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Here is yet another curious fact about A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, the book he published in 1920 to recount his experiences motoring across country in search of new highway routes. He rarely seems to encounter a horse and buggy (or a train, but we’ll leave that for another post).

This is curious because, supposedly, horses were the main method of transportation before the internal combustion engine came along. And Westgard was traveling mostly on existing trails, so somebody–or  some horse–must have been using them.

Buggies disappeared by the 1920s. Fringe stayed with us for another half-century.

When Westgard does finally encounter a horse, the poor animal is, of course, on death’s door. Westgard et al are winding their way up and through the Cascades in Washington state when they come upon this tableau:

an old man who was endeavoring to coax an emaciated old horse to exert another ounce of effort in attempting to drag a dilapidated buggy up the trail. The bony structure of the horse was so evident under its gray and mangy skin that he appeared more like a skeleton of a horse than one of flesh and blood.

Lest you wonder about what the horse was pulling, Westgard goes on:

The buggy was held together with generous applications and sundry bandages of baling wire. All in all, the whole outfit–man, horse and buggy–was about as nearly played out as any outfit I had ever seen in all my travels.

The man was apparently hoping to strike it rich in Canada (in case you thought he was hunting for cheaper prescription drugs). But instead, he served as a visible sign marking the end of the road for one technology and the birth of another.

Fittingly, the chapter ends not on a lament for the passing of the horse-and-buggy crowd, but on Westgard’s description of how the Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascades was eventually paved.

 

 

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We often romanticize the jobs displaced by technology, especially if the people who held those jobs are long dead. Consider the blacksmith, the milkman and the manufacturer of flint-lock muskets. But the people who helped kill off those jobs showed about as much remorse as we do today when obsolete jobs disappear.

Umbrellas are useful on flat boats, as there is usually very little shade.

The loss of the ferryman’s job was a sign of progress for our friend A.L. Westgard. The indications lie in his 1920 book, Tales of a Pathfinder, a collection of anecdotes from his many cross-country trips. In one chapter, a very short one, he describes the fate of motorists suffering from the strict hourly schedule of the man who operated a ferry across the Colorado River outside Yuma, Ariz. Motorists often had to sleep in their cars, the lights of Yuma blinking across the river, because the ferryman refused to work outside his normal day.

I suppose Westgard could have recommended adding another shift or two to ensure 24-hour ferry coverage, or at least late-evening rides for tardy motorists. But that would not have been progress. Instead he campaigned for a bridge, eventually spurring action by Arizona, California and the feds–“and the ferryman lost his job as he fully deserved,” in Westgard’s words (page 46, Tales). Nothing personal about progress, eh? Or to paraphrase: All progress is personal.

* Find the lyrics here!

My goal is to headline all posts with song titles from the Grateful Dead. Mission accomplished so far.

Yesterday I achieved a giant technological breakthrough: I read a downloaded PDF file on my Kindle. Yes, not much of a reveal, I know. But here’s the kicker.

It was a book by the guy to the right. His name is A.L. Westgard and he, like our buddy William Warwick, spent the early part of the 20th century criss-crossing the United States in an effort to find and map the best routes for future highways. He’s obviously progressive because, as Roland Barthes once noted, progressive thinkers look into the distance when photographed. He appears also to be looking into the sun.

Westgard’s book, Tales of a Pathfinder, published in 1920, is essentially a collection of anecdotes from his cross-country trips. The first anecdote involves his coming across a man nearly dying of hunger and thirst in the desert near Yuma. It’s a gripping start, and a fine way for Westgard to earn the reader’s respect as a good man and kind. But can he keep it for the next 240 pages? Stay tuned.

So here is what I learned yesterday about William Warwick, the man who drove with his wife across country in 1916 in a GMC truck: It was not his first trip. According to a 1915 article in the Aberdeen Daily-American (of South Dakota), he also drove across country in one of these, a Metz:

"Just for two" is legally binding advice from the manufacturer, as evidenced by the double quotation marks.

Perhaps Warwick was some kind of hired gun who drove across country testing the viability of various wheeled machines. If he did, it was in the service of some sinister organization called the “good roads movement.”

Maybe you think it was bankrolled by the cynical group “people who hate trains.” But think again. Support came from the fans of all things bicycle.

Obviously, we did get better roads somewhere along the line-except in Pennsylvania. But we didn’t get as many bikes as, I’m sure, the manufacturers hoped. Yet another victory for the unintended consequence.

A long absence — i had to let the election and the last month of campaigning speak for itself. A nice rationalization, eh?

At any rate, I was recently at a panel looking back at the Web component of the 2008 election. Much of the discussion centered on how Obama could transition his use of Youtube, social networking, etc, from campaigning to governing. Hey look! It’s a presidential radio address on Youtube! [media swoons, populace  yawns]

It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly what I think about this, but here it goes. I think the transition from campaigning to governing, whatever form it takes, will be a big disappointment. Leave aside the difference between a focus on one goal, the election, and the more diffuse tasks facing a government, and chew on these:

First off, the people pushing for more electronic government rely too heavily on technology as a force for change. Culture always has and always will play a bigger role, and it is much harder to identify cultural forces than it is to hold up the latest shiny gadget. I’m not sure the culture of governing is apt to change just because of online videos and twitter. Never underestimate the power of bureaucratic inertia. If and when bureaucrats do change, it won’t be in any way that we can easily identify.

And it might not be for the better. One participant on my panel claimed the full potential of the Internet would have the same effect on government as the discovery that the world was round. Sounds nice, but I should have pointed this out then (what can I say, I’m a slow thinker): what mattered wasn’t the roundness of the world but Galileo’s discovery that it revolved around the sun, pushing the earth and its inhabitants out of the center of the universe. The internet seems to put us right back in that un-humbling spot.

Let’s say a bunch of people Twitter angrily about a long line at the DMV. What’s the state supposed to do? Rush over untrained workers from some other office to handle the crush? Or make a case for higher taxes so that the DMV can be fully staffed or stay open for more hours? You decide.

Second, Obama adapted Web tools to fuel an insurgent campaign against an institution, the Democratic Party, that had already anointed Hillary Clinton. It’s unclear how you adapt those tools to running an institution, whether party or government. Unless you are prepared to radically change the institution.

Third, too often  the assumption behind publishing reams of gov’t information online and fostering discussion seems to be that people will arrive at a rational consensus on where the country should go. For example, I saw a comment here asking how people can use a bunch of congressional info for the public good. When you come across a definition of the public good that every voting American can agree on — and a set of policies designed to get there — get back to me. If I’m still alive, I’ll gladly entertain debate on the use of this particular info.

Fourth, the debate simply overlooks how much our forebears were able to do without the Internet. Adopt the reforms of the New Deal and the Progressive Era? Populate a continent and build the world’s largest economy? It should be obvious, but no one appears to appreciate it. Technology alone does not guarantee sweeping political change. It could even hinder it.

Electronic mediums seem to inflame differences rather than bridge them. It’s why testy email exchanges degenerate so quickly. They take away as much of our common humanity (our physical presence being a big part of it) as they let us share.