July 6, 2007

Bakfietsen: Dutch Work Bikes

If you take bicycles seriously as transport infrastructure, you begin to ask what you could do with one besides ride it. The Dutch have an answer to that question, or rather a LOT of answers. They build bakfietsen.

The dictionary calls it a "carrier bike," but translated literally "bakfiets" means "barge bike" -- a very natural metaphor here in Waterland. One of my American friends called them "wheelbarrow bikes," and the most popular version does look something like a wooden wheelbarrow stuck onto the front of a bike. The ones in the top photo here have three wheels, but the wheelbarrow style usually just has two, as in the second photo, where you can also see the kickstand.

Carrying two or three kids is easy in a bakfiets. This guy has one kid on the back, two in the front, and full saddlebags as well. And here is my friend Fiona with her luxury bakfiets, standing outside my son's school. (By the way, in 7 months of taking my son to school here, I have not seen a single child arrive in a car.) Naturally people use them for all kinds of things: shopping, moving house, work of all sorts.

Here's a bike with another way to carry children: multiple baby seats. (The Dutch would not call these bakfietsen, but they're still work bikes.) This one has seats for three kids, plus the adult rider. Yesterday I saw a guy riding an ordinary bike with a baby on the handlebars, a young girl sitting right behind him on the rack, and another girl standing on the rack behind the first girl, holding onto the rider's shoulders. (You try to get pictures of these things, but it's just not possible.)

Finally, here's a bicycle taxi, with room for two people. Costs about the same as a regular taxi for short runs, and though it's slower it can do things a taxi can't, such as ride you right up onto the sidewalk to get close to a door in a rainstorm, as we did the other day.

June 21, 2007

Bicycles in Amsterdam

First of a series of posts on bicycles and bike infrastructure in Amsterdam.

I've been living in Amsterdam since December. One of this city's great pleasures is the cycling life. According to Wikipedia, there are about 700,000 bikes in Amsterdam, almost one bike per inhabitant. Bikes handle 40 percent of all trips inside the city limits. This makes Amsterdam unique among major urban centers in the developed world (though cities like Shanghai and Bombay have a lot more of them.)

Bikes and canals make this city quiet. With so little auto traffic, mostly what you hear is the whoosh of bike tires and an occasional warning bell. Riding in serious bike traffic has been a major learning experience. I've only seen one collision and so far I haven't hit anyone, but it's still a bit terrifying to float along in the pack with hundreds of other cyclists at rush hour. I've seen people doing amazing things, such as carrying a huge television, or half a dozen 3-meter planks. A parent at my son's school carts four children around on a 2-wheel bike (two in front on a long frame extension, one behind on the rack, and one in a baby seat on the handlebars).

The standard Dutch bike is black, with only one gear and a coaster brake. They're very heavy, probably close to 40 pounds (don't try carrying one of these monsters up a set of stairs). You see more and more bikes with handbrakes, additional gears, other colors, etc., but they remain the exception. The riding posture is upright, making the already gigantic Dutch look even taller. Cyclists ride at a stately pace, low by American standards but appropriate for heavy bike traffic, a phenomenon you rarely encounter in the USA.

More than 10 percent of all Amsterdam bicycles get stolen every year, so you're actually better off with the basic bike, cheap and nondescript. Still, the fact that most bikes look very similar can be a real problem if you forget where you've parked. Bike parking lots at train stations can hold thousands of bikes; the photo shows the three-story bike parking structure at Amsterdam's Centraal Station. (Imagine how big this would need to be to accommodate the same number of cars.) Bike racks, provided by the city, are ubiquitous — at least one long rack per city block, holding 60-100 bikes — and they are very often full.

Many people, including me, carry two locks: one that just blocks the back wheel, and another for locking it to something. Junkies are constantly scanning the bike racks, looking for the easy pickings, so if you have two locks they're more likely to let yours be. Apparently the price of a stolen bike on the black market exactly tracks the price of a shot of heroin. Bar locks aren't as secure as the colossal Stahlex chains and padlocks most people use. The Hummer of bike locks, this setup probably weighs 3 kilograms. When you try to snake it through the wheel and the bike frame, the chain behaves like a slippery, very dead python, flopping around and yanking itself out of your hands. The padlock pulls apart, into two pieces, so you end up with four items in your hands (padlock body, padlock hasp, two ends of the chain), which is one too many to handle. It took me one very frustrating month to train myself to put the lock body down while I wrestled with the chain. Probably hundreds of padlocks and chains fall into the canals every year while their owners are trying to lock them to the railing.

Kids here learn to ride almost as soon as they learn to walk. Training wheels are typical, but you also see kids on the much more sensible German "walking bike," which teaches them to balance without the training wheels and makes the transition faster. Adults mostly don't wear helmets, but a lot of kids do.

Cycling is totally integrated into the Dutch urban transport mix. It's not an afterthought or an optional add-on, but a fourth mode of street-level transport along with pedestrians, automobiles/buses, and light rail. You can take your bike on the metro and the train (though not on trams and buses). Stairways in metro and train stations have a very thin metal ramp, just wide enough for bicycle wheels, to facilitate getting bikes up and down. Folding bikes are common, too.

For the most part, cyclists get not only bike lanes, but actual bicycle roadbeds, separated from the sidewalk, the tram tracks, and the street by curbs or other physical barriers (not just markings). Cyclists have their own, separate system of traffic lights, adorned with happy little green, yellow, and red bicycle icons. The basic warning device is a bell, but people don't use them much -- mainly just to warn the tourists, who are always stepping into the bike lane in order to get around other pedestrians, or just because it looks like a good place to walk.

