Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man | 20 June 2009

Whenever you make an optimistic prediction, you risk being wrong twice.

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Whenever you make an optimistic prediction, you risk being wrong twice. First there is the risk that the prediction itself is wrong: 1,000 Concordes by 1973; flying cars; food in pill form. More often, though, it isn’t the prediction that’s wrong but the optimism that accompanies it.

The commonest failing of techno- optimists is to be right about future technologies but naively idealistic about the lasting enjoyment they will bring. In reality, yesterday’s novelty soon becomes today’s annoyance (email, for instance), while many innovations fall victim to habit, snobbery or prejudice. Yes, mobile technology theoretically allows us all to work from beach huts, but nothing has yet unseated the belief that people are most productive when having a slightly miserable time.

I was reminded of this by reading On Roads by Joe Moran (Profile Books, £14.99) — a wonderful new history of the development of the British road network. Some of the best passages cover that brief, almost surreal period when road-building proposals were met with genuine excitement. When locals didn’t protest against the construction of the M1 but took deckchairs and picnics to watch it take shape. And when the ‘heroic’ Chiswick flyover was officially opened by Jayne Mansfield (who, being from Los Angeles, described it as ‘sweet’).

Even motorway service areas were seen as thrilling for a time. On its inaugural day in 1960, Forte’s Newport Pagnell site had to open two hours early to take in the curious crowds gathering outside. At night, some were an impromptu meeting place for touring bands (a newly arrived Jimi Hendrix heard so much talk of the Blue Boar he assumed it was a concert venue, not the name for the M1 rest area at Watford Gap). Moran also explains the peculiar architectural features of early service stations, some placing the restaurant on a bridge across the road or even, as at Forton, in a hexagonal observation tower. Yes, diners wanted a view of the road.

Of significance to Britain is that our mania for building fast roads arose late and yet ended early. After only a few years, enthusiasm for multi-lane roads came to seem provincial and gauche. As Moran neatly observes, ‘Birmingham’s biggest image problem was that it kept hymning the praises of its road system long after urban motorways had ceased to have any utopian associations.’ Other places were no better; the slogan ‘Leeds: Motorway City of the Seventies’ can’t have been much of a lure even when first written.

Yet reading this book still leaves me pitying Britain’s civil engineers and builders, whose often heroic work is now viewed as a necessary evil at best — while journalists herald a slightly smaller iPod as a marvel. Nobody loves electronic shiny things more than I do, but I sometimes wonder whether we invest all our hopes in electronics simply because in a cynical, querulous, crowded democracy, the pain of doing anything big has become too great. In France, the government can earn brownie points from grands projets; here they are ignored unless they fail.

The cynical answer, if he continues his upward trajectory, is to buy Nick Griffin off with the transport ministry in ten years’ time. He is patently thick-skinned. Moreover, judging by pre-war Italy (where there were even plans to turn the Grand Canal in Venice into a six-lane expressway) fascists have a knack for that kind of thing.