Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Jun 2020

Electricity’s Equivalent to Plastic

The rise of the eBike. More specifically, a return to the electric bicycle and electronic propulsion as a widely available option in general. There was a time, approximately a century exactly ago, when it was not certain whether the internal combustion engine or the electric engine would went out for a transportation option. There were definitely suitable moments for both to be the dominant option. But the internal combustion engine had a more political, and one can argue “grounded” place in the rising economy of the USA in the early 20th century. And while it is clear that the internal combustion engine has won for transport; was also been very clear (even before the pandemic shook oil supplies in demand globally), electricity propulsion is something intriguing enough. It is something, powerful. It is something, which conjures a question “what would’ve happened if electricity won over the internal combustion engine?”

This is not a question that you come to quickly. There is a matter of several dominoes which have presented themselves on a whiteboard before this moment. The first of these has been the adoption of an electronica bike as a transportation mechanism. Globally, the sales of all bicycles are down. But we looked at in segments, the sales of ebikes are up over 85% year over year. In some places, ebikes outsell their analog equivalents 4 to 1. This is not simply a “option” taking place. There is a preference and a priority that is being fulfilled. Whats being made of these elements remixed anew?

Whiteboard Questions

Also on this whiteboard is a question, a series of questions actually. One of them being the topic stimulant of this article, “What is electricity’s equivalent to plastic?” If electricity were to become the dominant transportation mode a little more than a century ago, along with the fact that it became the housing/business grade stitch, what then would that have create it?

Imaginations run the gamut from gravitational wave engines for air travel, to thermochromatic clothing, to misadventures in oil (perhaps missing the discovery of tape, glue, Post-it notes, super soakers, and several other products today that we take for granted). and all of these are indeed possible imaginations to never come to pass because of the route that was taken to be in oil based society rather than (or in opposition to) electricity based one.

What electricity as a base have made for faster development of communication technologies? Would we have gotten to “the Internet“ faster because we already were at radio waves? we have skipped ahead of broadcast television, and move more to the table like model of more narrow cast channels in media possibilities? Would music have evolved the same way that it did (slave/negro spirituals turning into blues turning into jazz turning into branches of gospel which later became rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, pop, explorations with keyboards and 808s, and more)?

On this whiteboard, there is an even more impactful question. How does noise-vibration-harshness (NVH) become defined if the electric drone of an engine is the normalized sound for the primary mode of transportation? Vibration and rhythm internal combustion engines gave also became the foundation for many types of “feel” associated with everything from music, to luxury, to even feelings themselves. Ironically, am reminded of a paper read during college years which said that all music came from railroads (the author made a connection between the inherited beats of music that was popular to their ears with the cadence of a railroad; very much had fun tearing that paper apart). There is a difference to the frequency of electronics then there is to the frequency of those things which are “oil based.” Would we have developed the same types of feeling?

Summation of Imaginations

These are all excellent questions. In fact, these are the kinds of imaginations which enable us to re-engineer some of the things which feel as if they are more complex. For example, does someone need to haul car, or can an eBike fulfill local transportation needs? Taken from the perspective of cost and ability, it is very possible that the eBike does more than enough. However, taken from a cultural history, the oil based auto has a very firm hold on what it means to not only have capability, but also what it means to be secure while promoting a type of affluence/reputation. EVs (primarily cars) are just now getting to that point. The ebike has a long way to go to shift such a perception.

Working on a review of an ebike, these are the kinds of imagination questions which come forward. It’s very possible this equivalent to plastic (this great invention that is so mass produced, so customizable, so widely available) has already been invented, just forgotten in the annuals of history or dismissed in the folders of capitalism. There’s room for something new to be imagined. Room to explore what it means to have an option besides pulling old bones from the ground. What if instead of pulling bones from the sky, we begin to understand magnetism, plasma, and other properties of the air? What if electricity is the means by which we figure out just how versatile humanity can be?