This semi-separate roadway infrastructure makes a huge difference to the cycling experience. Mostly you're riding with other cyclists, not competing with cars. Drivers here are much more respectful and careful of cyclists, probably because they're all cyclists as well. In the USA, many drivers still seem to think cyclists shouldn't ride in the road at all. (Last Fall my dentist asked me helpfully whether I'd been sure to stay on the sidewalk on my way to her office.) American drivers honk their horns and indulge their road rage against you, even if you're lucky enough to have the rare luxury of a bike lane. Here they look out for you. Nobody honks, ever. (It's positively weird.)

To me the most interesting reasons for why this works so well here regard the cycling culture Dutch people have created. In the USA, you only ride a bike everywhere if you're a kid. (Even then, mainly because you're not old enough to drive.) If you're an adult and you're on a bike, it means you are either having XTreme fun (and often wearing garish cycling tights to prove it), or getting exercise, or both. But if you are a serious adult professional person, you do not, not, NOT go to work on a bike. If you show up to work carrying a bike helmet, somebody will almost always say something. The comment won't necessarily be hostile, but it will still remind you that you're unusual, different, -- out of the ordinary, perhaps slightly heroic, perhaps a bit nuts or not quite grown up. If you're wet from rain -- or worse, sweat -- you'll soon be looking for a back door where you can sneak into your office without anybody noticing your soppy state.

In the Netherlands, cycling isn't seen this way. Nobody thinks twice if you show up on a bike, because everybody rides. If you're really wet, you might get offered a towel, but it won't be accompanied by the "you are an alien" look people give you in the States. I've seen people riding in high heels, swimming suits, sandals, fur coats, expensive business suits, and long evening gowns. Not just in good weather, either, but in cold, heat, and rain. Yes, people can get drenched and unhappy, but they cope, and nobody complains because everyone's doing it. Cycling in the rain isn't always a good idea. I found this out the hard way, when I came down with pneumonia after a long evening of searching the grachtengordel in the rain, looking for another sauna after Deco turned out to be closed. (We never found it.) Still, if you wear good raingear and carry a towel, it's really not a problem most of the time. As one of my more intrepid friends likes to say, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

I can hear the "yes, buts" starting now, all the way across the Atlantic. "Yes, but I have to wear a skirt to work." "Yes, but I'm wearing a suit and tie (or makeup, or nice shoes, or whatever), so I can't sweat." My point here is that these reactions are not natural facts. The cultural infrastructure of cycling is at least as important as the physical infrastructure in creating a critical mass.

If enough other people are doing it too, cycling becomes a normal form of transport — a default option. Then the problems you confront become normal problems, not exceptional ones that draw commentary and puzzlement. Need to dry off? Keep a towel in your office. Want to stay dry on the bike? Buy full-body raingear. Wearing a skirt? Choose an upright bike with a "woman's" frame with no crossbar (which in the Netherlands is standard for both men and women). Too many hills between you and your job? So what are you doing on the Lifecycle at your gym? We've got an obesity epidemic, but people won't be caught dead sweating in public.

In future posts I'll have more on Dutch work bikes (bakfietsen) and other technological innovations; the Dutch cyclists' union and the history of cycling infrastructure here; Amsterdam consulting with London and other large cities on how to increase cycling; bikes vs. other forms of transport; bike safety. And lots of pictures.

June 20, 2007

Default Options

In April, Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz published an NYT op-ed called "Unnatural Selections," about default options in practically every sphere of life.

People have to make a lot of choices — too many choices. If we considered all the options, we'd overheat, burn, and then die of choice overload. To economize on brainpower and time, we generally go with the default. Schwartz's example: in New Jersey, where no-fault car insurance is the default option, most consumers get that, but in Pennsylvania, which began offering no-fault around the same time, consumers have to choose it explicitly — so most people don't. This goes against their economic interests, since no-fault insurance is a lot cheaper.

The cartoon accompanying Schwartz's article makes the point better than he does. A scowling diner stares in disgust at a restaurant table covered with food -- literally covered, with gravy oozing into the tablecloth, because he "didn't choose the 'plate' option." A leisure-suited salesman shows off a new car with no wheels, because "you didn't choose the 'wheels' option." Etc. etc.

There's a real lesson here. It's related to, but not identical with, ideas like "path dependence" and "configuring the user." All infrastructures create default options; in fact, that's half the point of having an infrastructure at all. Yet the bigger, more widely accepted, and more deeply entrenched an infrastructure becomes, the harder it becomes to make use of other options, the ones that have to be deliberately chosen and configured (if they still exist).

I'm living in Amsterdam this semester, where bicycles are (almost) the default option for short-distance transport: 40 percent of all trips inside the city limits. A standard conversation you can have with Dutch people involves the total dominance of cars in the USA. Like most Europeans, they assume you can go almost anywhere on public transport. They're not idiots; they know that many trips may be slower on trains, buses, and trams than in a car. What they're not prepared for is the "you can't get there from here" answer they'll hear across the USA, at least outside the downtowns of large Northeastern cities and a handful of others. A Dutch colleague took a one-semester job at a US university. To her complete amazement, even for such a short period there was really no way to do without a car. Not only that, she would be expected to pay for the car, insurance, parking, and everything else the four-wheeled beast needs to live. Her employers and colleagues were equally amazed by her consternation, since from their point of view, what else would you do? It's the default option.

