Intermediate distance transport as revolutionary mediator

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Davis Foulger
Oswego State University

When new technologies enable the flow of goods and information in new ways, the result can be new communication media. The Segway Human Transporter ("IT") is proposed as a revolutionary mode of intermediate distance transportation that spans a gap between short distance modes of transport (walking, running, etc) and long distance modes of transport (automobiles, buses, ships, trains, and airplanes). What effects might it have on the ways in which we communicate?


The movement of people and message over intermediate distances.


The recently announced Segway Human Transporter ("IT", according to early press reports) has the appearance of a pogo stick on wheels. Its appearance suggests a toy, but its design appears to enable very low cost transportation of people, messages, and goods across intermediate distances. Operation of the Segway has been described as "magic" (e.g. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Arthur C. Clarke). As one watches users making use of the Segway for the first time, this description seems apt. Indeed, the very idea of standing and moving around on what appears to be an unstable platform (a chariot on two parallel wheels without the stablilizing third leg of the horse) is disorienting, and the initial jerkiness of users moving on a Segway for the first time reveals this distrust. The platform is claimed to be self-stabilizing, however, and the ability of new users to move around smoothly within a minute and to do tricks very quickly thereafter (e.g. Sting on Leno's Tonight Show) suggests that the "magic" works. Indeed, it appears to be the first of what may be a new class of "Do what I mean" technologies that actively interpret what users want to do based on small variations of position and balance. The Segway and similar future devices may well turn out to be a very different way of transporting people over intermediate distances.

Today's predominant intermediate distance transportation systems are bicycles, scooters, taxi cabs, panel trucks, and buses. The bicycle is primarily an intermediate distance transportation system, and is widely used for intermediate distance transportation around the world. Buses, panel trucks, and taxi cabs are applications of long distance transportation to intermediate distance applications, and while they can generally go anywhere a bicycle can go, they are large, expensive, and generally fuel inefficient in intermediate distance applications. In its basic configuration, scooters are purely intermediate distance transports. In more powerful configurations (e.g. motorcycles), they are effective long distance transportation. In either configuration they are relatively expensive and fuel inefficient when used in intermediate distance applications.

Intermediate distance transportation systems have proven important to a variety of niche communication media. The most important of these are correspondence messenger services, mail systems, package delivery systems, merchandise distribution and delivery systems, and the transportation of people to messages and/or audiences (e.g. workplaces, schools, restaurants, theatres, museums, etc.).

In its current design the Segway appears to be fairly directly competitive with the bicycle. It has at least some of the faults of a bicycle (lack of foul weather protection, a single user design, and sweat powered, for instance). It also has many of the positive aspects (small size, manuverability, and relative efficiency) of a bicycle. Indeed, the Segway is smaller and appears to be more manuverable than a bicycle, but is fuel efficient without requiring the breaking of a "sweat". It also appears to be safer than a bicycle, as it appears to be engineered to make it hard to fall. Its biggest fault, as initially announced, is its relatively high cost when compared to a bicycle (currently estimated at about $3000 in consumer models at the end of 2002). This fault may be fleeting, however. If successful, there is reason to believe that the price could be driven down to a more competitive price of as little as $600 in large scale mass production.

This lower price point is significant, as it is low enough to make Segway's affordable in the resource and infrastructure poor countries on the "have not" side of the digital divide, countries where bicycles are far more predominant than long distance transports like cars, buses, trains, etc. Hence there is a significant possibility that the Segway could be an important enabling technology for increasing the per capita wealth of the over 100 countries that have per capita GNP's of $4000 or less, but which contain over 5/6 of the world's population.

Other features of the Segway suggest that the device could have particular value as a practical small factor tranportation device for people with impaired mobility, including people who use walkers, canes, or crutches.

What, then, are the prospects of the Segway for either enabling new communication media or enabling the evolution of existing media? What kinds of media might the Segway effect and how?


Medium as Process, a theory of media invention and evolution, proposes a framework for examining the possibilities that new mediator technology like the Segway may offer for the invention of new communication media and the evolution of existing media. This framework involves five spheres of invention in which new media are created. New technologies like the Segway operate in one sphere of invention, mediators, but have effects in all of the other spheres. Activity in those other spheres will often dictate the success of new technologies. Medium as process also proposes a characteristic based typology of media (see descriptive image) which is suggestive of the kinds of media that a device like the Segway might enable and the specific media which it might have a direct evolutionary effect on. The primary application of this perspective, thus far, has been to electronic media, where the perspective has had some success in projecting new digital media. It is believed, however, that the perspective can be applied to the assessment of the implications of any new mediator technology, including intermediate distance transportation technologies like the Segway.

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