The vehicle of the future

'Ah! The Segway. This is the way the brave new world was meant to be'. Will Self grapples with our uneasy relationship with technology as he takes 'the vehicle of the future' for a spin.
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The Independent Online

It's like this: I'm oozing over uneven ground at around 10mph. My legs flex at the knee to absorb the motion but I'm barely aware of it. I'm fully upright and tilted forward at 80 degrees. If I lean back just a touch, I slow down; if I lean forward, I speed up. A tiny twist of my wrist takes me to the right or the left; twist more and I effortlessly pirouette. This must be what it's like if you achieve enlightenment, or are entered - in a non-sexual way - by the Holy Spirit. I feel like preaching my own gospel of futurity, however there's no multitude in sight, only a herd of testy-looking bullocks that romp apart before me as I ooze onward.

Ah! The Segway - this is the way the brave new world was meant to be. Granted, the gadget resembles an old Qualcast lawnmower, up-ended so that the rider stands on a crosspiece where the rotors should be. Nevertheless, its stately, silent and intuitively controlled movement across the rough terrain of Worcestershire - and, earlier, through the mean streets of south London - suggests that should I choose to stay on top of it, it will convey me smoothly towards the gleaming, crystal spires of Birmingham. And that here I will achieve deep intimacy with someone - merely by putting on a pair of matching, virtual reality goggles - before we both enjoy a candlelit dinner in pill form.

Ah! The Segway - a scant few years ago it was heralded as the way ahead for personal transportation in our fume-choked, carbon-coked, petrol-soaked society. It has gyroscopes, an on-board computer, you couldn't fall off if you tried ... The only problems are that it's bloody expensive, and the Government - with its infinite capacity for discrimination - seems unable to decide precisely what kind of vehicle it is. Should the Segway be licensed for the public carriageway, or allowed the same laissez-faire status as a bicycle with an electric motor?

Mike, the South of England Segway agent, teeters between sun and gloom when he contemplates the impasse. He took on the franchise because he "fell in love" with these gizmos, perhaps an unwarrantedly powerful emotion for a fancy, electric scooter. Without the regulation sorted out, he can't shift that many units (only 250 thus far); and without the volume he can't bring the price - around £4k a pop - down. Instead of straddling the greatest innovation of the 21st century, it looks suspiciously as if Mike has climbed aboard another C5, Clive Sinclair's notoriously crap personal electric car. In 1985 it was the coming thing - in 1992 I saw one lashed to the roof of a Volvo Estate, being used to advertise a fitness centre in North London.

"It's ridiculous," Mike shakes his head dolefully, "they're in use all over the US. You can also take Segway tours of most major European cities, it's only here that we can't seem to get going. And you want to know the really ironic thing..." Go on, Mike, tell me, please "...Tony Blair's got a Segway! It was given to him by an emir from the Gulf." Aha! It all makes sense when Mike tells me this: Blair's Messianic belief in himself; the sense of the New Age rushing fluidly towards him; the ability to dodge and weave between his political opponents. Clearly, Our Great Leader has been spending rather too much time on his self-levelling, powered scooter.

Poor Mike has been reduced to hiring his Segways out for corporate events. I'd like to tell him not to get too down about this. I want to remind him of all those happily soma-medicated gammas and deltas, heading off in their flying cars to play clock-golf at Stoke Poges. Aldous Huxley was on to something when he envisaged the entire future as one, giant corporate event - we're almost there already. But somehow I don't think this sunny observation will burn through Mike's internal clouds; he's still in the realm of the achievable, rather then the merely possible: "We're holding a rally next month," he confides. "All the Segway owners in Britain are going to converge on Downing Street."

What a fine sight this will be. However, I don't imagine it will provoke that much in the way of executive action. Perhaps the Segway's day will come, but if it does it's a long way down the road, or across the field between the bullocks. The problem with techno-futurity is that it needs to happen all at once. The Segway is the comprehensive school of innovation: it would be a great vehicle if absolutely everyone rode one, but given that a substantial moiety still insists on tooling along in their Jeep Grand Cherokees, you'd have to be a bit of a numbskull to venture into traffic on one.

No, technological change isn't what we anticipated growing up in the 1950s, Sixties and Seventies (see feature, page 31). Then we looked at the coming world on the back of our cereal boxes. Here were detailed all the amazing gizmos that were going to transform our world: Supersonic planes! Giant, hydroponic farms on space stations orbiting the earth! Tunnels underneath the Channel! Multiple organ transplants! Courtesy of the cereal box copywriters and graphic artists, these Dan Dare visions were brought to life: entire, and of a piece, with cities of gleaming, crystal spires, etc, etc. The completion dates for these marvels were always comfortably in the near-future: 1968, 1972, 1984. The distant future was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with every last interplanetary detail, meticulously designed by a monomaniac deity on a Hertfordshire estate.

