, or to show cute holiday photos – tasks where most would at least use a smaller smartphone. But for me this would be one giddy step too far and I have no interest in having a gadget with software that needs checking every few minutes.
But how the tables have turned in the laptop’s favour! Last week I was cycling into work, and approaching a pedestrian and bike crossing that I have traversed a thousand times, opposite an iconic Fitzroy swimming pool. With my head lifted and looking forward, and my memory is fuzzy here, I thought I saw a green bike/pedestrian light to cross three lanes of traffic. Unfortunately I may have been looking at the green light on the far side of the road, where people and bikes were definitely still crossing; the two traffic light cycles are in fact not linked. I knew this, deep down but a microsecond of inattention was enough. On my side of the road, witnesses said, the light had just changed and I was hit full on by an HGV truck driving at between 50 and 60 km/h (31-37 mph). I have no memory of this, and I do not know how I was revived, but the witnesses and police say that while my Birdy folding bike went under the wheels (and broke), my body somersaulted and rolled several times before I ended up unconscious in the road. The next thing I remember was the paramedics bending over me, and being lifted into an ambulance. Since then I have been under excellent care courtesy of the taxpayer funded TAC, for 4 rib fractures, a fractured leg and a collapsed lung. Brain intact, after some doubts. A lot of people must be thanked for getting me get back on my unsteady feet since then.*
So I will live, but the odds were against me given the size and the speed of the vehicle. What accounts for this? When pedalling my leg is the same height as the fender of an Australian truck, and that fracture is understandable and will heal in weeks. But my upper body, next to hit, was protected only by a Berghaus Freeflow hiker’s rucksack with a strong plastic insert, with the infernal laptop, the very object of domestic acrimony, nestled within. It appears it, and a few papers, saved my spine and other internal organs as the truck hit my upper body and I tumbled off down the road. It all acted like a motorbike jacket with its hard inserts around the back and arms. The computer did not come off too well itself, but its hard drive is still intact and it is permanently bent. My own hard drive suffered only a concussion that lasted for days. Laptop redeemed!
The moral of this tale is nothing more than needing to keep all road users alert on the road at all times. And, don’t forget the road safety advice that we learn as kids, and then bawl back at them as adults. It is good advice. But of course human behaviour does not always heed it, and I am in no position to be sanctimonious about that. A secondary lesson is to stay true to some core beliefs, regardless of social pressures, but maybe not if they are outrageously dangerous ones. This works both ways, but last week was certainly not a good time for a technological upgrade – and a train to work instead of bike might have helped… My working eccentricities are my curse and in this case, my salvation as well.
The incident could also be used to support or refute numerous ongoing arguments about cyclist and motorist behaviour in Melbourne, and the need for transport infrastructure improvements. Yes, people could drive more slowly and we need fewer carbon-emitting vehicles in total, but it was not the absence of bike-friendly infrastructure that caused this particular accident. My case has little to do with the contentious Melbourne East-West link tunnel, that would have sent big trucks right under the site of my accident but has now been scrapped in favour of public transport investment– I could just have well have been hit by a truck on a local journey avoiding the tunnel tolls. Nor has it much to do with bike helmets, about which Australians also argue because they are compulsory here – it was a journey where I probably would have worn one anyway, and in this case the plastic lid did something, although not enough to stop concussion. But the central role played by the laptop has a nice synergy between form and function. It was multi-tasking, at a time when my brain suffered a split-second lapse of concentration. This small academic workhorse and instrument of family disharmony became a vital protective shield. The laptop superhero.
The anthropologist Paul Richards has argued that technology is social, and best studied through what he calls technography – the ethnography of technology (Richards 2010). Inspired by Emile Durkheim, he says technology includes the “technique” used to master it (like safe cycling on a bike), and we should not “educate the users to fit the machine but … redesign the machine to respond to the way users use (or abuse) it.” (p4). He means that human inventiveness, actions, and innovation should drive technological design, rather than experts building technology without that input, in the hope that it will be used. Vehicles and bikes as machines often clash, as a recent movie illustrates, but the precise modifications to the streetscape required of planners and engineers need to be observed on the ground and then co-designed, not remotely or through blindly applying ‘best practice’ as so may engineers and planners tend to do. In my case, I do not know what the accident statistics are for the crossing but something must have made me less attentive than the last few hundred times I took it; more warnings or larger signals could have reduced the risk. Bike and ped. tunnels is really what this road needs, but Melbourne builds them almost never. The car lobby is just too powerful privately and in government, followed by the public transport lobby. More crossing time for pedestrians and bikes would help, reducing the tendency to speed across them to beat the lights. We just don’t get our share, often waiting 2-3 minutes. This is bad policy.
But at the same time, the laptop had an unintended function and was bestowed with additional powers beyond its prime role as a data handling and retrieval device – this was not designed in by me, or even anticipated. Not something to influence policy design perhaps, but nonetheless I will be eternally grateful. If I ever cycle again in Melbourne, it will travel with me.
Richards, P. 2010. A Green Revolution from below? Retirement address, Wageningen University, the Netherlands.
*Thankyou to everybody who has supported me over the last few days and I hope I can return favours. There really are nice people in universities, and outside of course. Things are still a bit raw, I have not yet seen the report or written to the driver. This post was rejected by The Conversation – on my first ever submission!
My return to work corresponded with the launching of a new university marketing campaign – “Collision”!! http://collision.unimelb.edu.au/