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The future will be different – but also much the same

Today on Radio 4 an opponent of HS2 parried a question about the state of our rail infrastructure in 2060 without the investment by saying ‘we may all have driverless cars by then’.

Today on Radio 4 an opponent of HS2 parried a question about the state of our rail infrastructure in 2060 without the investment by saying ‘we may all have driverless cars by then’. And well we may. But does that mean we won’t want trains? History suggests not. After all the train has survived the invention of the internal combustion combustion (as has that odd seeming invention the bicycle – human powered? Surely that will be superseded!). Look at a long-distance train, with people using their laptops to work or for leisure and ask if they all want to be in their own vehicles.

And those people streaming video on their laptops may well, once they reach their destinations, go to the cinema, another piece of technology slated to disappear. Or even do a little shopping. Emma Duncan, deputy editor of the Economist, wrote a piece in yesterday’s Observer celebrating the death of the high street. Turn it all into much needed housing, she said. Apart from buying a sandwich, Duncan has only been in a shop once since Christmas – and she hated it. This may be true of Duncan, at least at this stage of her life, but many still want to shop. The butcher and baker are still going, although the candlemaker has morphed into Ye Gifte Shoppe or a supplier of upmarket tableware. Even our online deliveries are only a manifestation of the service that the middle classes enjoyed in films like Brief Encounter.

We eat a lot of things we used not to. But alongside the quinoa and the avocadoes and the chicken tikka masala crisps, we still have boiled eggs and fish and chips and apple pie. We aren’t living on the food pills some science fiction writers predicted, and we know now that we could not.

Also in the  Observer, Peter Preston writes a piece entitled ‘Print is not the future, but it’s not the past either’. Books are still sold, despite the preponderance of Kindles.

This is not to say that nothing will change, and the pressures on, for example, book publishers and retailers, are very real. We should expect change, and adapt to it when it comes. But writing off existing technology may be a dangerous and unwarranted assumption.

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