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With a little help from my strangers

Last night, I was in trouble.

I live in a city. It is a hilly city. I try to cycle around as much as I can, but yesterday I was on foot, quite a long way from home, tired, hungry, and… near a tram stop. Isn’t modern city life wonderful?

I got into the tram and discovered that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for my fare.

Now we have to move back a few hours, to the moment I was still at work. My task was to get better acquainted with theories of modernisation. One of the most famous theories, and one that many of the newer ones rely on, is that of Georg Simmel. Simmel lived in another city, Berlin, around 1900 (okay, I have to admit that even in 1900 Berlin was somewhat bigger than the city I live in). He believed that life in the city made people blasiert: hard, arrogant, unsocial. People in the city, he wrote, were only interested in treating each other correctly; not in getting to know them. People in the city were rational, unfeeling. They treated other people like things, machines to be used to get on with one’s own life and then discarded.

All in all, my situation was looking pretty grim, there in the tram-car on a cold night in the big city.

Honoré Daumier, 'Entre onze heures et minuit', from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

Honoré Daumier, ‘Entre onze heures et minuit’, from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on http://www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

At that moment, a single modest individual stood up and proved Simmel and his succeeding generations of theorists wrong by a simple but brave act. She offered the conductor the amount for my fare. And was interested in chatting with me for the rest of our shared journey. In fact, she was a city dweller if ever there was one: she was born in one, and had lived in various cities and metropolises around the world. So she was certainly not the Last of the Mohicans, taking a fading country-side mentality with her into the modern metropolis.

It is true: the town or city makes different demands on its inhabitants than the village. It has always done so, and it always will: there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about that. As soon as a place grows so big that you cannot know everyone, your attitude to your fellow citizens necessarily changes. This is because we cannot follow up on most of the social encounters we have: we will never build relations to most of the people who serve us in shops, check our parking permit or sit with us in tram-cars. Therefore, we can never ‘reward’ the people we are grateful to, nor ‘punish’ those that have done something wrong in our eyes.

This is also why begging homeless people form such a ‘challenge’ to city councils and affluent ‘homed’ people alike. Their unboundness, their freedom of sorts, makes giving to them scary. People want to know what happens with their money: ‘If we start giving to them without asking anything in return, where will it all end?’ Another city where I used to live explicitly advised its new (homed!) citizens not to give any money to those directly asking for it, but donate to an official charity instead.

Whether this is a sound advice, I do not know. Probably, the answer cannot be general but has to be specific to the circumstances: somewhat intellectually handicapped, freedom-loving 60-year-old tramps for life are a different matter altogether than (to give a quite different example but one that operates under the same mechanism) ministers of poor countries, which may be better off with trading opportunities than guilt-assuaging money.

But I know that this city’s warning appeals to the desire most people have to control the recipients of their charity. And, perhaps, also, not to come too closely to them. Strangers feel safer at a distance: in that sense, Simmel was absolutely right. Therefore, I called my ransomer’s small act brave.

She was acting from the age-old hope that the good you do will return to you some day. Was her decision therefore old-fashioned, un-modern? I believe not. Urban disinterest, which is inevitable to some extent, does not govern all we do. Just think back to the past year: I am pretty sure you can remember some instances when someone (in the city!) has done something good for you without expecting anything in return from you.

And that almost turns this column into a Christmas wish (aaargh)…

(Ok, lets get it over and done with:) I will close with the same two words spoken every day by Ellen DeGeneres:

‘Be kind’.

This post was written on Tuesday 10 December.

P.S. I know there are some critical readers out there who might object that acts of charity, like this one, tend to reinforce social (‘class’) distinctions (crudely put: we help the people who look like us). I do not believe this is completely true – I am not as pessimistic as that – and even to the extent that it is: that story needs to be told some other time and, I think, does not undermine today’s.

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Cycle for freedom

I spend much of my time debunking technological myths.

What is a technological myth? ‘The railways have democratised travel.’ You come across that one a lot.

But the social and administrative structure around the technology may well be at least as important as the technology itself. The way the business of the railways is run, matters a lot. The Trans-Siberian Express, for example, can hardly be called democratic. Those who want to approach the picture they know from the movies to any degree, have to spend many thousands of pounds; and a simple fare costs hardly less.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow, CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow. CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Rather, it is the government-regulated administration of a reliable, simple-to-use and relatively cheap system of rail transport that has made trains such a success in some countries (and not in others). And even there, it took about half a century from the introduction of passenger trains in the 1830s, to get to that point.

