Wednesday, May 8

Segway Prejudice: A Story About The Media, Economics, And My Father

The following has happened a lot more than once.

It's a beautiful day and a Saturday afternoon. Living in a scenic, suburban town in northern New Jersey, a man and his wife decide to hit the outdoors and go for a walk. They live near a lake and the path around is just over two miles. Seems like the perfect way to get out in nature and enjoy each other's company.

The woman steps out the front door and waits for her husband in the driveway. The man heads downstairs and out the garage. After he flips open the garage door with a switch. he hops on a Segway and meets his wife outside.

And off they go.

When they reach the path along the main road in town, they encounter many other people - runners, walkers, cyclists. They notice the man on the Segway and they sneer. They shake their heads, mutter beneath their breath, openly laugh at him.

"You know, you could always walk, lazy ass!"
"You actually bought one of those things?"
"That's just ridiculous."

These are real things that real people say to a man they have never met before. I'm calling it Segway Prejudice because I can't think of a catchier name for it right now. It's a very real phenomenon. And, I would argue, extremely problematic.

Behind the scenes.

The man and woman in the above anecdote are, of course, my parents. I've heard these stories from my father a number of times now, in which he's chastised, ridiculed, or silently debased for riding around a quiet suburban town on a Segway, purely by virtue of his mode of transportation.

I think this is a feeling we've all had, to be honest; if you disagree, I would challenge you to look deeper at yourself. There was a professor at my college who rode one to class and lord knows I found it hilarious. It's a strange, unique bit of technology and, for many reasons, has hit a nerve in the American consciousness since its debut in 2001. People find the device to be a waste of money, a reflection of American laziness, an example of capitalistic excess, and, a lot of the time, just a ridiculous thing to watch people operate. That's the climate in which my father purchased a Segway - he should have known it was coming.

So why is this case so problematic?

When I was three years old, my father, mother, and I were vacationing down the shore at Seaside Heights. My mother was pregnant with my younger brother at the time. My father was in the water and he was doing some bodysurfing. Everything was normal until he forgot to put his arms in front of him as he caught a wave. He was thrust head-first into another man's back and instantly his life was forever changed.

My father suffered a spinal cord injury that day and became paralyzed from the neck down.

His story is a successful one, though. After intensive rehabilitation, unyielding support from a large Irish family that just doesn't quit, and every cheesy bite of wisdom Robert Fulgham and Mitch Albom have likely ever conceived of, my father left the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation on his own two feet. Today, he can walk short distances with the aid of a cane.

Well now I feel like an asshole.

Don't. That's not the point of this article.

People ridicule my father riding his Segway without understanding his injury. They don't know about all the physical things he used to do and still yearns for. To run, to play basketball, to enjoy the outdoors with my mother. These people don't know that the only way my father can enjoy a long walk with my mother (who loves long walks) is via Segway travel.

These strangers are not ignorant, either - this isn't a willful lack of knowledge, it's innocence to the situation

So this is not about blame, at least not of the aforementioned nameless individuals. Hearing my father's tales of drive-by insulting left me wondering how we got to this place. Collectively. Why is Segway Prejudice not an isolated incident, but a common feeling, attitude, and impetus for action?

I think it's a three-point case study.

The Today Show sucks.

When the Segway was unveiled to America, there was a brief moment of wonder. We've always been fascinated by visions of the future that may look nothing like today. The Segway was a glimpse into the future -- and perhaps not even the distant future. The gyroscope technology that makes the Segway possible isn't the stuff of high-priced laboratories -- it could be relatively easily manufactured and replicated.

This is the narrative the news media fed us and it became the talking point whenever someone brought up the Segway conversation topic. I distinctly remember watching a Today Show interview with the Segway's inventor. They goaded him right into that narrative, which, of course, was good for business, so it's not as if he had no incentive to foster the good PR. Yes - this device IS the wave of the future, and it could be yours today!