In the IT world, this lesson gets learned again and again, a bit better over time, perhaps, but never once and for all. In the 1980s Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores developed a program for distributed workgroups called the Coordinator. Based on a speech-act theory of interaction, the Coordinator attempted to help people complete multi-step interactions. To begin, they had to explicitly categorize each communication as a form of action: make a Request, reply with a Promise, Cancel an earlier request, make a Counter-request, etc. "Request" was the first action in most sequences, so it was the default option, and sure enough, practically every transaction -- including responses to requests -- were soon identified as "Requests," reducing the capacity of the program to channel and track action and turning it basically into glorified email. Another example: Microsoft Word users, probably including you, suffer the plague of Word's "auto-recover" feature, which sounds a lot like the "auto-save" option most programs have -- but isn't. (Word keeps a file of changes to the document, but does not actually save the document itself, so that if you crash and then make the wrong response to the auto-recover dialogue, your changes are gone forever. I recently spent an entire day trying, and failing, to drag some of my work out of Autorecover's jaws.)

This lesson applies to almost anything: privacy (opt-in vs. opt-out), law (the power of precedent), social interaction (default greetings, goodbyes, unspoken codes of behavior surrounding argument), software (default document and data formats), and on and on.

So designers, choose the choices carefully. Whatever users get when they don't make a choice is probably what most people will end up with. And contrary to popular belief, most people don't actually want to make more choices.

April 19, 2007

South Africa 2003-04: Habit as Infrastructure

Sixth in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

The experience of foreign travel is heavily marked by encounters with infrastructures different from your own. It's one of the main things that makes the "foreign" foreign. You drive on the other side of the road. You need electrical adapters and transformers. You get on the bus not knowing you have to "compost" your ticket, as the French put it, so you have a frustrating and perhaps expensive encounter with the transport police. These encounters with infrastructure cause accidents, misunderstandings, and delays. They require you to concentrate and focus on things that are normally transparent.

They also mark you as foreign. Before you even open your mouth, people can see from your body language that you don't know what you're doing. Every time I live abroad for more than a few weeks, an important moment arrives when I've internalized the habits of mind and body required to negotiate foreign infrastructures. Rather suddenly, people mostly stop asking if I'm on holiday, or where I'm from, and they stop trying to show me where the light switches are. Of course they hear my American accent, but it seems to me that the non-verbal sense of whether or not I'm at home here trumps.

What habits are involved in "being at home" in another country?

Take the simple act of leaving my house, negotiating the physical infrastructures of the house, the garage, and the car. How do these habits both depend on and actually make up infrastructures? Which aspects of my new habits are specifically South African?

Here's how it goes. Preparing to leave the house, I collect whatever I'm going to take with me. This depends on the errand, of course. But no matter what, I have to assemble a set of things that go into my pockets: cellphone, wallet, house keys, car keys. First step: find the cellphone. If it's not out on one of the obvious surfaces, make use of the telephone infrastructure itself: call the cellphone from another phone and hunt for it while it's ringing.

My need for the phone is partly the same and partly different here than in the USA. Mainly I need it because I have a young child and I want to stay in touch if I'm leaving without him. But I also need it because it's stupid to move around in South Africa without some way to call home, call the cops, call for emergency services, etc. It's a safety device. This isn't just me. White South Africans I've met say that their epiphany about actually needing a cellphone came while driving at night along a dark stretch of highway in a hijack zone and realizing that a cellphone, in that place, at that time, could mean the difference between life and death.

Next, find the wallet. Usually it's somewhere near the phone. If it's not, search pockets and surfaces. This process becomes progressively more irritating when it has to be repeated, sometimes several times. One possible solution might be to find a dumping spot near the front door and convert the emptying of pockets into a habit connected with entering the house. This worked in Ann Arbor, but it does not work in South Africa because we live on the second floor and don't want to leave valuables in the first-floor entryway, where they could be spotted by burglars. Other factors: as Luka gets taller, storage surfaces that once worked are no longer safe, and we sometimes use our wallets and especially our phones elsewhere in the house. So a formerly habitual act has become one requiring conscious effort on a daily basis due to the combination of South African safety concerns, personal circumstances, and architecture.

Third, find the house keys and car keys. This is usually easier because we've made a habit of leaving them on the key rack by the front door, in the entryway. (This is not visible from the front door.) Grabbing car keys from the hook was transparent in the USA, but not here. The keys are attached to our "panic button," used to instantly summon armed guards if we're attacked anywhere in the vicinity of the house or garage. We have to handle the keys carefully so as not to push this button by accident. (Even more important, we can't let Luka get hold of this. From his point of view buttons exist to be pushed, repeatedly, until something interesting happens.) Would we remember to use the panic button? I doubt it. Though we've practiced and tried to ingrain the idea, it's precisely because using the panic button is not a habit that we would most likely forget about it in the shock of an encounter with an assailant.

Now I'm ready to leave the building. Unlock front door, pass through it, close and re-lock. Open metal security gate with complicated winged key which only works in one of two possible orientations, whose difference is indiscernible to naked eye. Lock rarely works the first time; key must be wiggled and coaxed. Pass through security gate, close, re-lock. (This isn't very different from living in, say, New York City, except that each lock must be manually re-locked.) Down steps into courtyard, cross courtyard, up steps into narrow hallway at building entry. Open door from entryway into garage, being careful not to slam door into side of car just inside. Close door since car cannot exit with door open. Squeeze through narrow space between car and garage wall, past large metal mailbox which protrudes irritatingly into garage through wall. Squeeze through even narrower space between the car's rear bumper and the garage door. (Clearance less than 18 inches, very annoying if you're carrying bulky items.) Push button to open garage door; wait for door to roll up (literally). It took me months to smooth out this sequence of motions, and the squeezing around the car remains impossible to ignore.