A technology exists, however, of which I am convinced that it is largely the technology itself that makes it so great. That is cycling.

Admittedly, effective cycling depends on surfaced roads (all-terrain biking excepted), people’s ability to cycle and to buy a bike, and some shared sense of traffic rules when the roads get very busy. But then again, it is inherently

  1. cheap. Bicycles (and monocycles, tricycles and, I hope, hand-cycles) are cheap vehicles, and cheap to repair or have repaired. Of course, it depends on where you are in the world whether they are easy to get by, but at least they are cheaper than most other means of wheeled transport (motorcycles, active wheelchairs, cars, trucks…; excepting, I suppose, roller skates).
  2. easy. Cycling is much easier to learn than driving a car.
  3. versatile, global. Although you need surfaced roads for effective cycling, which are hard to get by in many parts of the world, bikes need less room than cars, less ice than skates, less water than rowing boats… Many places around where humans live, are potentially accessible to cyclists. Of course, the good old pedestrian trumps them all…
  4. useful. Bikes do not only carry you: they carry the goods you sell, your groceries, your children…
  5. empowering. Most important of all, cyclists are independent. You don’t need anyone to ride a bike. The most common repairs you can do yourself – even though they cost some time, they require little expertise. You do not have to rely on sheikhs and oil barons getting along to hit the road.You are the one doing the moving. The bicycle is truly an auto-mobile.
This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0

This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Not for nothing, bikes have been much-contested: people have been explicitly forbidden to ride a bicycle (servants!), and many others have been strongly discouraged, either by fears for their decency (women!) or by prohibitive parameters set by governments (obligatory helmets!). Employers, patriarchs and wealthy technological industries (such as the car industry) are no big fans of the independence cycles bring.

Jean Béraud, 'Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne', probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com/2011/04/jean-beraud-1849-1935.html

Jean Béraud, ‘Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne’, probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com. Free of copyright.

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Second strike, second chance

Today, universities and other education institutions in the United Kingdom saw another day of strikes. In an earlier post, I was trying to find a way of positioning myself with regard to the strike of 31 October.

In the meantime, I have learnt a lot about work relations in education in this country (and, again, similar things are going on elsewhere). Those doing the most ‘manual’ kinds of work, and therefore (?) receiving the lowest pay, were a minority among participants last time. (I have to say that professors were spotted this time around!) Today, the same was the case: cleaners, for example, did work as usual. Now I see that this may actually have a lot to do with the business models universities have adopted over the past years. Instead of employing everyone who works for them, universities have been outsourcing more and more of the work they need done. Their cafes and restaurants, their cleaning and their security are often run either by external companies or by daughter companies that universities create for this specific purpose. As a consequence, the staff employed by those companies are not directly employed by the university and can therefore not become a member of university labour unions. They are unable to officially participate in a strike organised by education unions, and, as far as I can see, get no legal protection or financial support from them if they were to decide to take any action.

Considering this, speaking out in solidarity with them has only become more important. Another remaining concern is the gap in salaries between female and male academics, as well as support staf. (which is very real even if you just consider the fact that women tend to end up in (economically) poorly appreciated jobs such as cleaning and caring, and men in highly appreciated ones; but even in comparable functions, men get more on average than women).

These concerns, however, run up against the realities of collective action: strikers have to make a single, clearly defined demand. The present demand for an inflation-matching rise in wages/salaries across the board, is what put me off last time. By now, I have learnt that many of my colleagues have similar feelings: demanding higher salaries for themselves, they feel, is unnecessary, unethical, and might lower academics’ image to the level of bonus-chasing bankers’. At the same time, strength still lies in numbers: only by showing up in person employees, students and other allies can really demonstrate they are serious about their worries. Luckily, we have some leeway in deciding how to contribute to this effort. So, instead of teaming up behind a ‘we want more than 1%’ -sign, I did some handicrafting this morning…P1020341… and was very happy that this contribution was well-received in town.

However, looking back, I should have gone for this one:

by Cobrophy on Reddit

(N.B. Short-term contracts have a way of boomeranging on the current academic system: having to move home every few years does leave employees with cardboard that’ll last a few rallies…)