Jeff Clapp thinks on the beauty and revulsion of sharing economy.
“Mountains and Rivers of Bicycles without End”
You have probably already seen images of China’s share-bike graveyards. Confiscation, massive oversupply, and an explosion of start-up capital created bicycle graveyards all over the country’s metropolises. Much has been written about the graveyards as an example of “market failure,” a sign of bubble economy, and a damn shame.
Images of the graveyards however are a little different, and perhaps more interesting. The photographs enact an immediately noticeable aestheticization. Rather than serving as a click-bait with a whiff of anti-China sentiment, these photographs look like art. Wu Guoyang’s bike-graveyard photo project “No Place to Place” has won a number of international awards. When I first saw Wu’s work, I was reminded of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s longstanding “Earth from Above” project, which features huge, brilliant aerial images of Earth. Although his photographs are meant to show us that humanity is destroying the planet, the aerial perspective suggests that the manmade world is nature. This project images a natural world that evokes human intention and design. Wu Guoyang’s photographs of bicycle graveyards has the same effect. From a drone’s-eye view, they are landscapes, conjunctures of density and erosion, paths of least resistance, arrays of aggregate action over long periods of time. Upon closer examination, they become tangles of pollen, sheaves of fungus, millions of newborn spiders. They are quite spectacular.
* * * * *
“Automated Dockless Bicycle Rental Services” in Hong Kong are provided by companies such as Gobee.bike, Loco, and Ofo. One-size-fits-most bicycles are locked only to themselves and can be rented by a smartphone app. Since February 2017, the bikes started appearing in my part of town and could be found near park pathways or at the train station. I was enthusiastic, in part because I saw such a bike in person before I had ever heard of such a thing. I had no idea that bike-share had been spreading for some time across the border from the mainland, and that it has already begun to turn into an anecdote, as well as a business-school case study.
I was enthusiastic too because docked bicycle rental has changed the way I do tourism in any city that has this system. Vélib in Paris is great, or rather was. Dublinbike made that city feel like an eternal afternoon. In fact, municipal, dock-based bike share systems exemplify what Eric Klinenberg terms “social infrastructure”, which refers to the kind of local investment that surmounts mere modernization and becomes a cultivation of community. From this point of view, bike-sharing looks like a public library for transportation.
So when the dockless bikes came to Hong Kong, I immediately downloaded the app. At 5HKD an hour, the company’s only consumer product seemed to be a loss leader. But I signed up anyway, despite the perfectly obvious fact that by pedaling this bicycle, I was becoming the product—a generator, not of electricity, but of data. Indeed, bike-share company MoBike has spun off their customer data business into a separate company (and published a white paper on their findings). When Gobee.bike abruptly went under, I downloaded the Ofo app and rode yellow bikes instead of green ones. They’re now in trouble too. But when I look outside, there are still blue, and black, and white bikes to choose from.
Not to overdraw a contrast, but the difference between docked and dockless bike share systems seems as wide as that of “social infrastructure” and what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. In fact, the distinction between docked and dockless bicycle rental epitomizes what the neo– in the word neoliberalism denotes. Where the former is about responsibly returning a bike to a dock, the latter is about responsibilizing the rider. The first is about private-public partnerships, while the second is about free-riding on the work of last century’s progressive urban designers. Docked bikes rental services create a commons, and the dockless one pushes those commons to the point of their proverbial tragedy. And that’s the emerging story of dockless bike share: a rather gruesome panoply of excess and collapse.
* * * * *
Hong Kong had to come up with a bureaucratic name for bike-sharing because the government decided to start regulating it. The “Code of Practice (CoP) for Automated Dockless Bicycle Rental Services” was first promulgated in September 2018, in response to the anxiety that bike-sharing would, “if not properly conducted,” cause “Danger/Nuisance/Obstruction.” According to the new code, the government insists that operators must proactively move bikes that are in the way, even “rectify[ing] any bicycles that have fallen over.” And it lays out a rule for how many bikes a company can put on the road in the first place:
6.2 In order to avoid excessive deployment of bicycles, Operators should limit their number of bicycles deployed on public streets and areas to not more than the maximum number of daily trips in the last 30 consecutive calendar days.