Darkness never falls later than 6:30 PM in Durban. This is another sociotechnical effect. South Africa has a single time zone; it's the same as Western Europe, even though Durban lies on the same longitude as Kiev. So we're often leaving the house in darkness. If it's dark, I immediately exit the garage to the street and scan the area for lurking criminals. If I'm carrying anything at all, I put it into the trunk of the car, since here nothing can be carried on the back seat or the passenger seat lest it be seen and snatched by smash-and-grab artists. Back door of Subaru Forester opens upward and will collide with garage door if not lifted very gently. Car must be re-sold at end of year, so any damage to finish will be costly. After stowing gear, step out and scan street for miscreants again. This isn't just about petty theft; hijackers choose particular vehicles and make a careful study of their drivers' habits before they strike, so a display of constant vigilance is an important deterrent.

Squeeze between driver's side of car and garage wall. NB: driver's door would be on other side of car in USA, obviating two-thirds of the squeezing process. Open car door and get in. If you're me and Gabrielle has been driving the car, this involves yet another squeeze, since her seat position does not leave enough space between steering wheel and seat for me to enter in the normal fashion. Instead, I have to sit down facing the garage wall, scrabble around for the lever, slide the seat back, and then swing my legs in, meanwhile trying not to grind the car door into the garage wall.

All of this even more difficult if carrying 1-year-old child who must be crammed into his car seat, placed on driver's side under police advisement. (If hijacked, driver traveling solo with child needs to reach child without having to walk around vehicle while confronting armed and extremely nervous hijackers likely to bolt with child still in back seat.) While cramming child, parent may also need to deprive him of keys surrendered to child in earlier steps. Forcible key deprivation leads to immediate and inconsolable screaming. Persuasion works better, but can take several minutes.

Insert key into lock. Turn on car. Disarm anti-hijack system by pressing button cleverly hidden under stick-shift cover; failure to push button results in suspicious cellphone calls from dispatchers of vehicle recovery helicopters. Lock doors to inhibit hijackers, kidnappers, and purse-snatchers. Back car into street. Attempt to close garage door using remote control, which only works some of the time — perversely, it does better at 30 meters than directly outside the garage. If remote fails, dismount from vehicle and close door manually. Return to vehicle.

Just seeing the space it takes to write out this sequence of actions shows how complicated it actually is. Some of it, like the tight squeeze through a tiny garage, might be the same anywhere. But some parts of the sequence are peculiarly South African: the security gate with its strange winged key; the need to hide luggage; constant vigilance, such as scanning the street; all the other safety issues around car hijacking and smash-and-grab.

Taken together, all this made my exit sequence infuriating for the first several months. So many things required memory and conscious effort. Awkward and uncomfortable physical movements— wiggling the key, squeezing through the garage, dismounting from the car to shut the garage door — were inherently irritating.

The interesting thing is how most of this is now habitual. I go through most of it quite quickly now, without thinking about it much. I unlock the gate, squeeze through the garage, and blast through the car startup sequence in a smooth blur of motion, a kind of dance. I don't worry so much about security, either, precisely because these precautions have become habitual. There's even a certain pleasure in this coordination, so painstakingly acquired. I very rarely set off the panic button by mistake, or forget the antihijack system and the locks. It's a micro-example of something repeated in every human interaction with infrastructure, everywhere, every day.

Another example involves driving on the other side of the road. After thirteen months here driving on the left-hand side seems so natural that when I watch an American film my right foot presses involuntarily on an imaginary brake when somebody speeds off in a right-hand lane. Everybody who's learned to do this knows that the most dangerous moments lie not in the new situation, whose strangeness makes you nervous and alert, but in returning to your old situation, where you relax too quickly, expecting your old reflexes to return.

The intriguing thing is how this habit extends far beyond the context of driving. It eventually dawns on you that it governs informal rights-of-way as well. If you're descending a staircase and meet someone coming up, which way do you move? In the USA it's to the right, but here in South Africa (as in the UK, Australia, etc.) it's to the left. You get in your lane, as it were. The same goes for sidewalks, queues in public toilets, and virtually any other public space. It's a physical manifestation of an infrastructural standard which exists as law on the road, but equally, as custom, in other rights-of-way.

In a tiny way, watching these and many other habits entrench themselves in our lives has helped me understand why and how racial segregation persists de facto when it is no longer de jure. The infrastructures built under apartheid endure, in part, just because people keep on doing what they've always done. Of course this isn't just South Africa. It's everywhere. Human habit forms an integral part of all infrastructure. It's how we keep from having to think about mechanical things we have to do every day. And habits, as we all know, die hard.

South Africa 2003-04: Crime and Technology in Everyday Life

Fifth in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

With some of the world's highest violent crime rates, South Africa is a very dangerous place. In our first three weeks here, we met five different people who had recently been victims of crimes. (How long does it take you to meet this many crime victims?) Smash-and-grab operations, common at stoplights, will sntach cellphones, handbags, or almost anything else in view — even, recently, a backgammon board. Only an idiot carries a camera or a purse on a city street here. Last year, during an AIDS conference here in Durban, thieves relieved an American researcher of his laptop computer, containing the only copy of data from a major experiment. (Miraculously, the machine was later returned.) Heavily armed assaults on armored cars are commonplace. Hundreds of policemen are killed annually in the line of duty. Not long ago one of our friends' best friends was murdered.

Crime and violence aren't restricted to urban settings. Farm attacks, including murder, are an extremely serious problem in some rural areas. Thousands of farmers have been killed since 1994. This, too, reflects the persistence of apartheid pattern: whites still own most of the country's arable land, though government land reform programs are beginning to build momentum.

