Jeff Clapp thinks on beauty and revulsion in the sharing economy.
“Mountains and Rivers of Bicycles without End”
You have probably already seen the images. All around China’s metropolises “bicycle graveyards” have appeared, the result of both confiscation and of massive oversupply. Oversupply of bikes in the first instance; of start-up capital in the second. Much has already been written about these mountains of dying bicycles—as an example of “market failure,” as a sign of a bubble economy, as a damn shame.
Images of the graveyards are a little different, and perhaps more interesting. The photographs enact an immediately noticeable aestheticization. Not just click-bait with a whiff of anti-China sentiment, these photographs look like art—particularly the images of Wu Guoyang, whose bike-graveyard photo project “No Place to Place” has won a number of international awards. When I saw Wu’s work, I was reminded of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s longstanding “Earth from Above” project. Arthus-Bertrand’s huge, brilliant images of earth, taken from airplanes, are meant to show their viewers that humanity is destroying the planet. But the aesthetic again plays a bit of havoc: the aerial perspective gives us a human world as though it simply were the natural one, and a stunning one at that. Wu Guoyang’s photographs of bicycle graveyards have much the same effect. On the large scale, from high above—now, of course, 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. Closer up, they are tangles of pollen, sheaves of fungus, millions of newborn spiders. They are quite spectacular.
Hong Kong’s bureacrats use the term “Automated Dockless Bicycle Rental Services”: to designate the product of companies like Gobee.bike, Loco, and Ofo that have placed one-size-fits-most bicycles, locked to themselves and rented by app, around Hong Kong. The bikes began appearing in my part of town, near the paths through the parks, at the train station, in February 2017. I was enthusiastic, in part because I came across such a bike in person before I had ever heard of the possibility. I had no idea that bike-share across the border was already beginning to turn into some combination of an end-of-the-world-party and a business-school case study.
I was enthusiastic, too, because docked bicycle rental has changed the way I do tourism. 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 Erik Klinenberg has been calling “social infrastructure”—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 the transportation sector. So when the dockless bikes came to Hong Kong, I immediately downloaded the app. At five Hong Kong dollars 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 actually spun off their customer data business into a separate company (and published a white paper on their findings). When Gobee.bike went under, I downloaded the Ofo app and rode yellow bikes instead of green ones. They’re now in trouble too. But outside there are still blue, and black, and white bikes from which to choose.
Not to overdraw a contrast, but the difference between docked and dockless bike share systems seems as wide as the difference between “social infrastructure” on the one hand and what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” on the other. In fact, the distinction between docked and dockless bicycle rental is a very pure example of what the neo– in the word neoliberalism intends to denote. The former is about private-public partnerships; the latter is about free-riding on the work of last century’s progressive urban designers. Where docked systems are about responsibly returning a bike to a dock, the latter is about responsibilizing the rider. The former is about creating a commons; the latter is about pushing those commons to point of their proverbial tragedy.
Hong Kong had to think up a nice bureaucratic name for bike-sharing because the government decided to start regulating. The “Code of Practice (CoP) for Automated Dockless Bicycle Rental Services” was first promulgated in September 2018, in response to the sense 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, including “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 clearly reflects the fundamental problem: the entire business model is predicated on having so many bikes that one is always near enough to hop on. Yet from the perspective of people who are not riding bike-share bicycles, there are too many bikes. One bike left in the middle of a staircase is already too many.
The document’s other major provision—avoiding “Danger/Nuisance/Obstruction” by moving individual bikes or even “rectifying” if they “fall over”—gestures toward something that is apparent enough, but which sharing-economy gurus 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 in anything like 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.
Also implicit in the Code of Practice is the government’s rejoinder to the predominant response to bike-sharing in Hong Kong: bemusement, shading sharply off into outrage and loathing. In fact, rental bikes do not “fall over.” That is a euphemism. Quite possibly the majority of share bikes, at any given time, are lying around helplessly, having been pushed or 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 thoroughfares, as though bikes were a plaque inhibiting the city’s healthful circulation. And it may well be that this is simple inchoate destructiveness, as difficult of interpretation as any other form of vandalism.
But I’d hazard that there is something more specific happening, something linked to what the bikes are and what they represent. My intuition arises from the popularity of vandalizing bikes by throwing them into the river, something that has happened all over Hong Kong, and also in other cities where bike-sharing has been rolled out. But it really has been a dominant response in my corner of town. Below is my photographic evidence:Why do people throw share bikes in the river? I am not really 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 linked. These acts of hostility return us, like Wu Guoyang’s photographs, to the hideous beauty involved in regarding the forms of neoliberalism as the forms of life.
I am no photographer and have made no special efforts in the photos. Yet, as you can see, the results of river-based bike vandalism in the northern part of Hong Kong have been quite spectacular. For these bikes, time has rushed forward, and when they are dredged back out of the river, we get a glimpse of something we are more and more desperate to see: “the world without us.” These bike vandals reproduce the effect of Wu Guoyang’s bike-graveyard photographs on another scale: the bikes are becoming natural, 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 business model—which is an app, a server, a database, a system, an ecosystem—encourages us to forget.
There is another, related way of thinking about bike vandals’ hostility: that it is about sadism. The point of kicking and drowning bicycles would then be to hurt or kill them, which of course suggests that there is something there to hurt or kill, a 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 riding about on something not entirely or not merely physical. The bicycle—one of the last commonplace mechanical objects whose workings can be understood by any child—has been made into something posthuman, something nonhuman, something faintly aware. We might even say that a share-bike knows where it is. So perhaps one drowns a bike when it becomes too much like an animal. Perhaps one drowns a lot of bikes when, as in the case of a big litter, there are simply too many of them to deal with.
The rise and fall of rental bike sharing is playing out against the background of a specific aesthetic and political problem: human actions and activities become both beautiful and disgusting at the moment they begin to look like natural processes. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the fact that the human/natural dichotomy is a false one. The implication of such talk is that many social and environmental problems could be addressed if we were better able to discern the dichotomy’s falsity, and transcend it. But what I see in my own neighborhood, where the bikes are encrusted with barnacles, is also what I see in Wu Guoyang’s photographs: that the human/nature dichotomy reproduces itself again and again at every scale, and that crossing that conceptual boundary is not only a source of revulsion, but also a wellspring of sublimity. If it feels good both to share bikes and to kick them, we’re likely to continuing making nature of culture and culture of nature—as often, and as profitably, as we can.
Jeff Clapp teaches at the Education University of Hong Kong.