Zen and the art of the cycling columnist

Robert M. Pirsig died in April. The name may mean nothing to you, but he was famous for one thing: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – one of the great book titles of the 20th century.

The iconic cover image was arresting, too: a wrench emerging like a blossom from lotus leaves, themselves budding from among the typography of that epic header. 

So I thought, even as a child in 1974, when I saw the fat paperback shift from my mother’s night table to my father’s. There it stopped for a good long time.

When I tasted Pirsig’s prose, some years later, I saw why. The motorcycle maintenance I was into; the zen, not so much. The quotient of Greek philosophy to discussions of spark plugs, let alone the supposed road trip story, was way too high for me. 

But I did get this, at least, from Pirsig: “Actually a root word of technology, techne, originally meant ‘art’. The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them.”

This got my attention. It’s more nuanced, actually, than Pirsig says, but he gets the essential point: what the Greeks called “techne” translates roughly as skill, art or craft — a wonderful fuzziness that we have largely lost, since, increasingly after the Industrial Revolution, we have outsourced so much techne from our hands, eyes and brains to machines. 

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Pirsig never mentioned the make or model of his motorbike, but he made the travels on which the novel was based on a Honda CB77 Super Hawk.

I wonder if he didn’t disclose this because riding a Japanese bike would have hurt the mythos of his quest, at a time when the incursion of manufactured goods from Japan into the US market was controversial: the beginning of globalisation. (In John Updike’s cycle of Rabbit novels, Harry Angstrom is rescued from a dead-end job as a typesetter in a depressed Pennsylvania town when he inherits his father-in-law’s business, formerly in used-car sales but by then a prosperous Toyota dealership.)

Back then, it would have been like admitting you rode Shimano instead of Campagnolo. 

These days, of course, even the might of Japanese manufacturing has lost its mojo. And this is the real trickle-down economics. We move jobs, but we tend to think of our occupations as eternal, long predating and far outlasting us. It isn’t so. The creative destruction of capitalism comes for us, too, and all that is solid melts into air. 

Take my own particular techne. As a writer and editor, I realise I am a classic late 20th century worker: a white-collar worker, a worker by brain, rather than hand. This is not a boast, it is a lament.

Until now, it has largely been blue-collar workers, the workers by hand, who have been put out of their jobs by machines.

That has been a long, slow, painful process — when you think how long ago it was that weavers became Luddites because of the machine looms that made mills the first factory towns 200 years ago; and we’re still talking today about automation and new technology killing manufacturing and industrial jobs.

Indeed, last year’s American election turned, in part, around Donald Trump’s embrace of miners, and his promise to make coal great again.

The reality check here is that there are fewer than 100,000 Americans employed in the entire US coal mining industry (and that’s everyone in allied trades, not just the hard-hat guys), whereas there are more than a quarter of a million people employed in the US solar industry, let alone in other renewables and natural gas.

As The New Yorker’s political correspondent Ryan Lizza recently observed, Trump’s promise to coal miners would be like a politician in the 1920s pledging to make blacksmiths great again long after everyone already had a Model T Ford and had put their horses out to pasture. 

So much for our romance with working-class heroes, but our industrial age nostalgia has had a long half-life. The fallout from the next machine revolution will be nasty, brutish and short. 

Even seemingly high-skill jobs apparently demanding highly-educated white-collar workers like me will be swept away in a couple of decades, not centuries. Already, some sports and business reports are written by algorithm. Why not, ultimately, this column?

I see this day by day: fewer and fewer people acquire their media information by reading large slabs of text. Not only is print, as a mode of distribution, virtually defunct, but text itself is being downgraded. Soon, writers and editors will be replaced by multimedia producers and content providers; it’s happening this minute.

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In a few years’ time, instead of reading a piece like this, you will consume some digital experience that is approximately its intellectual and emotional analogue. It’ll be shinier, less time-consuming, possibly more satisfying and certainly less effortful. 

Maybe even, Netflix or Amazon will one day make a screen adaptation of Pirsig’s book that’s mostly road trip, scenery, sex and late ’60s groovy, with all the academic discussion of Plato and Aristotle reduced to a few profound nuggets of gravelly voiceover.

By then, whether bought out or pensioned off, I’ll probably be studying the art of bicycle maintenance. Because when you lose your job, it’s good to have a techne — even if you can’t be zen about it. 

This column has been reproduced by robots from Rouleur 17.5

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