“WWBD - What Would Bicycle Do?” - Actor Network Theory and Bicycle Advocacy

Written by Jai Cooper

slow fast

In the classic Menippean satire, ‘The Third Policeman’, author Flan O’Brien lampoons the somewhat obsessive relationship some people have with their bicycles. It is as if the bicycle has a personality. The novel explores the very nature of existence and leads us to the consideration that a material object can have sentience.

We might not accept that a bicycle can think, but in sociology, an approach to social theory is ‘ANT’ (actor-network theory). It can be applied to commodities such as bicycles. Actor-network theory is an approach to social theory in which the material relations between people are studied as the social relations between those material things.

A similar perspective was proposed by the Situationist movement that predicted the ‘death of the subject’ and the commodity wars. The ‘war’ between motorists and cyclists is a contemporary manifestation of this phenomenon. These avant-garde philosophers identified a trend in society in which commodities were the central focus. The automobile was the pilot project for this society. In this ‘society of the spectacle’, power would be contested by material objects vying for dominance. Examples include brand competition such as Ford vs Holden or communications technology such as Apple vs Windows. Tribes of people align themselves to the commodity and tie their very sense of identity to the object. Commodity wars differ from other wars such as resource wars between nation states. They are also different to civil wars about what ideology is chosen to manage the economy or religion has dominance. Further, commodity wars are very different to contests of physical characteristics such as race or gender. The fundamental difference is what the Situationists referred to as the ‘death of the subject’ because the characteristic over which the conflict is fought is not deeply internalised. Commodities can be more readily abandoned than nationalities, ideologies or physical traits. The people no longer matter, it is the primacy of the object that is of concern. So, how does this relate to the ‘war’ in which we find ourselves?

The death of the subject may be understood as the blurring of identity we witness between tribes in which the use of the object (in our case – a bicycle) attributes us certain assumed characteristics. At the macro level, governments and businesses objectify people by measuring them as statistics. This is part of a dehumanising process for individuals. The analysis applied to statistics in quantitative data is a process of making generalisations. It often misses counter-effects which can occur from practices of social engineering. There is always some ‘ghost in the machine’ which evades prediction.

On a micro level, the death of the subject translates into a reality that constructs people within separate tribes, not heterogeneous groups. For example, all cyclists are assumed to be ‘scofflaws’ or ‘fitness freaks’ or other generalisations. Further, we are requested by others who are not cycling enthusiasts to be able to change the behaviour of all other cyclists. Of course, this is unreasonable: as if we would expect one motorist to pass the message on to all other motorists to change their behaviour. The tendency to assume all cyclists are part of a homogenous group that all think and behave the same and all possess telekinetic powers with each other is, of course, unreasonable. However, this is the challenge we often face. It is something we can suffer through or, alternatively, it can be an opportunity for us to grow by recognising our common ground.


In an era in which we see the media ‘war’ of ‘cars v bikes’ it may be worthwhile to return to actor-network theoretical perspectives to understand and improve upon our advocacy. Firstly, we can reflect that we are a broad church with a range of divergent networks. There are people with many different skills and perspectives involved in cycling. You can reasonably expect as wide a demographic as most of Australia, possibly with some leanings towards environmentalism and leftist thinking. Cycling advocacy has a long association with socialism, environmentalism, feminism and anarchism. However, there are plenty of conservatives who are avid cyclists, as exemplified by our former Prime Minister. For those on the political right, cycling can be a way to exhibit the health achieved with the blessings of financial advantage or a form of individual self-reliance. The bottom line is that we need to be inclusive. You might not like Tony Abbott or whoever on the political spectrum as a person but, regardless, if we have more people riding bikes then that is simply a good thing for our cause. Many people with different views will build a stronger movement. They will have a wider range of strategies at their disposal to address the rhetoric of our critics. Further, if we take a view that human nature is predetermined: there is a spectrum from good people through to bad people in the world. If we look at life that way, then maybe we should be rejoicing that bad people are riding bikes – because we’d rather have them feeling empathy for us and also not to be occupying themselves with other more dangerous commodities (like guns or cars). In a social movement such as cycling, it is important to recognise that there is an inherent problem that comes from expecting everyone to behave as virtuously as yourself: eventually, you will find that no one else rides (or even advocates) in exactly in the way you would in all situations. If we had the expectation that everyone would be as good as oneself and, if they weren’t, they shouldn’t be on bikes, then eventually we would be the only ones left on bikes - and that would be a very dangerous situation. Therefore, embrace the incompetent cyclist.

If you’re worried about in-fighting amongst cyclists, here’s another perspective: it’s a good sign because it means we are a broad and active group with different ways of doing things. It means that we are not in an ‘echo-chamber’ in which we are regurgitating the attitudes of our peers. A strong and robust debate over strategy is a sign of, exactly that, a strong and robust movement. Further, accept the possibility that not everyone is going to be happy with your behaviour. Do not let that necessarily sway you from your position. To use the adage: if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing anything. It’s also worth remembering that if you are worried by people who are more extreme than yourself in their opinions, be grateful: you need them to make you look moderate. This is the principal of ‘radical flank’ theory. Fortunately, cyclists are generally not prone to violent uprising. It doesn’t really go with the territory for being a cyclist. If we were that way inclined, we might be more prone to being motorists. The bicycle is not known as the weapon of choice for violent revolutionaries. It is essentially an object designed for low impact mobility – a peaceful object.

Think about that: a peaceful object. If you genuinely consider yourself a ‘bicycle advocate’ then think what that means. For a moment, let’s take the subject (the human) out of the equation. Stop being yourself and consider assuming the identity of the bicycle. Think about it from this perspective: your bicycle knows what to do. Go and ask your bicycle, literally the ‘ghost in the machine’, what it wants you and everyone else to do. Listen carefully for the answer and, if you trust your bike, share that message far and wide.

Lastly, remember never to take things too seriously. The bicycle is just a commodity. A beauty of a commodity-struggle is that you can set the commodity aside and go surfing or something else sometimes – that’s okay. Hopefully, you won’t be a fair-weather advocate and abandon the cause wholly – that’s not cool. Remember the importance of dedication as a virtue. Alternatively, if you can’t stop thinking about it and it gets too serious sometimes, there is always humour. Laughter is our best weapon. Make it funny for both yourself and your combatant. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘if you’re going to tell someone the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you’.

Happy riding, comrades.

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