It wasn't like that, was it? The unstoppable advance of the technological enlightenment began to falter. Instead of being wholesale, the true shock of the new was how piecemeal it all was. We got the Channel Tunnel, eventually, but the supersonic passenger jet came, and then - just like space travel - it went again. We got the multiple organ transplants, eventually, but we never got the meal in pill form, and we certainly didn't get our personal jetpacks, which would turn the daily commute into a f loop-the-looping gavotte with Aeolus himself. If 2001 was the future every cereal-box reader expected, Blade Runner was the one we actually got. Released in 1982, Ridley Scott's take on Philip K Dick's robotic, philosophic meditation, represented the very zenith of our Promethean parabola; before we crashed, like a cut-rate Space Shuttle, back to earth. Here was an imagined future that was piecemeal, with slums, dereliction and dirty alleyways, down which skulked perfect androids dreaming of electric sheep. From the skies above this 21st-century LA, the rain fell relentlessly from a smog-occluded sky. It wasn't that the technology of Blade Runner had given us a nightmare, it was rather that despite everything, we still had to pay the gas bill and take the rubbish out.

By the time we got to the near-future imagined by the Wachowski brothers, über-nerd constructors of The Matrix (1999), the capacity for technology to represent any kind of credible, social advancement had all but drained away. Within a year of the film's release, the mobile phones sported by Neo, Morpheus and Trinity as they battled to defeat the eponymous, and omnipotent, artificial intelligence, were looking ridiculously chunky and old-fashioned. How could we believe anyone's multi-million-dollar, computer-generated vision, if they failed to anticipate this homely detail? And by extension, clearly the future had never before been so dated.

Don't get me wrong (or else I'll have to have you eliminated by nanobot assassins injected into your bloodstream), I'm no Luddite. I fully appreciate my dependence for a steady supply of out-of-season sugar-snap beans on highly-advanced jet engines churning the airways between here and Nairobi. I understand, also, that my insouciance in the face of the threat of global pandemic, has a lot to do with the fact that I live within coughing distance of five major London teaching hospitals. Not forgetting MI5, that estimable counter-terror organisation, which is based just down the road from where I'm typing, its formidable battery of state-of-the-dark-arts electronic surveillance equipment cunningly hidden in a hi-spec office building which looks as if it were designed by Albert Speer on Prozac.

Yes, my very existence is guaranteed by these technologies, which is why I'm free to disdain them. The pornographic superhighway, before which many millions of men bow down; the myriads of mobile phones, into which are vouchsafed the most prosaic accounts of our human existence (I'm here - you're there). Frankly, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, if a lion could speak it would have more interesting conversations on a mobile phone than most of us ever do. (There's a wildebeest over by the waterhole and I'm about to rip its guts out.)

And then there's the latest must-have piece of world-shrinking kit: the sat-nav. Amazing that that same government which cannot let poor Mike set free his Segways, none the less allows the remorseless proliferation of this device, which seems purpose-designed to make drivers less attentive to the road ahead, while glued to yet another VDU. I suppose that just as with mobile phones in cars, they'll wait until there's 100 per cent market saturation before they introduce the appropriate controls.

Actually, Mike himself was in thrall to sat-nav. He called me up en route to deliver my Segway, and said: "I should be with you shortly, I'm just coming into London on the M4."

"Really?" I replied sceptically. "That's quite a way from where I live."

"Well," he came back, "my sat-nav gives me an ETA of 20 minutes." It was no good my telling him that I had an entire bloody lifetime of calculating drive-times in the megalopolis; oh no, he just had to believe in his dash-mounted fetish object. Needless to say, he was a quarter of an hour late with the personal transportation device of the near-future.

Yes, I'm no Luddite, it's just that I have this handy alternative to the GPS called a map. Nothing flashy about this, it's a bit, well, analogue, to tell the truth, but I do find that reading it helps me to, in turn, read the landscape - or the road system - and to truly know where I am. It's the same with writing. For this piece, and anything relatively short, it's fine to tip-tappety along on my laptop. However, if I want to venture out on to the featureless desert of fictional composition, then I need a slower, steadier piece of technology, a camel of a writing implement, if you will. Which is why I've taken to writing my novels and stories on an Olivetti Lettera 22.

This beautiful piece of technology was created in 1949 by Marcello Nizzoli, and 10 years later was voted by the Illinois Technological Institute as "the best designed product of the past 100 years". I may not have much insight into what lies ahead, but I can assert with total conviction that the laptop I'm currently typing on will never be accorded such an accolade. Yes, it's a ghastly little hunk of plastic, and when I've done with it I like to put it in its case and tuck it away in the bookcase. Thus I am saved the woeful distractions of internet surfing and left with only the timelessly elegant Olivetti on the desktop.

No-no, no Luddite me, but an early-adopter of the most discerning sort. Take the Segway. There I was, oozing across my friend Charles's farm and loving it. I thought to myself: "Hmm, if I had a herd of cattle that I needed to corral, this would be exactly the vehicle I'd use. Or," I went on musing, "if I was disabled in some way that meant I could stand and lean well enough, but couldn't actually put one foot in front of the other, then I'd use this in lieu of walking." True, the Segway was great, corporate fun, but the more I oozed and mused, the more it occurred to me that I already possessed a personal means of transportation that did nearly everything the Segway could do, and at a fraction of the cost. It's called a bicycle - have you got one yet?

For more information, or to hire or buy a Segway, contact mike@segway-uk.net

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