Soon after we moved here, a government minister pulled into a large, well-lighted service station on the freeway near Durban. In full view of other motorists and station attendants, three hijackers beat his bodyguard to a bloody pulp and made off with his Mercedes, firing several shots as they made their getaway. This is a daily occurrence in South Africa, where some 100,000 cars (out of about 5 million total) are stolen each year. Hijackers seize about 15,000 of these at gunpoint. Some hijackers belong to professional gangs, which take vehicles across the northern borders for resale or break them down for parts, but according to the Durban police most hijackers try to sell the vehicle immediately for a quick profit. As a result, streets in our neighborhood empty completely at night. After about 10 PM, you will not see a single car parked at the curb.

Technological defenses against crime reach heights of sophistication here. New cars invariably come equipped with immobilizers (anti-hotwire devices which prevent the car from being started without a key). We subscribed to one of the very popular satellite tracking services, which mounted a hidden GPS sensor on our car so it can be pinpointed if stolen or hijacked. The resulting insurance discount nearly paid for the service. The low-rent version of satellite tracking simply reports the car's location to the South African police, but the one we got includes private response via helicopter from the tracking company itself, which claims to have recovered over 15,000 stolen cars in an average time of 45 minutes. The deputy minister's car was recovered this way, in six hours, but no sign of the hijackers.

To protect their homes, large numbers of middle-class people subscribe to private "armed response" services which provide intrusion sensors and immediate dispatch of armed security guards in the event of a break-in. These services will also construct an electrified fence around your property to fry would-be intruders. We opted for a simple "panic button" which brings guards on the run. The puzzle for us has been how to keep the button ready to hand without Luka's getting hold of it too, since from his point of view buttons exist to be pushed, repeatedly, until something interesting happens. 911 and equivalent phone numbers will connect you to public police, ambulance, and fire departments, but you might wait many hours for them to show up. So if you're in real trouble, you call a private emergency number such as that provided by cellphone company Vodacom, which has its own teams of paramedics, etc. Cell-C, another cellular provider, actually offers free private emergency services to subscribers.

Still, low-tech defenses dominate. Guards at the exits of parking garages peer at your steering wheel to see whether there's a key in the ignition. (If there isn't, you've hot-wired the car.) Many homeowners believe that dogs deter burglars. They're probably right, though the incessant barking of our neighbors' numerous beasts has made us think we'd prefer to be robbed. We rented a movie called "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," but turned it off when no methods had been described after 45 minutes. The cult of handguns in South Africa makes the American NRA look like a croquet club. I invite anybody who believes the Texas slogan that "an armed society is a polite society" to move here. Under apartheid, black people could not own guns; an unfortunate effect of democratic government has been to democratize the means of violence. Vast numbers of illegal weapons circulate, though recent laws require gun licenses and safety training.

Strangely, most locks remain simple affairs, little evolved since their Victorian origins. You could pick them with a Swiss Army knife. Our front door's tough steel security gate can be removed from its hinges in less than a minute by any idiot with a wrench. (I know this because I tried it.) These apparent vulnerabilities probably reflect the low technological sophistication of the criminal elements here.

Another ubiquitous low-tech security system is the car guard. Hundreds of thousands of people must earn their living this way. Some of them are paid employees, wearing official-looking vests advertising their employers, but probably the large majority work strictly for tips. The going rate is roughly R2 during the day and R5 at night, so a guard who can bring in a couple of dozen tips a day would earn more than the minimum wage. Duties are unspecified, beyond keeping an eye on your car in some vague way and "helping" drivers back out. of parking spaces. Never having driven a car themselves, many car guards stand uselessly in one of your blind spots, whistling or making incomprehensible hand gestures. Some of our white friends complain that the guards aren't likely to try to stop a determined thief. (For a forty-cent tip, would you?) True enough, we thought, but the mere presence of a witness discourages some would-be thieves.

So we pay out these tips with near-religious enthusiasm. This largesse makes us quite popular with guards at places we go on a daily basis, like the Virgin Active gym, where our favorite guards wave and make goo-goo eyes at Luka. Armed hijackings and break-ins have happened in Virgin Active parking lots, so this feels like money well spent. In smaller towns and cities we've frequently encountered street people and drunks who — pegging us instantly as tourists, in our overloaded Subaru with its car-top carrier — either volunteer to watch our car or appear, out of nowhere, as we're leaving to demand a tip. We usually give these people money unless they're obviously lying. Virtually all car guards we've met are black men, though we do come across the occasional white man, and even a couple of white women. I don't recall ever seeing a black female guard, nor any Indian or colored guards, though they may exist.

The most common property defenses are the seven-foot walls surrounding most houses in middle-class houses — not just in cities, but even in rural towns. These walls dramatically alter the experience of walking around on the street. You're effectively in a corridor with an open ceiling. The cement-and-brick corridors trap the roar of passing vehicles, massively amplifying the sound. You see little of the lovely architecture and gardens, only roofs and maybe part of an upper story. Often the upper windows are obscured by burglar bars. Vicious barking comes out of nowhere, from dogs hidden behind the walls. It's a bad situation for the poor dogs as well, one dog owner pointed out to us, since most of them can't see passersby but only hear them. Then there are the constant reminders of danger — razor wire, electrified security fences, spike-topped walls, "armed response" signs. Some neighborhoods have unilaterally introduced road blockades and boom gates, manned by guards, which force drivers to stop on entry and exit. This strategy cuts crime dramatically by making getaways more complicated, though the legality of private decisions to block public roadways remains in dispute.

