Most of us living in 21st century industrial societies take for granted that our towns and cities are connected by a sprawling network of roads, most of which are reasonably well maintained. But, of course, it wasn’t always thus. In Roads to Power, a book we published a bit earlier this year, Jo Guldi explains when, how, and why Britain invented the system of infrastructure that now crisscrosses modern lands.
In a recent interview with CBC’s Spark, conducted during the South by Southwest Interactive conference, Guldi explained how British infrastructure came to be transformed:
Around 1780 a group of Scottish and Irish landlords started to think hard about what they were reading in this new economist, Adam Smith. And what they realized was that a system of infrastructure on a national level could break down local monopolies, and it could mean that they too could participate in the wealth of the industrial revolution being then experienced in England. And so they set about trying to persuade Parliament to give them sufficient cash to build roads out – an inter-kingdom highway system connecting London with her former colonial capitals of Dublin and Edinburgh. They were successful, and the inter-kingdom highway system was built over the course of thirty years. Thousands of miles of perfectly paved roads: the first expert-built infrastructure system of its kind in the world. Infrastructure on a national scale, connecting all sorts of grids of streets on the local and national level.
It was utopian thinking in 1780. Nobody had ever come up with such an idea. It was a new idea about how capitalism could work, if capitalism were going to defuse the wealth from the few guilds and few metropolises where people were enjoying the industrial revolution to everyone. So, a new idea of capitalism that worked for everybody.
As Guldi explains in the book, the development of this national road system had profound and unexpected ramifications. When travel by road became less challenging, more people became mobile. This led to new groups of people coming into contact, more people from more places roaming the streets of London, and new ways of thinking about the meaning of crowds and about how to interact in a vast world of strangers. Groups realized that they could use the roads to launch political movements or to manage their organizations, with soldiers, Methodists, artisans, theatrical players, and ordinary working people traveling in greater and greater numbers.
Despite utopian impulses, though, the results weren’t all grand. Previously nonexistent divisions developed between the ways that people actually used the roads. Middle class people began to cocoon themselves in stagecoaches, using the new technology of printed maps and guidebooks, rather than stopping to inquire of those they passed. They were able to free themselves from a world of face-to-face exchange, essentially creating separate systems in which middle class people and aristocrats did less and less interacting with the working class.
There also were attempts to capitalize on the newly built roads, with toll gates sprouting up to raise income from travelers, even those on foot. Such tolls disproportionately affected the working classes, who depended on the roads but often lacked the money to pay for passage. Britain found itself in a debate over whether this kind of connective infrastructure should be a business for the people who owned the nodes and lanes, or a means by which the entire economy of the nation could be enhanced.
One of the fascinating things about Guldi’s book is how this 18th century story can help us to understand one of the key debates on infrastructure in our own times: that of net neutrality. In fact, Guldi discusses Britain’s infrastructure system as a sort of “proto-internet.” The debates we’re having about whether all traffic on the internet should be treated equally contain remarkable echoes of the debates over roads in Britain, she argues. Again from her recent appearance on Spark:
I think that the lesson of the early infrastructure state is that technology can indeed connect people, and it can create amazing systems which grow the power of capitalism to rise all boats, and increase peoples’ connectivity and political power and experience of everyday life; the way they interact with strangers and the way they absorb information. And that’s real. But, the design of technology is something that has to be governed by visionaries if you’re going to get that kind of system that connects all people. Otherwise the dangers of exclusion are real, and you could create a system that’s just as fragmented as, say, the slummified cities of the late 19th century. You could see that happening just as easily with the internet today, unless visionaries are talking about these issues of who’s connected and how.
It’s a compelling argument that we’re happy to see resonate. In fact, no less than Tim O’Reilly, Founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, calls Roads to Power “required for those who aim to shape the twenty-first century.” Listen to the full Spark interview for more from Guldi, including her take on the Ray Kurzweils of the 18th century.