The debut of the Segway wasn't real news, of course. It hardly even classified as cultural news and wasn't an especially big deal in the tech world (although I'm sure the Nintendo Wii is thankful). But its unveiling must have coincided with a slow point in the news cycle, because it was a sizable flash in the media pan.

As conversation-setters, the news media crafted a conversation around the Segway that was a pure binary: Is the Segway the way of travel for the future or isn't it? And as all non-news pieces tend to go, it was posed as a question. What do YOU think, dear viewer?

Wouldn't you know it -- there was a dialogue backlash. People thought the device would encourage laziness and only contribute to our obesity epidemic. Sales never hit the point that would reduce the technology's cost and make the devices ubiquitous (save for city tours, it seems). Yet the company stuck with the provided message -- this technology is useful and going places.

And thus the narrative began to conflict with the devices' use value. Eventually the company seems to have partially caught on. The website directly targets its niche potential -- police patrol, tours, etc. -- but the insistence on behalf of the public that the Segway would not SHOULD not become the wave of the future lingers to this day.

George Oscar Bluth

Mediated depictions of the Segway generally became more prevalent several years after its debut and already absorbed the public dialogue surrounding the new media-induced backlash.

Case in point: GOB. (pronounced: "jobe")

Illusions, Michael.

Aka - George Oscar Bluth, played by Will Arnett, in the cult television hit Arrested Development, which first aired in 2003.

Nobody who's watched the show will deny the fact that because GOB rides a Segway, he is even that much more hilarious. It becomes a crucial tenet of his character, who is so out of touch with reality that he believes his Segway brings him to an elevated status. All it truly accomplishes is putting his pointlessly-rich family several thousand more dollars deeper into the hole.

That's part of the ideology that permeates the Segway. It becomes an extension of character ridicule (for further evidence, see Paul Blart: Mall Cop -- or just take my word for it and save yourself two hours you'll never get back). For those who've never seen a Segway, these are often the gateways to experiencing the device and understanding what purpose it serves. For those who have seen one, it becomes another point in its ideological schema.

And before I move on -- I should clarify that it IS really funny. GOB is awesome.

And what of these "Benjamins" you speak of?

Rounding out the sphere of Segway Prejudice comes everyone's favorite discussion topic: economics. There seems to be two crucial economic points of view that come into play.

Firstly, and most prominently, stems from economic disparity. Segways aren't cheap. So folks of a lower tax bracket to see those with considerably more wealth riding around on Segways is bound to breed class resentment. At this point the Segway narrative has already been established and it is always/alreeady presumed to be public knowledge.

So if the Segway promotes laziness and is a product of pure American excess, to see the Segway nonetheless in use is an affront to their good nature. A person who is lucky enough to afford things like Segways and still chooses to waste his/her funds on what amounts to (in the public eye) nothing more than a rich person's toy is a pure slap-in-the-face to the economically disenfranchised.

At least, this is how it plays out. The narrative is co-opted by the economic argument. And I think we're all aware that economic arguments often lead to significant aggression and violence.

Secondly, there is still economically-fueled disparity amongst wealthier Americans to poo-poo other wealthy individuals' purchase decisions. It often appears in the upper crust of American society that, depending on who you ask, there's a "right" and a "wrong" way to spend money. And Segways fall into the ladder category -- a fruitless investment.

My parents live in a well-to-do suburb chock full o' wealthy white dudes, many of whom are even better off (financially speaking). So I'm inclined to point to this second terrain of economic disdain, which sickens me even more to my stomach. Class disparity is a terrible thing as it's very often unjustified (IMHO), but I'll leave the Neo-Marxist debate for another post. But I can think of nothing more pointless and devoid of human decency than the lucky ones squabbling over material goods in a world of privilege.

And that's how you make the shittiest sausage ever. Here's how not to eat it.

So there it is. Blend these puzzle pieces together on high for twenty minutes and you should get a nice, thick Segway Prejudice smoothie. Since this is a blog and not an academic journal, I feel like this is redundant to say, but just in case: I'm well aware that there is a degree of generalization in my analysis here. But in my own experience and given my own knowledge of media systems/structures, I think what I've outlined paints a legitimate enough roadmap that I'm willing to smooth over the edges.

