Sunday, 18 November 2012

OK, Computer? Infrastructure, technology and clairvoyance

Unsurprisingly, the notion that some extraneous technological development will dramatically reduce the need for travel in years to come has barely featured in the debate over UK aviation strategy. Credit: Heathrow Airports Ltd.
Why didn’t the Romans invent the wheelbarrow? Central heating, aqueducts and racing chariots…but not wheelbarrows. They could have, in theory, but they didn’t. Strange.

And so begins an important lesson in what historians term technological determinism. In short, it’s the idea that just because a particular technology has the potential to fulfil a certain role in society, there is no guarantee that it actually will. The unexpected explosion in SMS text messaging offers an example in the counter sense: a technology largely written off by its developers has achieved mass uptake on a global scale.

How does this affect railway investment? The railway itself is a unusual case: without doubt, the industry has shown remarkable staying power – or even ‘bouncebackability’, to use football manager Iain Dowie’s memorable turn of phrase. By rights, the railway should have been killed off by a multitude of subsequent innovations from the telegraph to the jet aircraft to the internet.

It has not been. Which means it is surprising that, in the UK at least, there is a vocal minority of clairvoyants who liken the modern railway network to the canal system, and insist that a further technological Deus ex-Machina will obviate the need for travel at all. Or at least flatten demand to such an extent that people will stop trying to build railways past the end of their garden....

Because the creed espoused by these techno-zealots requires a very selective interpretation of the notion of ‘travel’. If, for example, you live in a bucolic idyll served by a meandering branch line dating back to Victorian times, your desire to use it will apparently remain undiminished amid the rise of the machines. No, the real targets are the fat cats: the preening executive seeking to shuttle from urban centre to urban centre in pampered luxury. Yes, all 31 million of them (!) who did just that between London, Birmingham and northwest England last year: they must be stopped!

And they shall be: apparently by Skype, with extra 3D twiddly bits. Or, er, something.

Convinced? Me neither. Indeed, I am not sure which aspect of some high speed rail opponents’ cultish devotion to technology I find most disturbing: the blind, unwavering faith that point-to-point travel will diminish in the next 30 years (not ‘could’ or ‘might’), or their unstinting, almost mystical, commitment to the idea even as the burden of evidence to the contrary utterly overwhelms it. Not only has the mass uptake of high-bandwidth internet services coincided with a surge in UK passenger rail ridership, but the adoption of web-enabled devices has democratised access to rail travel. Who now would detour to a station booking office to instruct a clerk to find the cheapest ticket? Fewer and fewer of us of course.

Technology is however changing working habits, and nobody would deny the increased incidence of passengers working onboard inter-city trains. With time, today’s patchy wi-fi functionality should be substantially enhanced, but then capturing the economic benefits of such activity remains exceptionally difficult. Certainly the assumptions about onboard productivity contained in the economic model for High Speed 2 have been widely questioned, but it is telling that HS2 Ltd ascribes no economic benefit to productivity gained by passengers transferring from air or road; this mitigation becomes all the more relevant as HS2 evolves slowly into an Anglo-Scottish rail spine.

But the ‘technology versus travel’ debate has far wider implications than one bog-standard rail project. Indeed, logic dictates that international journeys would be disproportionately affected. How to explain, then, the complete absence of the topic from the terms of reference of the Davies review into UK aviation strategy, the consequences of which are likely to reverberate for many decades to come? The explanation is surely that it’s a weak, weak argument.

Every bit as likely is a partial backlash against our screen-dependent culture, as concern grows about the health and societal impact of too much time spent hiding behind LCDs. Growth in business and leisure travel could plausibly be sustained by a premium attached to ‘real-time’ interaction. Last December I boarded a Deutsche Bahn high speed service from Cologne to Brussels, my €33 fare having afforded me a seat in a first class compartment. I was joined by a German diplomat also heading for Brussels; having reached for my smart phone, I asked in faltering German if she knew whether there was a wi-fi network onboard.

‘No’, she replied, ‘and thank God for that. I am chained to my phone all day, this is the only time I get to gaze out of the window.’

Surely she is not alone in rejecting the tyranny of technology. Time for the web-wonks to ditch the dogma – we’ll need our railways for many a year yet.