In the past 150 years the development of communications technology, from the telegraph and telephone to satellite and GPS, has been progressively annihilating distance. It is already old hat for business persons to teleconference around the world, meeting only in cyberspace, but although we know this, we seem unable to follow the same line of technological evolution to its rational conclusion - that the tremendous success of the mobile telephone marks the beginning, not so much of mobility but of immobility - literally the last frontier.
Today mobility is prized even though the transport crises it creates threaten all its achievements. In an extraordinary contradiction this threat explains why traffic congestion, which suppresses movement, meets with so little opposition from those it affects.The reason is that gridlocked cars are becoming destinations in themselves. Like plankton in the Southern Ocean, individually they have no significance but collectively they become part of a continent when they surrender to the air-conditioned comfort of that vast linear chat room of traffic that shrinks and grows by the hour and the day of the week.
This is indeed a technological metamorphosis of gigantic proportions, and endlessly repeated, but inexplicably we barely give it the time of day. On the contrary, we show by our behaviour that, provided the traffic remains, any uncertainty about its ultimate meaning doesn't really matter - the last time it did was probably in wartime 60 years ago, when obstructing a convoy with speed bumps or chicanes would have been a capital offence, petrol would have been rationed, and main roads (in the absence of motorways) would have been reserved for army vehicles driving without lights.
Sitting stationary in a mass of traffic brought together by the Peartree roundabout on the Oxford ring road gives you plenty of time to think about what used to be called the Queen's highway, and the way it is being converted into a fuming obstacle course for halfempty buses, satirical 'speed cameras'and robot tax-gatherers.After a call or two on your soon-to-be illegally used mobile phone, and some unrewarding radio hopping, you savour a little claustrophobia and finally road rage.Only then does the hopeless question form on your lips.Transport, transport, what on earth is to be done about transport?
One thing is absolutely certain, and that is that architecture is not the answer. A bridge here or there perhaps (and even that's risky), but a solution to the transport crisis? There isn't one. Soon everybody will be staying at home.
At this, a bomb explodes in your head. Wasn't that supposed to be what 'web addiction' and the Internet age were all about? Not sitting in traffic jams or fighting off deep vein thrombosis in a cattle-class airliner, but relaxing on the beach while your video conferencing kit sent your doppelganger off to a series of meetings in cyberspace. Whatever happened to the promise of these out-ofbody experiences?
The answer is, not much. First, the people invited to deal with the world at a distance romanticised the lost spontaneity of the old face-to-face encounter. Second, the equipment just wasn't good enough at dealing with real-time movement, registering expressions, or chairing discussions. As a result, the systems developed up to a certain level, where they were usable for disciplined long distance, international communications, but beyond that they were simply not enough like the real thing to be a substitute for it.Videoconferencing was good enough to prove that people really did hold discussions and reach decisions in cyberspace - but only in the sense that men did once walk on the Moon.
And may once again.