Thumbs Out

Yesterday (at time of writing) I went hitchhiking for the first time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that covering around 100 miles in the back seats of strangers’ cars was both a surprisingly fun and eye-opening experience, and one that has made me far more inclined to pick up a hitchhiker in future. And so, in recognition of this event and in solidarity of those with outstretched thumbs across the land, I thought I’d dedicate a post to this strangest and most inventive of transport solutions.

Hitchhiking is an American invention, and when one considers the the very nature of hitchhiking in a historical context it becomes easier to see why. For hundreds and thousands of years of human civilisation, the main method of transport (other than walking) was the horse, and since horses a) didn’t travel much faster than humans could walk most of the time and b) don’t usually have space for two, standing by the side of the road with one’s thumb out was unlikely to solicit a faster passage than using one’s own two feet. The only people capable of offering lifts would be merchants with carts, and although they doubtless would have offered lifts from time to time, it would be a rare and abnormally trusting merchant who would let an unknown stranger travel with them on what was usually a journey of several days, or at least hours at a minimum. Thus, hitchhiking in its current form could not develop until the development and widespread use of a mode of transport fast enough to allow a hitcher to travel large distances in a quite short space of time (much more than they could walk), too fast for them to approach by simply asking the driver as they trotted past, and with enough space that an empty seat was a regular occurrence. The car, in other words, and the first place where cars caught on in a big way was the USA.

America first fell in love with the car during the economic boom of the 1920s, during which cars such as the Model T Ford sold in their thousands and thousands- whilst cars were a rare luxury in Europe, in America they became a far more ubiquitous. However, this didn’t mean they were a car ‘for everyone’; ’20s America was a place of huge economic disparity*, with abject poverty being especially common amongst the black and (rapidly growing) immigrant community. This only got worse as the 1930s rolled around and America plunged into the Great Depression- huge sectors of the lower middle and upper working class collapsed into poverty and homelessness, far from any position in which they could afford a car of their own. And so, hitchhiking became increasingly common practice; America had the crucial ingredients of a society becoming increasingly built around the car yet a population not rich enough to universally own them, so the practice of essentially ‘borrowing’ transport from strangers made an awful lot of sense.

From its American origins, hitchhiking (along with widespread use of cars) spread to Europe and eventually across the whole world. However, its popularity has fluctuated heavily with both the passage of time and across continents. Hitchhiking in Britain blossomed during the post-war years among students: as the socialist reforms of the first labour government began to rejig the country’s social structure, the number of people from poorer backgrounds going to university grew. For many students, hitchhiking was the only practical mode of transport: few could afford their own car (Britain hadn’t taken social equality quite that far yet) and the train network was expensive, unreliable and impractical for many. However, from the mid-1970s onwards hitching began to slowly decline in Britain and America, although it remained common practice until the late 1980s: the introduction of the young person’s railcard made train travel a much more feasible option for many, and the increasing prosperity of the western world over these few decades made it increasingly feasible for students or their families to organise car travel on their own. Perhaps partly due to this reduction in the number of students in the hitchhiker population (and thus increasing the relative proportion of dodgy folk among their number), and definitely thanks to a couple of well-publicised murder cases around this time, public trust in hitchhikers began to steadily decline and the whole activity began to take on a decidedly shady appearance in the public eye: risky for both halves of the equation and advised against for safety reasons. As the population of students unable to afford/acquire their own transport home shrank still further, hitching almost died off completely, becoming almost solely the reserve of Eastern European migrant workers (who have a public image problem of their own that has done nothing to redress the shady public perception of hitchhiking). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the practice is more common, and it is currently beginning to enjoy a tentative renaissance (from ‘all but dead’ to merely ‘very uncommon’) in Britain as a) former hitchers have begun to bemoan the loss of such a once-beloved practice and b) students have started hitching as a charitable/competitive event.

Like so many other things, hitchhiking is by its nature along neither good nor bad- at its best it is just people helping each other out & getting some conversation in the bargain, and at its worst is plain dangerous for both parties. Whether it ends up being the former or the latter is, in the end, merely the luck of the draw regarding the practitioners on both sides of the exchange. Since so many hitchers have reported completely safe and uneventful trips, I guess, on balance, that shows we aren’t such an awful bunch after all.

*It’s worth noting that, although the poverty is infinitely less widespread, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the gap between rich and poor our society today is far more unequal than the 20s ever was.


The Pursuit of Speed

Recent human history has, as Jeremy Clarkson constantly loves to point out, been dominated by the pursuit of speed. Everywhere we look, we see people hurrying hither and thither, sprinting down escalators, transmitting data at next to lightspeed via their phones and computers, and screaming down the motorway at over a hundred kilometres an hour (or nearly 100mph if you’re the kind of person who habitually uses the fast lane of British motorways). Never is this more apparent than when you consider our pursuit of a new maximum, top speed, something that has, over the centuries, got ever higher and faster. Even in today’s world, where we prize speed of information over speed of movement, this quest goes on, as evidenced by the team behind the ‘Bloodhound’ SSC, tipped to break the world land speed record. So, I thought I might take this opportunity to consider the history of our quest for speed, and see how it has developed over time.

