Where do we go from here? And how will we get there?
Throughout the twentieth century the highway has served as a compelling metaphor for the contradictory cultural logic of humankind’s fascination with and fear of transportation technologies. It reveals fantasies of technological utopianism as well as anxieties about the destruction of the environment and the dehumanizing impact of modernity. The narrative trajectory of this project, from industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’ visionary “Futurama,” harbinger of a golden future enabled by high-speed transportation in the 1930s, to J.G. Ballard’s “Autogeddon,” and other science fiction narratives in the latter half of the twentieth century that imagined the end of the world by automobile, reflects some of our most potent fantasies as well as our deepest anxieties about modernity, ecology, commerce, and individuality.
As we have explored America’s romance with the open road we have considered key questions about our past, present, and future as each has been determined to some extent by the highways, both literal and rhetorical, that we travel. In what ways has auto-mobility and the Interstate Highway System defined America’s material and cultural landscapes? What promises were made to the American public, by corporations as well as the government, about a golden future of prosperity, cleanliness, and leisure brought about by superhighways? Which of these dreams have come true and which have turned to nightmares? What, in an age of increasing anxiety about air pollution, traffic accidents, and oil scarcity, will the future of America as a “nation on wheels” look like? Is the age of the automobile, as some science fiction authors have imagined, reaching its end, or is America’s identity so deeply entangled with the network and machinery of our Interstate Highway System that its end has become impossible to imagine?
These questions are crucial as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. If the twentieth century was about expansion, infrastructure, and development, the new “highways of the mind” appear to have moved on, from flows of people, goods, and services to the transnational flows of capital. Ironically, the very narratives that currently drive our economy—neoliberal demands for efficiency and austerity, coupled with the movement from physical to virtual social interaction and the Silicon Valley obsession with friction-free data transfer—are the same ones that have left the highway system in the dust. Calls to renovate the nation’s “crumbling highway infrastructure” have been met with the primarily ideological argument of austerity economists that government spending is too costly.
While the highway system has, as we have shown, been responsible for many ills, it has also represented, from the beginning, an underlying belief in a (flawed, but potentially productive) social compact, a collective understanding of citizenship that is now thoroughly out of political favor in the current climate of Randian economics of self-interest. Leveraging that social compact, and tempering it with an understanding of the ways in which twentieth-century infrastructure systematically excluded many groups (people of color, the economically disenfranchised, the natural environment), might lead us to a more productive version of J.G. Ballard’s “emergency kit for the brain” (Concrete Island 37), creating a more equitable social and economic infrastructure that allows humans and animals to coexist and thrive without succumbing to the pernicious effects of efficiency capitalism. As C’Mell the Cat Girl says in Cordwainer Smith’s “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,”
All of us have been worried about what you true people would do to us when you were free. We found out. Some of you are bad and kill other kinds of life. Others of you are good and protect life. (28)
In other words, “freedom” from the machine will not remove us from responsibility toward our planet and each other. Going forward, then, it is important to consider how we might resist such compelling road narratives of freedom and technological progress that continue to resonate so strongly with our sense of national and even personal identity. Rather, the time has come to take part in a different conversation, one that seeks alternatives to the alienating, and often deadly, consequences of infrastructural development in the name of “progress,” and that allows us, instead, to imagine a future in which we are sustainable stewards of the planet and our relationships with one another.