Something rather extraordinary has struck the good hipsters of East London over the past week. For the past 18 months or so, they've opted to move around on fixed gear bicycles, with multi-coloured wheels and strange stubby handle bars. Skinny jeans are often rolled up to reveal ankle, possessions are strapped to the back, and fake NHS spectacles and moustache are employed to resist wind (it's this and the absence of walky-talky that distinguishes them from couriers).
This has raised two questions for me. First, what will happen when the winds of fashion change? Will the second-hand bike market become flooded with these somewhat impractical vehicles? Or could this be a permanent shift - in which case, should the government be virally targetting the movers and shakers with other environmentally-friendly devices? (David Cameron should remove his wind turbine immediately, and give it to Peaches Geldof).
Second, what happens when they fall off? Sadly, elementary safety devices simply aren't very cool. But neither is having one's bare head collide at speed with tarmac. Like a sort of morbid Malcolm Gladwell, I've been watching this closely, wondering who's going to crack first and employ some basic common sense. Perhaps if the most virally influential hipster were to be flung from his bike and land head-first on the pavement, that would then set off the various network effects that lead helmets to becoming fashionable.
Whether or not such an accident occurred, something has clearly happened in the last week or so. Suddenly everyone is wearing helmets such as the one on the right, which most closely resemble the helmets of German WW2 soldiers (combine that with the Joy Division soundtrack, the short back and sides hair and moustache, and you start to get a rather unattractive cultural cocktail...). The helmet solves the essential problem, being at once safe while also rather odd and somewhat nerdy. But this fashion has not travelled via the usual, slow viral channels. Equally, I would also be surprised if it later becomes renounced as 'over' in any way.
What this points us to is how little rationalist social science takes account of desire, libido, death fear. Tipping point theory, founded on some plausible social network analysis and some unappealing biological metaphors, has an account of causality, but no account of power or desire. How much do people want or need to follow a trend? In this instance, there was clearly so much pent up desire for a trendy helmet, that when one was identified/announced/disseminated, there was an immediate run on the things. Trend followers, on the other hand, virtually begin from the premise that what they're dealing with is frivolous and transitory (a bicycling hipster who was especially enamoured with Schopenhauer might feel the same about life, but they would be in a minority). They study the transmission mechanisms and mediators, but ignore the forces of attraction and repulsion (Nigel Thrift has begun to think about this via the notion of 'glamour').
Similar anxieties are now expressed with regard to the financial models that are implicated in the financial crisis. The causal mechanisms all seemed sound, but nobody had quite factored in the sheer weight of pent-up libidinous material lust for money that would then be poured through the innocent, formal models. Desire can warp conventional accounts of social causality. Models broke under the strain of urgency and ego. The Hayekian (and, to a lesser extent, Chicago) attitude to economics is that if nobody has very good knowledge regarding the future, it is best that all of these imperfect judgements are factored into social organisation via the institution of a market. People are imagined to have certain things that they want, but never things that they desparately need. The question the crisis raises is what happens when such imperfectly informed people allow their stomachs to overwhelm their brains? Greenspan's confession that he had got human psychology wrong - and the rise of the smug behaviouralists who claim to get it right - still misses the Nietzschean point that brains (whether rational or irrational) are outnumbered by hearts, stomachs, genitals and much else.
So, I'm glad the hipster helmet Mexican stand-off is over. Perhaps the Department of Transport subtly intervened with the Wehrmacht solution, before it all ended in tears. Whatever happened, I'm not sure the Gladwell model survived the stress-testing.