Adam Smith thought so. In a famous passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he described a "poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition." The young man imagines how much easier his life would be if he could live in a grand home, attended by servants and traveling by coach rather than on foot: "He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation."
The man spends his life striving to achieve his dream. He becomes wealthy, with all the luxuries he imagined, but to get there he has to work so hard that he can never relax.
"Through the whole of his life," writes Smith, "he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power." The man is deluded by the glamour of wealth, tricked by an illusion. Yet his achievement is not only real but socially beneficial: "It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind."
If people won't wear bicycle helmets because they think they look dorky, the typical Anglo-American response is to mandate helmet wearing, even if that means discouraging cycling. In bicycle-loving Northern Europe, however, private carrots are more popular than government sticks. In this post from DeepGlamour.net, I report on a couple of Scandinavian startups that take both safety and consumer tastes seriously.
A couple of weeks ago, I published a WSJ column citing research showing that while bicycle-helmet laws do save lives they also significantly discourage kids (especially teenagers) from riding bikes in the first place. The comments were lively and interesting — as I note in the article, this is a topic that excites all-or-nothing passions — with some people adamantly arguing that appearance is, or ought to be, completely irrelevant: "Riding a bike is not a fashion statement," declared one.
Wearing Yakkay helmets
Except, of course, that for many people it is. As both the WSJ and NYT have reported, bikes are gaining popularity among fashionable urban women. "The idea now is to look like a pedestrian on wheels," a bike retailer told the NYT's Ruth La Ferla. Preferably one liked to be featured on The Sartorialist. The "lovely bicycle" is in, and it doesn't go with the typical bike helmet.
Fortunately, in bike-loving Scandinavia enthusiasts for both bicycles and head-protection have turned not to laws but to design. In my article, I briefly mention Yakkay, a Danish startup that offers stylish helmets with changeable covers. "If you make a stylish bicycle helmet you don't need legislation," says CEO Michael Eide, "and in YAKKAY we wanted to make a helmet people actually want to wear." Now sold in Europe and Canada, Yakkay helmets will be available in the U.S. beginning next spring.
The Hövding: Protection without hat hair (click photo for larger image)
Taking a more radical approach is the Hövding (Chieftain), developed by Swedish designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin. An airbag disguised as a collar, it is, as Ariel Schwartz reports on Fast Company.com, "the complete antithesis of the hard-shelled helmets that cyclists have become used to." Six years in development, it will be available next year. Here's a video of how it works:
Photos courtesy of Yakkay and Hövding.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on October 24, 2010 • Comments
Faithful Dynamist readers may recall my late-2008 post, Depression Lust, and Depression Porn. In my latest WSJ column, I look at the topic from a different angle: how our abundance of stuff makes this very serious downturn easier to bear (one reason journalists can afford to indulge in Depression porn). Here's the opening:
Americans have a lot of stuff—so much, in fact, that getting it under control has become a major cultural fantasy. Witness the Container Store, whose aisles of closet systems and colorful boxes peddle dreams as seductive as any fashion shoot. Or consider shows like "Clean House," on the Style Network, where hosts cajole, browbeat and bribe homeowners into getting rid of half their things and organizing the rest.
Over the past few decades, as businesses have learned to streamline their inventories, American households have done just the opposite, accumulating ever more linens and kitchen gadgets, toys and TV sets, sporting goods and crafts supplies. "Because of all the shopping we've done, many of us now own lots of great stuff we never use anymore. And for some reason, we don't sell or give it away," says GiveYourStuffAway.com, promoting an annual day for leaving unwanted items on the curb for neighbors to cart away.
In today's sour economy, however, what once seemed like waste is starting to look like wealth: assets to draw on when times get tough (and not just because of all those ads promising top dollar for your gold jewelry). Material abundance, it turns out, produces economic resilience. Even if today's recession approached Great Depression levels of unemployment, the hardship wouldn't be as severe, because today's consumers aren't living as close to the edge.