I’ve been closely following the high-speed rail debate in Britain with some interest and I am intrigued by what the debate shows about public perceptions of the role of technology and infrastructure in social cohesion.
Briefly put, the pro-rail camp argues that high-speed rail links are essential for “bridging the north-south divide” in the UK between metropolitan London and the Midlands, northern England, and Scotland. The argument goes on that economic growth is largely confined to the London metro area and that infrastructure improvements, especially in the form of high-speed rail, are necessary to connect northerly cities to London’s financial resources and create a north-south flow of capital, labor, goods, and services.
The anti-rail camp counters that high-speed rail has unproven benefits as a concept, that it will be environmentally damaging, and that internet technology will make travel between cities increasingly unnecessary. To the extent that they engage with the issue of connectivity between Britain’s regions and cities, the anti-railers advocate improvements in IT infrastructure and the upgrading of existing rail lines.
The analysis of physical aspects of building new lines or upgrading old ones is best left to others, and can be readily accessed through a Google search. What is particularly interesting about the alternative posed of rail vs. internet is what it says about our social expectations of personal vs. impersonal communications.
A country which invests in high-speed rail makes a choice to use its resources to encourage face-to-face, personal social contact through physical mobility in the national space. A county that uses those resources instead to pursue a strategy of increasing internet communications seeks to substitute physical mobility with mental mobility – the ability to project an image or impression of a person across time and space without physical movement.
The anti-rail crowd displays an almost charming faith in the power of internet technology to transform our lives. Yet they miss the important point that internet is a supplement to physical mobility, not a replacement for it. Indeed, the growth in the popularity of mobile internet devices over the past five years shows that mental mobility is complementary to physical mobility. People do not want to be chained to desktop computers. They want to be able to take the internet with them while they move about in physical space.
It also displays an odd attitude to the value of personal contact in social relations. Having participated a fair amount in both online social media as well as more tradition tele- and video-conferencing, I am well-attuned to the limitations of these technologies. Facebook threads are prone to getting out of hand and emails are prone to miscommunication. Teleconferencing is never as effective a forum for exchanging ideas as an actual meeting. While much of this is due to technical limitations such as transmission delays, focusing on technical aspects can overlook the benefits of being able to look another human being directly in the eye while in close physical proximity and experiencing the same surroundings.
The anti-rail advocates thus misunderstand the technical aspects of IT as well as human nature. They also miss out on the potential of IT to fragment national and other communities.
A nation that has good physical infrastructure travels and mixes socially. A Scotsman today must endure a 5-hour trip to London on the East Coast Main Line, subject to delays, making a business day-trip to London possible but arduous. While en route, he will be able to enjoy a rickety carriage and spotty wifi.
The effect of this is to discourage inter-city travel, while those who do choose to travel must squeeze onto over-capacity lines. More importantly, the inability to move across distances leads to a compartmentalization of national space and the restriction of trade. In turn, this leads to a breakdown of the national identity (always tenuous in the UK) and the encouragement of local and regional, as opposed to national, markets.
The internet cannot solve the problem created by poor physical infrastructure, and, indeed, can often make it worse. The internet presents an overwhelming number of choices for interactivity. As a way of managing those choices, people tend to stick with what they know, putting up virtual walls and interacting only with those who they know or share the same intellectual space with, via common-interest groups on social media, news-media message boards, etc.
High-speed rail is therefore one tool available to the state to encourage social cohesion beyond sub-groups. A Scotland directly tied in to the London market would be at least marginally less nationalistic. Likewise, a London with direct and fast access to the Midlands and northern Britain would not monopolize economic growth. Businesses that would normally have located in London would now have the option of locating elsewhere, taking advantage of lower housing prices and wages, thereby making their goods and services more competitive to sell. This would have the knock-on effect of reducing inflation in London itself, contributing to a higher quality of life for those living in the metro area. Overall, a more national economy would emerge and would encourage a stronger national social fabric.
Of course, an either/or debate is a bit silly. The truth is that countries need the infrastructure for both physical and mental mobility. High-speed internet and high-speed rail are both important. Right now, a passenger on Britain’s rails has neither.