The life is being atomized out of us and there isn’t much we can do about it.
Atomization is my word for what happens when you spend most of your waking day in front of a screen. Any screen. It doesn’t have to do with a particular app, it has to do with the desktop, laptop, and mobile screens that glue our vision, and therefore our thoughts, onto 0s and 1s and away from reality.
There is an easy metric for how atomized your life has become, and it is the old-fashioned metric of time. How many hours a day do you spend in front of a screen, for whatever reason? In my case, I’ve begun tracking it and can tell you definitively that my total iPhone screen time averages 42 minutes and my desktop/laptop screen time averages 5-6 hours a day.
But so what? What is atomization, why does it matter, and what does it have to do with bicycles?
By definition, from the millisecond that you begin looking at your screen, you stop interacting with people. This is of course the screen’s chief and overwhelming attraction. It doesn’t have stinky armpits or smelly breath, it doesn’t yell back or roll its eyes, it doesn’t accuse you of you loving it one day and a different screen the next, no, it strips away every trace of real human interaction replaces it with obedience. The screen does what you tell it to, which explains precisely why device malfunctions are among the most stressful things in life you will ever encounter–doubt me? Go on an iPhone help forum …
Less obvious is that the screen strips away the positive human interactions as well as the negative. There is no touch. There is no flood of oxytocin. There is no wave of good hormones that result from eye contact. There is no laughter and the effect that those sound waves have on your ears and mind. Perhaps most devastating to the strip-mining effect of the screen, there is no warmth, warmth, the effect of metabolism and homeostasis that differentiates lips from a stone.
What the screen provides instead of human interaction, that messy thing, is ersatz humanity: arguments you can always win, conflicts you can always walk away from, kudos that are always 100% positive, likes that are always happy, relationships that are always on your terms. With things like ideas and problems, the screen removes their humanity, too.
Time was, when you had a problem, say a word that you didn’t understand, you had to look it up. This required a dictionary, a whole new problem, and then the knowledge of how to use it, and then of course the frustration at not finding the word you were seeking. When it came to foreign languages, the problem was magnified because as we all know, the moment after you have looked up the meaning of a foreign word, you promptly forget it, especially at the beginning levels.
Solving a problem meant solving a bunch of problems, and they always involved interactions with other people. You had to go to a bookstore and talk to someone about dictionaries, for example. More human, in the process of learning a foreign language like Japanese, you were filled with frustration and a sense of failure that you had to overcome with determination. When I threw away my copy of Nelson’s Kanji Dictionary, the page edges were black from the thousands of times I had to flip through it to find a kanji, forget it, and find it a few seconds later.
Frustration, anger, failure, and despair in human endeavors are ingredients, precursors if you will, to every sense of human success. I look back on that dictionary with grim pride, and the residue of knowledge that it left me with will stay deep within the crevices of my brain as long as I have memory. Do I really need to compare this with the experience of Google translate?
With Google translate, there is nothing there. You type, the answer pops up, you move on. You. Accomplished. Nothing. And how could you have? You put nothing into it. I’d amend GIGO to NINO. Nothing in, nothing out.
The screen atomizes you from the people you’d normally have to interact with, and the practical problems you’d normally confront, and leaves with you with the zipless fuck of interaction, both human and intellectual. And you can see the effect around you everywhere, every second of the day, in every corner of the earth. I know because the globe is a place I have traveled more than most people, and with the exception of the world’s poorest places, the screen is between the face of its denizens, separating it from their real-world human counterparts and their real-world problems.
Until you have stood on a subway in Chengdu or Kunming and watched an entire seated row of a hundred people staring passively at their screens, you have not seen the quantifiable effect of this atomization. No conversation, and hardly even any glances up save to confirm the subway stop. Reality has been shuttered, and a voyeur’s glance at their screens shows that their reality is just like yours: games, text messages, shopping, #socmed, videos. That’s it. That is their life. That is yours. The only possible thing more disturbing than watching a scene like this is watching a woman fiddle with her phone while her infant begs, implores, beseeches any interaction with mother, in vain.
Leaving aside the obvious social control that governments and corporations obtain by chaining citizens to their screens, this alt-reality is horrible for physical and mental health. It is horrible for physical health because most of the time the screen requires you to sit (more about Strava and its brethren later), and it is horrible for mental health because the screen isn’t perfect. There are still times when the non-screen world impinges and forces you to interact, only you are now doing it without all of the skills that used to go along with human interaction and problem solving. People have neither patience, verbal skills, or non-verbal skills to cope with the jagged edges of the screen and non-screen interface.
Look no farther than Facebook “political” arguments and how those people with the strongest Facebook views are often the most dysfunctional in actual human-to-human interactions. One friend, with whom I share very close political views, spends so much time ranting and browsing on Facebook that in person he is a non-stop cascade of blither-blather, endless talking, telling people how to ride, where to ride, which crack to watch out for, a compendium of inability to simply do what people used to do before the domination of the screen: shut up, watch, think, then choose your words carefully.
Another person, with whom I share no political views, is so addicted to the megaphone of #socmed that he literally thinks every post is about him, and if it’s negative he goes berserk. He too is a talker, a blabber, and someone whose screen time is obviously in the 10-hour range or more, especially if you include him in the average American’s statistics for TV time, which is of course screen time, too. Maybe 15+ hours a day?
