Brian Jones, the first person I ever followed on Twitter, shared a great Guardian article on the weekend about the privatisation of public space. I can’t wholeheartedly agree with the panic. Among left wing libertarians I do have this one quirk: I can imagine a privately owned city (think of Singapore), being the first to see reason and ban cars altogether, to save and make money with bicycle transport (think of Singapore if it were no longer so nouveau riche.) I can also imagine an industrialist or port authority selling, in one giant lot, a city’s entire cache of brownfields and all the canals and rail corridors that link them all up, to a developer with the idea of fencing all those routes to make greenways for the exclusive use of new residents. Maybe the only problem with gated communities is there hasn’t yet been one to suit me!
What struck me though about The Guardian article was one knockout quote from Foucault that I think a lot of cyclists can learn from. I’ll come to the quote. First let me tell you the lesson. It is that the police don’t give a shit if you’re riding on the footpath, even at night with no bike lights. There are too few cyclists in Australia for these issues to come on their radars, or the radars of politicians responsible for their level of service. Do you know why the police fine every one-millionth person? It is because they know that news of the event will turn at least half a million others into self-policing drones, or worse, finger waving volunteer deputies (typically the roadie who thinks he can lecture anyone who has a heavier bike).
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.” — Michel Foucault
Now don’t you feel used? Sure, there is a one-in-one-thousand chance that the cops you just passed as you rolled down the footpath were not more concerned with buying McDonalds. And sure, there is another one-in-one-thousand chance that the discretion invested in them to overlook petty crimes will be overruled on this occasion by some little bee in their bonnets, more likely to do with the new brand of instant coffee back in their staff room than anything you may have done. So yes, there is a very real, one-in-one-million chance that you will be The One who gets booked, who a million other people hear described as that someone who someone once heard of. Slugged with a fine for riding their bike on the footpath! My god!
99.9999% of you reading will not be The One. Whether you’re of the half million others who now self-police, or the half-million like me who ride where they like… that’s the real question. If you ask me, it’s as simple as your IQ. Below 100, you will self-police. Over 100, you won’t.
Here’s where it gets interesting though. The so called “inner urban elite” has raised the average IQ of city centres to just over 100, pushing the average IQ of the suburbs below that. Certain kinds of self-policing that dumb people are prone to, like not watching Al Jazeera for fear of being implicated in a terrorist plot, aren’t visible out on the street in ways that might influence others around them. Legal and illegal behaviour on bikes is a public affair. Hell, it’s like International Go Topless Day with every bastard looking and having an opinion about it.
I live in one of those neighbourhoods Jane Jacobs would love, and still love as it hasn’t been overran by allowance-brats like the West Village. Students and intellectuals (dilute ones I admit) took over here years ago. It’s not a place that sets trends that spread to the suburbs. It’s a place that sets trends that define less than 50 city blocks as a kind of oasis.