March 12, 2009

Mountain bikes, alien civilizations, and arms races

No, this isn’t a 1984 throwback post. I’m waxing philosophical (which is a hint to stop reading if that sort of thing bores you) about the relationship between technology and unanticipated consequences. With regard to alien civilizations, and also mountain bikes. I think.

This will become relevant to bikes in a minute, really. Bear with me.

One of the interesting conundrums of our times is that, while we’ve got all kinds of powerful and sensitive telescopes and instruments, and have spent a lot of time looking for evidence of other intelligent life around us in the galaxy, we have yet to find anything. This logic problem is known as the Fermi paradox, after the famous mathematician. There are several responses to the Fermi paradox, which are basically:
-Intelligent life actually is very rare, or unique (ie, we’re special).
-We’re looking in the wrong places or the wrong ways (ie, we’re the only intelligent life using radio, everybody else is telepathic or something).
-Other intelligent life is deliberately laying low so that we can’t detect it (ie, nobody likes us).
-Intelligent life tends to develop technology that allows it to quickly kill itself off, so at any given time, intelligent life is rare in the galaxy (ie, civilizations don’t last long).

Call me a pessimist, but the final option seems the most plausible to me. We’re a competitive, intelligent race of tool builders who have an exponentially growing population and limited resources – and better technology almost always means better weapons. My money is on all those alien species having wiped themselves back out shortly (say, within 500 years) after getting to the point where they could use radio. My money is also on humans to go the same route, but I’m trying to work this back to bikes now, so I’ll stop with the depressing exobiology. The point I’m trying to make is that technology improvements always bring unanticipated side effects. Splitting the atom makes electricity, or it makes lots of people dead – it just depends on how you go about it.

Since I can’t think of a good segue for this, here we go.

In the last 20 years, mountain bikes have changed a LOT. Here’s a 1989 Stumpjumper:

I don’t have to tell you that a basic XC mountain bike looks nothing like this now. You can easily poke around online and find a