It's tax season here, so the small minority with serious income to report have been hunting for deductions to claim. A recent op-ed piece ruminated on how much all these security services cost the South Africans who can afford to pay for them. Isn't this effectively a tax, the writer wondered, for services government ought to be providing its citizens? Can't we at least deduct it on our tax returns? Small consolation for our nanny Nolizwi, who had every stitch of her clothing, including shoes and underwear, stolen from her apartment by one of her neighbors. She won't be hiring armed security services anytime soon.

South Africa 2003-04: Cheap Labor, Unemployment, and Technology

Fourth in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

Massive unemployment in South Africa — at least 30 percent, 42 percent by some estimates — makes labor extremely cheap. In 2002 the government instituted a minimum wage, presently R864/month (about $145 at current exchange rates). Vast numbers of people paid off the books still get less than this. For most people, commuting costs eat up around 20 percent of a minimum-wage salary. What remains permits bare subsistence for a small and extremely frugal family, but no more. Yet as in Henrietta's case, the ravages of AIDS translate into increasing numbers of orphans and a decreasing ratio of healthy, employed adults to the sick and the very young.

Cheap labor means that by American or European standards, many workplaces are hugely overstaffed. At restaurants you're greeted by a phalanx of waiters and waitresses. You'd think this would mean fantastic service; instead, it only creates confusion about who's responsible for you, and most of the staff spend the bulk of their time standing around. Drop into a hair salon for a simple haircut: one person greets you, another washes your hair, a third dries it and preps you for the stylist, while yet a fourth person brings you espresso. Self-service at petrol stations is completely unheard of.

Overstaffing extends to households as well. People in our income bracket typically employ not just one, but two, three, or more workers: a housekeeper, a gardener, a nanny, 24-hour security guards shared by several houses on a city block. The looming threat of unemployment makes these domestic jobs into sinecures. When an owner leaves a house, workers fight tenaciously to stay on with the successor.

Cheap labor also means that a lot of superfluous work gets done, just because it can. Cars are washed so often you'd think the paint would wear off. Public restrooms remain spotless all day. Lawns are constantly mown. Hedges are hacked to stubble. Tee shirts and even underwear are ironed. Breakfast is served in bed. (No, we didn't sink to this, but it happens.)

Cheap labor and fear of unemployment create a double disincentive to introduce more efficient technology. Along highway margins, teams of men whale away at miles of grass with hand scythes. Occasionally somebody fires up a gas-powered weed-whacker, but the huge mowing machines that decimate American median strips seem unknown here. Guys sit placidly beside boom gates all day, lifting them for vehicles. Office staff copy information from one paper form to another, while computers sit idle on their desktops. Though she will use the washing machine and dryer for clothes, Henrietta spends hours cleaning dishes by hand rather than deal with our (admittedly terrible) dishwasher.

Government strategy for fighting unemployment includes huge, deliberately labor-intensive public works programs. (Plans for improving workers' life chances once these projects dry up remain vague.) Simultaneously, major export industries such as mining and automobile manufacture have invested heavily in high-tech efficiency improvements, shedding hundreds of thousands of unskilled jobs In the last decade. Public education is in crisis, with business complaining that high school graduates cannot read. Innumeracy is chronic; even much of the better-educated population cannot compute simple sums, much less interpret statistics. You don't realize just how huge a problem innumeracy can be until you've tried to get a refund from people who can't add. Thus a vast and widening gulf separates the fortunes of unskilled workers from those of their skilled and educated counterparts. To us, it's a stark reminder of the embeddedness and invisibility of human skill in societies like the USA, where a far larger percentage of citizens can claim basic literacy, numeracy, and familiarity with complex technical systems.

South Africa 2003-04: Apartheid as Infrastructure

Third in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

During the apartheid era, South Africa's central government grew huge, bureaucratic, and powerful. Government departments and government-owned "parastatal" corporations constructed highways, railroads, water supplies, electric power grids, a telephone system, television networks (starting in 1976), and all the other apparatus of "developed" societies. The white minority government constructed an image of South Africa as part of the developed world, holding the line against African communist insurgencies as a key Cold War partner of the US and the UK. "First Economy" infrastructures were, of course, built chiefly to benefit the white population. Black townships and rural areas, especially the so-called "homelands," fell far behind — not only because government invested far less money in those areas, but also because it adopted much lower quality standards and focused on different things: housing, schools, and health services rather than transportation, electrification, and communication.

"Separate development" meant different, yet intricately interconnected and overlapping infrastructures for blacks and whites. As in the segregated American South, laws required separate public facilities for blacks and whites, such as bathrooms, waiting areas, railway cars, buses, and so on. In other words, the architectural principles of virtually all South African infrastructure were technopolitical. Infrastructures were designed to enforce, perpetuate, and strengthen the separation of racial groups. Yet at the same time these infrastructures had to facilitate the movement of black labor into (and out of) white spaces on an as-needed basis.

The inherent contradiction between these two aims sometimes had to be resolved by secondary elaborations of infrastructure. In the 1960s, blacks living close to Johannesburg were forcibly resettled in the South Western Townships, aka Soweto, about 15 km from the city center. Public buses and a railway line provided commuter transport to inner-city workplaces. In the late 1960s, with the advent of "bullet trains" in Japan, apartheid planners fantasized about moving black workers into homelands hundreds of kilometers from the city, linked to white urban areas by high-speed commuter rail. Planning went quite far before the South African railway services nixed the idea on the basis of cost and practicality. The inadequate speed and volume of "their" transport system forced Soweto-based workers to spend up to five or six hours a day commuting; walking to work was often faster. Meanwhile, whites-only buses and train cars often rode empty. Boycotts of the hated Putco bus system, and physical attacks on the buses, became a significant form of protest after the Soweto riots.