(I will ignore all unmanned human exploits for now, just so I don’t get tangled up in arguments concerning why a satellite may be considered versus something out of the Large Hadron Collider)

Way back when we humans first evolved into the upright, bipedal creatures we are now, we were a fairly primitive race and our top speed was limited by how fast we could run.  Usain Bolt can, with the aid of modern shoes, running tracks and a hundred thousand people screaming his name, max out at around 13 metres per second. We will therefore presume that a fast human in prehistoric times, running on bare feet, hard ground, and the motivation of being chased by a lion, might hit 11m/s, or 43.2 kilometres per hour. Thus our top speed remained for many thousands of years, until, around 6000 years ago, humankind discovered how to domesticate animals, and more specifically horses, in the Eurasian Steppe. This sent our maximum speed soaring to 70km/h or more, a speed that was for the first time sustainable over long distances, especially on the steppe where horses where rarely asked to tow or carry much. Thus things remained for another goodly length of time- in fact, many leading doctors were of the opinion that travelling any faster would be impossible to do without asphyxiating. However, come the industrial revolution, things started to change, and records began tumbling again. The train was invented in the 1800s and quickly transformed from a slow, lumbering beast into a fast, sleek machine capable of hitherto unimaginable speed. In 1848, the Iron Horse took the land speed record away from its flesh and blood cousin, when a train in Boston finally broke the magical 60mph (ie a mile a minute) barrier to send the record shooting up to 96.6 km/h. Records continued to tumble for the next half-century, breaking the 100 mph barrier by 1904, but by then there was a new challenger on the paddock- the car. Whilst early wheel-driven speed records had barely dipped over 35mph, after the turn of the century they really started to pick up the pace. By 1906, they too had broken the 100mph mark, hitting 205km/h in a steam-powered vehicle that laid the locomotives’ claims to speed dominance firmly to bed. However, this was destined to be the car’s only ever outright speed record, and the last one to be set on the ground- by 1924 they had got up to 234km/h, a record that stands to this day as the fastest ever recorded on a public road, but the First World War had by this time been and gone, bringing with it a huge advancement in aircraft technology. In 1920, the record was officially broken in the first post-war attempt, a French pilot clocking 275km/h, and after that there was no stopping it. Records were being broken left, right and centre throughout both the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, right up until the breakout of another war in 1939. As during WWI, all records ceased to be officiated for the war’s duration, but, just as the First World War allowed the plane to take over from the car as the top dog in terms of pure speed, so the Second marked the passing of the propellor-driven plane and the coming of the jet & rocket engine. Jet aircraft broke man’s top speed record just 5 times after the war, holding the crown for a total of less than two years, before they gave it up for good and let rockets lead the way.

The passage of records for rocket-propelled craft is hard to track, but Chuck Yeager in 1947 became the first man ever to break the sound barrier in controlled, level flight (plunging screaming to one’s death in a deathly fireball apparently doesn’t count for record purposes), thanks not only to his Bell X-1’s rocket engine but also the realisation that breaking the sound barrier would not tear the wings of so long as they were slanted back at an angle (hence why all jet fighters adopt this design today). By 1953, Yeager was at it again, reaching Mach 2.44 (2608km/h) in the X-1’s cousing, the X-1A. The process, however, nearly killed him when he tilted the craft to try and lose height and prepare to land, at which point a hitherto undiscovered phenomenon known as ‘inertia coupling’ sent the craft spinning wildly out of control and putting Yeager through 8G’s of force before he was able to regain control. The X-1’s successor, the X-2, was even more dangerous- despite pushing the record up to first 3050km/h  one craft exploded and killed its pilot in 1953, before a world record-breaking flight reaching Mach 3.2 (3370 km/h), ended in tragedy when a banking turn at over Mach 3 sent it into another inertia coupling spin that resulted, after an emergency ejection that either crippled or killed him, in the death of pilot Milburn G. Apt. All high-speed research aircraft programs were suspended for another three years, until experiments began with the Bell X-15, the latest and most experimental of these craft. It broke the record 5 times between 1961 and 67, routinely flying above 6000km/h, before another fatal crash, this time concerning pilot Major Michael J Adams in a hypersonic spin, put paid to the program again, and the X-15’s all-time record of 7273km/h remains the fastest for a manned aircraft. But it still doesn’t take the overall title, because during the late 60s the US had another thing on its mind- space.