Neither of these caricatures is what’s really important because most of us aren’t on the screen quite as much, yet our screen time is growing on an annual basis, and the difference isn’t as great in terms of atomization as you might think. The eggshell-thin ego that falls to pieces when it confronts dissonance in the real world, to say nothing of the screen world, is operating under the same principles that I do. Avoid, put your head under the covers, turn off the dissonance, change screens and go on to something more pleasant that doesn’t sound as shrill and smell as bad.
It’s no coincidence all this is being penned at 3:42 AM, in isolation, in front of a screen …
As atomization breaks apart our ability to tolerate human friction and reality friction, it enforces social control, corporatist consumption, and conservative economic and political thought. In this case conservative simply means “keeping the status quo.” You can’t have change when there is no mechanism for anything other than more of the same.
The timeline for screen atomization began with the movie screen in the early 1900’s, intensified with the TV screen in the 1950’s, hit critical mass with the desktop screen in the 1980’s, and reached its apogee with the iPhone. The next step is surely an implant that will allow you to be plugged into your screen without even needing the screen.
But for now, breaking apart people and forcing them into a honeycomb of isolation hurts us most in the areas where the social function is most important, and of course by that I mean cycling. What is more important to a cycling blog and a bike injury lawyer and a career weekend warrior than bicycling? Back in the day that never existed, #fakeracing was a communal activity with a hierarchy. If you wanted to do it you had to join the community and obey the social structure. Otherwise, you couldn’t do it. It made no sense to speak of racing your bike or doing a hard group ride without other people present, and in the same way that the opposite of love is indifference, the opposite of bike racing was the trainer or rollers.
This meant that you had deal with assholes, and if you happened to be an asshole, people had to deal with me. I mean, you. Dealing with assholes is the single most important aspect of human interaction, because assholes are everywhere and, what’s harder, everyone has one, which is another way of saying that even your best friend can turn into a jerk when the ride is long enough, it’s hot enough outside, the #fakewin is within your grasp, or when bonk sets in. No one wondered about what to do with the rider who behaved poorly or who was unpleasant to be around. You tried to drop him, you gave him a talking to, rarely you exchanged blows, but in the end you just dealt with it.
“Just dealt with it” may be one of the most complex sentences in English, because dealing with non-screen reality brings to bear the entirety of your physical and mental capacities, spanning the ladder’s rungs from fisticuffs to reverse psychology and intimidation. Fast forward forty years, and who has to deal with anything anymore on the bike? In the South Bay, you can #fakerace without people because of Strava, Zwift, and their progeny. The screen lets you strip away the danger of a bad wheel, the unpleasantness of a ride martinet, the #sadface of getting shelled, the frustration of a flat tire, and the disappointment of the group taking a route you’d rather avoid.
In place of these non-screen problems, the screen lets you tailor every ride so that it’s perfect, time efficient, and best of all, it lets you fiddle with the inputs so that you can have much better screen results than you ever would if you had to race yer fuggin’ bike. Stripped from the equation is also the community. There is no impulsion to join a ride, and certainly no requirement to put up with an annoying rider’s blather. Fuck him, I’m outta here … but to where? The screen, of course, or maybe to a solo ride that I can post on Strava and have my real friends recognize as an awesome effort from the comfort of their couch. You might think that kudo is the same as a fist-bump after a 100%, all-in effort to win the group ride #fakerace, but you’d be wrong. The fist-bump is real, skin on skin, smile meeting smile, glittering eye meeting eye, hormones, raw humanity in all its glory.
The kudo? It’s a click. And onto the next one.
None of this is my imagination. Cycling in the South Bay used to be a community of cyclists, that is, really strange people who found community on a bike. Now it is an atomized collection of agendas, people who own bicycles but, more than that, people who own ideas about how they should appear on a screen. This means more than making sure that the jaw angle is right, that the zits are scrubbed, the boobs properly positioned or the gut sucked in. What it really means is that people whose ideas used to get squelched instantly due to their inability to keep up now have an outsized presence and opinions that others follow.
A great example is the non-climber. In #fakerace #oldskool cycling, you had to be able to climb. Period. This was as much a part of cycling as a bicycle. If you wanted to be authoritative and not brushed off, you had to be able to climb, and by climb I mean “hang with the leaders at least for a while.” Better yet, be the leader. Singular. The only way you could overcome your inability to go uphill fast was to win races, and since lots of races were flat crits, there were always non-climbers–guys who got shelled on the group ride immediately–who were able to win on the flats in sanctioned events. Those riders, and there were never many of them, had cred and a voice, and you listened to them.
Otherwise, you’d better be able to climb or be prepared to shut up, sit in, and wait until you got dropped.
The screen has enabled people who cannot climb or win races to garner a voice in what cycling is supposed to be about. They have a voice at the table despite lacking anything approaching vocal cords, and cycling has changed as a result. It’s no different from politics, where people with loud #socmed opinions now have representation for extreme views once shunned, and it’s no different from any of the other arenas where community used to define norms, but where now the norms are set by the people least competent, least experienced, and least knowledgeable.
So what we are left with as a cycling landscape in the South Bay is a tiny handful of outsized voices backed by zero ability–they can’t climb and they can’t win races–but the screen has magnified their impact, indeed has given them an impact, that the old social structure would have immediately, and brutally dispensed with. It’s a reverse meritocracy where the best are told what to do by the worst. You can’t shut someone up on a climb because they’re never on the ride. You can’t close them down in a race because they either don’t race or aren’t trying to win. The contest occurs on the screen, and you know what? They aren’t simply winning.
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