The physical architecture of apartheid extended into private spaces as well. Separate, usually outdoor bathrooms for (black) domestic workers are a typical feature of housing built for well-to-do whites throughout the period. Our house in Durban has one of these, in a filthy spot behind the garage, next to the garbage cans. There's a flush toilet without a seat, with a shower directly in front of it, so that you'd be looking into the toilet bowl while showering. When we first discovered this we thought it must be abandoned. We were astonished to learn that Henrietta had been using them throughout the 16 years she's worked there. Henrietta was equally shocked when we asked her please to use the bathroom inside our flat. We soon learned that this expectation is entirely typical. At an expensive B&B in Melville, Johannesburg, black staff had to use the old servants' toilets outside. Meanwhile the white owner — who constantly dropped her "struggle credentials," such as a prominently placed picture of herself with Nelson Mandela — used one of the indoor toilets. Separate facilities like these can't enforce racial segregation by themselves, but combined with deeply ingrained habits they do allow it to persist almost unnoticed.

Demolishing apartheid's politico-legal context was easy and fast compared with eliminating these infrastructural forms of segregation. City neighborhoods and townships remain strongly identified with particular racial groups. Though a few white people have moved into neighborhoods like Soweto, for the most part whites regard black areas as too dangerous to enter. Driving Nolizwi to Sunday church services in Guguletu, near Cape Town, we did not see a single other white face walking the crowded streets. The irony, of course, is that millions of poor blacks enter wealthy white areas on a daily basis, just as they did under apartheid, to service their (our) homes, care for their (our) children, and staff their businesses.

South Africa has an outstanding road network, built to world-class standards of highway engineering and signage. Even rural dirt roads are maintained to a much higher standard than elsewhere in Africa, though by all reports this is a post-1994 development. But this road network is used very differently by inhabitants of the first economy and the second.

In general, first-economy people trravel in private cars, or in radio taxis designed to accommodate two or three passengers. Second-economy people can't afford cars. Instead, they travel in the old public buses and trains or — far more importantly — in minibus taxis. Crammed minibuses go basically everywhere, not only within cities but even on long-haul intercity routes such as Johannesburg to Cape Town (about 1400 km). In rural areas, there's a secondary system of bakkies (pickup trucks) for travel on dirt roads too rough for the suspensions of heavily loaded minibuses. These taxis account for some 65 percent of all passenger travel in South Africa. It's rare to see a white face inside one.

When influx control laws were abolished in 1985, black people poured into informal settlements near the major cities. Existing public transport could not handle the load. Bowing to pressure, the government deregulated taxi services in 1987, and hundreds of black operators began acquiring 15-seat minibuses. The "kombitaxi" or minibus taxi industry rapidly mushroomed into the country's single largest black-owned business sector, currently worth over R10 billion. Most taxis are Toyota Hiace vans with three or four bench seats. They're designed for a maximum of seventeen passengers, but it's not uncommon to see thirty people crammed into a single vehicle. Territorial "taxi wars" (over where drivers can load passengers) extend to gunfights and murders; since we've been here taxi drivers have fought half a dozen pitched battles in various parts of Durban, sometimes in the midst of crowded commute-hour taxi ranks. To stem the violence, the government is currently engaged in a desperate effort to regain regulatory control, as well as to "recapitalize" the aging and increasingly dangerous taxi fleet.

One morning, with my radio tuned to a popular talk show, I listed in disbelief as an outraged white caller railed against South Africa's supposed lack of good public transport. The well-meaning caller expressed, unknowingly, the racial division surrounding transportation here. It's true that taxis are privately owned, and they do have limits; few taxis, for example, operate after about 7 PM. Still, they operate more cheaply and efficiently than any US or European public transit sytem. The minibuses nearly always travel filled to capacity (or beyond). The system could almost be seen as a realization of Latour's Aramis. The city of Johannesburg, its roadways now choked by Los Angeles-like commute-hour traffic, is presently debating new subway and rail lines. But if all those white commuters in their private cars would hop into minibus taxis instead, Joburg wouldn't need them. If current patterns persist, most white commuters won't use them even if they're built.

South Africa 2003-04: Two Economies?

Second in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

In November 2003, President Thabo Mbeki spoke of South Africa's

two parallel economies, the First and the Second. The First Economy is modern, produces the bulk of our country's wealth, and is integrated within the global economy. The Second Economy (or the Marginalised Economy) is characterised by underdevelopment, contributes little to the GDP, contains a big percentage of our population, incorporates the poorest of our rural and urban poor, is structurally disconnected from both the First and the global economy, and is incapable of self-generated growth and development.

To a large extent the "First" economy is formal, with receipts, records, a credit system, and legally enforceable rights and remedies. The "Second" economy lacks all of these things; it is informal, regulated by community norms, and based on small cash transactions.

The division isn't purely racial, but it is very largely so. Affirmative action policies have improved the situation since 1994, but not very much. In recent years a more aggressive policy known as "black economic empowerment" (BEE) is pushing corporations to acquire substantial equity investment from black partners. So far this too has brought disappointing results. Since the total amount of black-owned capital is tiny relative to that owned by whites, it's common for would-be "empowerment partners" to borrow most of the money they want to invest, sometimes from the very firms they are investing in. The financial markets and the multinationals don't like this very much. Corporations that acquire highly leveraged "empowerment" investors get kudos and government contracts, but their share value tends to plummet dramatically. Heavy demand for their capital has benefited the rich black elite, but the BEE strategy has not (yet) succeeded in drawing poor blacks into the "First" economy in the very large numbers needed to make a dent in South Africa's massive poverty and unemployment. The endemic weaknesses of affirmative action programs — entitlement sensibilities, frictions between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries, rapid promotion of inadequately qualified staff — are already creating debate among policy intellectuals here about sunset provisions for these programs.

