When I commute to work, I often see the same cars. There's a red Honda Civic, a four-door with a spoiler, ground-effects, and VTEC decals on the side. Inside is a bad-ass bald guy with a graying goatee. He looks like he'd drive a Harley, not a Honda. There's another car, a turquoise Toyota Yaris, that I follow some days all the way to work. There's always two people in the car, a man and a woman, and she always drives.
If we were all on foot, how would things be different? The dynamics, the habits, the patterns, the routes? If I encountered bad-ass goatee guy, I would avoid eye contact and quicken my pace. I wouldn't see the Yaris couple together because he wouldn't need her to chauffeur him to work. He'd have to use his own two legs. Without cars, I could describe their faces and their bodies better than. And they'd probably know my mine too.
Sometimes, driving down the highway, I imagine all the cars being invisible. I imagine seeing the people as they ride around. They are seated, facing forward, organized two abreast. A foot or two above the asphalt hurdle these clusters of bodies.
I try to see through technology this way, comparing modern practices to their old-fashioned equivalents. Sometimes I imagine horse-drawn carriages instead of cars and cowboys on horses instead of motorcycles. I imagine them stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Eisenhower, the horses neighing and stamping their hooves. It reminds me of how absurd our technologies can make us sometimes.
What was the equivalent of the clover-leaf highway interchange 150 years ago? Crowded intersections of people milling about, or something else entirely. Such face-to-face intersections would have required some social etiquette too. Four-way stops retain something like that—the legal right of way. Sure, some people would disregard expectations and step on each others' toes now and then, but it is harder to be impolite when you can see their faces. These days, the most you can usually see is a hand (or a finger) in a windshield.
Let's do another imagination experiment: What would be the equivalent 200 years ago of our modern communication habits?
Can you imagine all the postal workers we'd need for all the messages we send every day? Instead of email, we'd have thousands or millions of postmen delivering mail every which way. Imagine messenger boys delivering your status update to your 309 Facebook friends. And then delivering all return messages to you and everyone else who commented on it. It's unfathomable. But we live in a world now where the equivalent is possible. It happens everyday—millions of times.
Today, instead of using things like roads and horses and messengers, we do all this with wires and computers and electricity. In fact, computers adopted the word "relay" from the Pony Express, which used it to refer to fresh horses that replaced tired ones (The Information, 143).
Communication and transportation were once inseparable (except in Africa). Today we think of them as two very different things. But really both are a matter of moving things from here to there. Technology has divorced the two, and made their unity harder to recognize, or even imagine. We have different mediums for the messages. Wires and waves transport words and images. Sidewalks and streets communicate people and cars. The mediums have changed, and the messages have taken divergent paths. And all we're left with is our own restricted imaginations, of people with real faces and interchanges that require etiquette.