If I might reiterate one point only to emphasize why I wrote this in the first place, I'd like to say that this is NOT a blame game towards individuals in the community I grew up in, nor is it a finger-pointing piece against The Today Show (although I really do hate The Today Show).

Things don't change unless you start somewhere and I firmly believe the place to begin is at a point of understanding. I'm attempting to map out the cultural processes that formulate Segway Prejudice, but like most cultural vestiges, it's not easy to change them just by asking The Today Show to think five years in the future. They're not at fault for sensationalizing non-news items -- the economic and industrial production model of the 24/7 news cycle is. Good luck scolding that beast into changing.

But we CAN change. We can change the way we receive media messages and the way we internalize them. We can become self-aware of where our opinions and beliefs originate. And in so doing, we can stop ourselves from looking at a guy you don't know on a Segway and finding him despicable, lazy, or stupid.

Because maybe he's none of those things. Maybe he's just a guy who wants to spend quality time with his wife.

FINAL NOTE: WE CAN STILL THINK SEGWAYS ARE HILARIOUS, because honestly, they kind of are! There's something clunky and awkward about human beings riding those things. I've ridden my dad's Segway. I totally looked hilarious. But hilarity need not escalate to prejudice. Keep the good nature in comedy. My dad is the cheesiest guy in America - he'll happily take the joke if he doesn't crack it before you do. I'm just entreating us all to consider the permutations of our opinions and infuse a little more sympathy into those daily moments where you think you need none.


  1. Well said Pete. I think there is one other factor to consider: I've never ridden a segway and always wanted to try it. When I see someone else on one it reminds me and make me a bit jealous. I think this kind of falls under the economics portion, but I think speaks louder as the human tendency to shun things we haven't had an opportunity to try, simply to convince ourselves that we are not missing out. Either way, thanks for the good read.

    For the record, I think your dad should make up business cards that have a collage of photos of his recovery process. On these cards the words "you sir/madam, are a douchebag" should be emblazoned. Any time a total stranger is scumbaggy enough to make comments (which is rude with/without your dad's injury) your dad can quietly ride over, hand them a card, then ride away.

    1. That's an impossibly good idea. You may have just inspired my next Father's Day gift. Props to you, sir!

  2. Great article PK. I was going to offer a tweet but the limit of 140 characters won't get my point across so here we go:

    You've touched on one of the greatest human faults; judging a book by its cover. Whether someone is ridig a Segway or dresses a certain way, we are 99% quick to judge them. To really think before you speak and take a moment to consider that this human being may have gone through or is going through things (emotional, physical, etc) before you judge them is what would be an amazing trait to modify.

    Don't get me wrong, I have judged before. This is also not a religious post or trying to come off as a do-gooder but we really need to bite our tongues sometimes.

    While reading through I immediately thought that your dad was not using this as a leisurely mode of transportation but maybe it's more of an assistance to help him get around. I don't think we will reach the same level of respect that a wheelchair gets over a Segway but in some instances, they're not far off. The main reason I'm aware of this is that the founder of Monster Cable has mobility issues and relies on his Segway to help him get around. Obviously this isn't the most common knowledge but again, an example of people using them not just to tour millennium park.

    Like you said, they can be hilarious. I know when I see the tours and the little kid rocking back and forth at a spastic pace, I get a chuckle. Maybe I'm an asshole for that but I won't judge him for it ;)

    1. You're definitely not an asshole for laughing at city tours. I do the same. I think it's pretty human and I abide by the rule that nothing is outside the lines with comedy when it comes to topics. Presentation of said comedic topic can get to be a bit blurrier (see: Daniel Tosh asking his audience to gang rape a girl)

      And I hope this didn't come across as preaching -- again, we're all human and there's most definitely a margin for error here. But the moments persist, so I felt the need to break it down (as best I could in a blog post anyway). Regardless, thanks for reading and commenting, dude!

  3. You're a talented writer, a man with a heart, and a wonderful son.
    Love you,