I recently had to climb up a steep concrete path on my way to a parking garage in Exeter. It was an unreasonably hot and humid day for England and, as I was walking up — grasping at the handrails and counting down from thirty to keep myself busy—I had two thoughts:
- A hundred and fifty years ago, people had to walk up hills without handrails.
- A hundred and fifty years ago, people had to build paths and build handrails.
I can’t imagine a world without concrete paths and nationally connected roads and garbage trucks and sewage pipes. An idealistic water-coloured image comes to my mind when I try. It has messy, flowing tall grass. All roads are desire paths made by the footsteps of men in hunting caps and women carrying baskets. Children run around playing with sticks and chickens roam free below low, bushy trees. These people stay perfectly still, both in the painting and in their lives: nobody in Exeter knows anybody in Plymouth, or any other town that exists beyond a five-mile radius of their small town.
It’s hard to imagine the slow progression that our physical world has made, which has taken life from the idealistic, disconnected image above to the modern society that we have today. Sometime between then and now, there were narrow roads for horseback travellers going to and fro between bustling towns. Then, there were big dirt roads filled with black carriages and tall buildings powered by coal.
But after a certain point — sometime around 1920 — physical progress began to slow down. If you look at an aerial photo of London in the 1920s, most of the physical city that we know was already in place: giant, connecting roads and underground transport, the London Bridge, Bank and Big Ben. If you were to add a couple of all-glass luxury apartment buildings, you’d arrive at an identical visual match of what you see from the sky today.
Since the 1920’s, we’ve been able to begin every construction project with a big head start: we already have the roads, the trucks, the raw materials and the blueprints. If we want a new building, we can use the perfected methodology that we’ve used to build every other building. We can even choose to renovate a building we’ve already made into something better.
Because we don’t have to spend so much of our time making habitats and workplaces and because transportation is fast and smooth, we’ve been able to begin work on a brand new construction project in a completely different world: the virtual world.
The tech world is no longer a world of dirt paths with tall, flowing grass on either side. We’ve graduated past that — the days of coding with punch cards and black and white calculators.
We’ve also moved past a world with small town main streets and roads for horseback riders. Those were the days of buying Microsoft Golf on CD-ROM and spending hours trolling AOL chat rooms.
The early days of Wikipedia and Google and the heydays of Ask Jeeves and Yahoo were our black carriage days. These companies were the big real estate giants that built our first cities — they brought together a community and gave other people the ability to build their own buildings and pave their own roads.
When I was tired, ascending that tall, paved path, I wondered how long it must have taken to build. Perhaps it was a quick job and only took a couple of weeks. Or, maybe there was some complication — really big rocks or really unstable, sandy dirt — which made it take longer. Maybe it took several months.
When I think about one path in Exeter taking several months to build, beads of sweat form on my forehead. Several months! Several months for a concrete path that connects one road in Exeter with one parking garage in Exeter.
The world is so large that it’s overwhelming to think of every individual project — and every individual — that made our world what it is today. It feels like one cohesive, beautiful thing now. But in reality, it was the work of millions of pet projects and business ideas, drunk kid graffiti and building towns on sink holes which has formed the pattern that we see today.
The tech world is no different. It’s easy to see each website as an individual business, someone’s property and life’s work. But in the future, it won’t look this way.
Soon, the paths that we’re building now won’t have to be built at all and we’ll be able to move on to something bigger — some new world that we can’t even imagine because we’re too busy building this one. We’ll be able to reuse and rework technology to fit our needs — every new project from now until the end of time starts with an increasingly large head start.
In the meantime, I think of myself as one construction worker — toiling away at my corner of the universe. Perhaps I’m building something that will be knocked down in fifty years — removed for space and sold for it’s parts. But maybe what I’m working on will become a protected, Grade I listed website a century from now.
Only time will tell.