Mbeki certainly didn't invent the "two economies" idea, or even the phrase, but his public endorsement of it created something of a stir. Commentators here criticized the concept on a number of fronts. It tends to re-racialize an issue whose post-apartheid basis is (in principle) class; it's part of what some observers see as an Mbeki-led trend toward re-racializing South African political discourse. As rhetoric, the notion lets the government explain away its failure to overcome persistent, and in fact increasing, poverty. Gloomier pundits read it as ANC preparation for a more direct state intervention in the economy. Finally, some said, this language tends to constrict thinking about the "Second" economy, since it suggests fighting poverty by progressively converting the second economy into the first — rather than finding creative ways to improve living standards within indigenous economic traditions.

There's something to all of these criticisms. Yet there's an intuitive power to the idea that simply can't be denied. As a middle-class white American, it's impossible to live in South Africa without staring the "two economies" in the face. As a historian of technology, it's impossible to ignore the ways these economies are built into everyday life here. The two economies aren't just about money and property. They are very definitely about race and ethnicity, as well as class. They're embedded in two parallel, interconnected sets of infrastructures, and in two sets of expectations about the role of technology in work.

For us, daily reminders of the Second Economy come in the form of two human beings: Henrietta, the Zulu housekeeper we inherited from our landlady, and Nolizwi, Luka's Xhosa nanny. (I've left out their last names to preserve anonymity.) We've learned more about South Africa from them than from anyone else. On her monthly half-time salary of R1200 (about $200), 45-ish Henrietta supports her elderly mother. She also supports her 10-year-old grandson Siphosihle, who takes antiretrovirals for the AIDS he contracted from his mother (Henrietta's daughter), who died of the disease a few years after he was born. 27-year-old Nolizwi supports her arthritic mother, her own daughter, and her two sisters on R2500 (about $420).

At double to triple the minimum wage, these are handsome salaries by South African standards. What we pay Nolizwi is about as much as a professional nurse earns here; nonetheless, with food prices at about 75 percent of US levels, the margin between these salaries and bare subsistence is paper-thin. Both Henrietta and Nolizwi tell horror stories about their former employers, who expected 16-hour days of hand-and-foot service for R500 a month. The luxury of cheap domestic help is a trope of conversation among Euro-American expats here. Between 1 and 1.5 million South Africans, almost all of them black women, are domestic workers — a huge chunk of the total workforce.

South Africa 2003-04: Durban

This is the first in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04. I've left them in the present tense, even though I'm only posting them now, in spring 2007:

Since July 2003, Gabrielle Hecht and I have been living in Durban, South Africa with our baby Luka (8 months old when we arrived). We're both historians of technology, so we've spent a lot of time this year thinking about how South African technologies and infrastructures were shaped by apartheid, race, and poverty in one of the world's most multi-ethnic societies. What follows are personal and intellectual reflections on how the past affects the present through the persistence of infrastructures that are simultaneously physical and social.

2003-04 is an important year here. 2004 marks the tenth anniversary of the "South African miracle" of peaceful transition to democratic government. In April, an ANC landslide in the country's third democratic election handed the party full control of the government, with almost 70 percent of seats in the national Parliament — enough to alter the constitution. Nelson Mandela retired from public life. Despite terrifying rates of poverty, unemployment, crime, and HIV infection, in many ways things are looking up here. Consumer confidence reached the highest point since it was first measured 20 years ago. The government finally creaked into action on HIV, rolling out free anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS patients. The rand roared dramatically back from a five-year slump, gaining over 20 percent against the dollar in a single year — a mark of global confidence in the country's economic and political stability. The country won its bid to host soccer's 2010 World Cup. This is not only an honor, but a major economic benefit and another sign that South Africa has re-entered the global mainstream.

We live in Morningside, an upscale area of Durban populated mainly by white people and Indians (who constitute about one-third of the city's population). Durban is the busiest port in Africa. Located on the country's eastern coast, it's South Africa's second-largest metropolis, home to some 3.2 million people. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Zulu members of Inkatha and ANC supporters fought a low-level civil war in this region that cost more than 12,000 lives.

In many respects Durban looks and feels much like many cities in America or Europe. Huge skyscrapers dominate the downtown skyline. Broad, well-marked, brightly lit roads make driving easy. In our area, large, solidly built homes and apartment towers offer comfortable housing. Ubiquitous shopping malls filled with chain stores supply a depressingly familiar range of globally available products. American visitors always notice the profusion of new, expensive cars. Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, and Volkswagen all manufacture vehicles here; automobiles are now one of South Africa's major exports. In the cities, the fixed-line telephone system is state-of-the-art (though expensive). But cellular services dominate the telecommunication system, largely since they extend into the rural areas where the majority of the population lives. Some 15 million people — one out of three South Africans — have cellphones. Broadband and wireless Internet are extremely expensive (over $140/month for ADSL), with limited international bandwidth, but even these advanced services are available if you can pay the price.

In all these ways, Durban can feel so familiar that it's almost possible to forget you are living on the world's poorest continent, in a country where unemployment is at least 30 percent (42 percent according to some estimates), half the population scrapes by on a few dollars a day, and some 5 million people are infected with HIV.