Without seeing the numbers, it is hard to know how much this rule might influence any bike-company’s activities. But the attempt to invent a rule here clearly reflects the fundamental problem. From the perspective non-users, there is the danger of having too many bikes around. One bike left on a staircase is already too many. Yet, the entire business model is predicated on having so many bikes so that there is always one near enough.
The document’s other major provision is about avoiding “Danger/Nuisance/Obstruction” by moving individual bikes or even “rectifying” if they “fall over”. These measures gesture towards something that sharing-economy gurus (like other market fundamentalists before them) would prefer to keep off-stage: bike-share systems are nothing like self-regulating. People don’t ride share bikes and then leave them for others to use as in a stable equilibrium. With bike-share companies come fleets of workers in panel trucks, putting bikes where people frequently need them and picking them up from where they’ve been abandoned. In other words, bike-share is a system. Not an ecosystem.
* * * * *
Implicit in the Code of Practice is the government’s rejoinder to the predominant response to bike-sharing in Hong Kong: bemusement that shades sharply off into outrage and loathing. Rental bikes do not “fall over”. Quite possibly the majority of share bikes, at any given time, are lying around helplessly, having been pushed, kicked, or otherwise punished. Given some of the editorializing one finds, it may well be that people do this sort of thing because they are genuinely concerned about the walkways and thoroughfares, as though bikes were a kind of plaque clogging the city’s healthful circulation. And it may well be that this is simple inchoate destructiveness, as difficult to interpret as any vandalism.
But I’d hazard that there is something more specific happening, something about what the bikes are and what they represent. The evidence for this is the specific popularity of vandalizing bikes by throwing them into the river. This has happened all over Hong Kong, and also in other cities where bike-sharing has been rolled out. This reception is also prominent in my corner of town.
Why do people throw share bikes into the river? I am not convinced that this is about either right-of-way or the freedom to destroy. The fact that people seem to hate the bikes, and the way that they choose to destroy them, are correlated. These acts of hostility return us, like Wu Guoyang’s photographs, to the hideous beauty in the forms of neoliberalism as forms of life.
* * * * *
I am no photographer and have made no special efforts in the photos above. Yet, as you can see, the results of river-based bike vandalism in the northern part of Hong Kong have been quite spectacular. When the bikes are dredged out of the river, we get a glimpse of something we become more and more desperate to see: “the world without us.” These bike vandals, and for that matter my photographs, reproduce the effect of Wu Guoyang’s bike-graveyard photographs on another scale: the bikes are becoming natural, even becoming nature. If this is the intention of throwing them in the river, then bike-share vandals are thinking about the bikes’ very materiality in a sense that the virtual business model—which is an app, a server, a database, a system, an ecosystem—encourages us to forget.
Sadism is another way of thinking about the hostility of bike vandals. Kicking and drowning bicycles to the point of annihilating the object suggests that it is a kind of living entity. Indeed, when I first saw a share bike and tried to reason about how the app, the tech guys, the GPS tag, and the bicycle itself were intertwined with one another, I felt like I was considering using something not entirely or not merely physical. The bicycle—one of the last commonplace mechanical objects whose workings can be understood by any child—seemed to have an awareness, however faint. We might even say that a share-bike knows where it is—or that its system-mother knows. Perhaps one drowns a bike when it becomes too much alive. Or, as in the case of a big litter, there are simply too many of them to be dealt with.
The rise and fall and the afterlife of rental bike sharing is playing out against a paradox. Human actions and activities become both beautiful and disgusting at the moment they start to resemble natural processes and ecosystems. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the false dichotomy of the human and the natural. The implication of such talk is that a lot of social and environmental problems could be resolved if we were better able to discern and overcome the dichotomy’s falsity. But what I see in my own neighborhood, where the bikes are encrusted with barnacles, is also is shown in Wu Guoyang’s photographs. This dichotomy reproduces itself again and again at every scale. To cross that conceptual boundary is a source of revulsion, but also a wellspring of sublimity. If it feels gratifying to share and defile bikes, we’re likely to continue making nature out of culture and vice versa as often and as profitably as we can.
Jeff Clapp teaches at the Education University of Hong Kong.