Astonishingly, manned spacecraft have broken humanity’s top speed record only once, when the Apollo 10 crew achieved the fastest speed to date ever achieved by human beings relative to Earth. It is true that their May 1969 flight did totally smash it, reaching 39 896km/h on their return to earth, but all subsequent space flights, mainly due to having larger modules with greater air resistance, have yet to top this speed. Whether we ever will or not, especially given today’s focus on unmanned probes and the like, is unknown. But people, some brutal abuse of physics is your friend today. Plot all of these records on a graph and add a trendline (OK you might have to get rid of the horse/running ones and fiddle with some numbers), and you have a simple equation for the speed record against time. This can tell us a number of things, but one is of particular interest- that, statistically, we will have a man travelling at the speed of light in 2177. Star Trek fans, get started on that warp drive…

The Churchill Problem

Everybody knows about Winston Churchill- he was about the only reason that Britain’s will to fight didn’t crumble during the Second World War, his voice and speeches are some of the most iconic of all time, and his name and mannerisms have been immortalised by a cartoon dog selling insurance. However, some of his postwar achievements are often overlooked- after the war he was voted out of the office of Prime Minister in favour of a revolutionary Labour government, but he returned to office in the 50’s with the return of the Tories. He didn’t do quite as well this time round- Churchill was a shameless warmonger who nearly annihilated his own reputation during the First World War by ordering a disastrous assault on Gallipoli in Turkey, and didn’t do much to help it by insisting that everything between the two wars was an excuse for another one- but it was during this time that he made one of his least-known but most interesting speeches. In it he envisaged a world in which the rapidly accelerating technological advancement of his age would cause most of the meaningful work to be done by machines, and changing our concept of the working week. He suggested that we would one day be able to “give the working man what he’s never had – four days’ work and then three days’ fun”- basically, Winston Churchill was the first man to suggest the concept of a three day weekend.

This was at a time when the very concept of the weekend itself was actually a very new one- the original idea of one part of the week being dedicated to not working comes, of course, from the Sabbath days adopted by most religions. The idea of no work being done on a Sunday is, in the Western and therefore historically Christian world, an old one, but the idea of expanding it to Saturday as well is far newer. This was partly motivated by the increased proportion and acceptance of Jewish workers, whose day of rest fell on Saturday, and was also part of a general trend in decreasing work hours during the early 1900’s. It wasn’t until 1938 that the 5 day working week became ratified in US law, and it appeared to be the start of a downward trend in working hours as trade unions gained power, workers got more free time, and machines did all the important stuff. All of this appeared to lead to Churchill’s promised world- a world of the 4-day working week and perhaps, one day, a total lap of luxury whilst we let computers and androids do everything.

However, recently things have started to change. The trend of shortening working hours and an increasingly stressless existence has been reversed, with the average working week getting longer dramatically- since 1970, the  number of hours worked per capita has risen by 20%. A survey done a couple of winters ago found that of our weekend, we only spend an average of 15 hours and 17 minutes of it out of the work mindset (between 12:38am and 3:55pm on Sunday when we start worrying about Monday again), and that over half of us are too tired to enjoy our weekends properly. Given that this was a survey conducted by a hotel chain it may not be an entirely representative sample, but you get the idea. The weekend itself is in some ways under threat, and Churchill’s vision is disappearing fast.

So what’s changed since the 50’s (other than transport, communications, language, technology, religion, science, politics, the world, warfare, international relations, and just about everything else)? Why have we suddenly ceased to favour rest over work? What the hell is wrong with us?

To an extent, some of the figures are anomalous-  employment of women has increased drastically in the last 50 years and as such so has the percentage of the population who are unemployed. But this is not enough to explain away all of the stats relating to ‘the death of the weekend’.Part of the issue is judgemental. Office environments can be competitive places, and can quickly develop into mindsets where our emotional investment is in the compiling of our accounts document or whatever. In such an environment, people’s priorities become more focused on work, and somebody taking a day extra out on the weekend would just seem like laziness- especially of the boss who has deadlines to meet and really doesn’t appreciate slackers, as well as having control of your salary. We also, of course, judge ourselves, unwilling to feel as if we are letting the team down and causing other people inconvenience. There’s also the problem of boredom- as any schoolchild will tell you, the first few days of holiday after a long term are blissful relaxation, but it’s only a matter of time before a parent hears that dreaded phrase: “I’m booooooored”. The same thing can be said to apply to having nearly half your time off every single week. But these are features of human nature, which certainly hasn’t changed in the past 50 years, so what could the root of the change in trends be?

The obvious place to start when considering this is in the changes in work over this time. The last half-century has seen Britain’s manufacturing economy spiral downwards, as more and more of us lay down tools and pick up keyboards- the current ‘average job’ for a Briton involves working in an office somewhere. Probably in Sales, or Marketing. This kind of job involves chiefly working our minds, crunching numbers, thinking through figures and making it far harder for us to ‘switch off’ from our work mentality than if it were centred on how much our muscles hurt. It also makes it far easier to justify staying for overtime and to ‘just finish that last bit’, partly because not being physically tired makes it easier and also because the kind of work given to an office worker is more likely to be centred around individual mini-projects than simply punching rivets or controlling a machine for hours on end. And of course, as some of us start to stay for longer, so our competitive instinct causes the rest of us to as well.

In the modern age, switching off from a modern work mindset has been made even harder since the invention of the laptop and, especially, the smartphone. The laptop allowed us to check our emails or work on a project at home, on a train or wherever we happened to be- the smartphone has allowed us to keep in touch with work at every single waking moment of the day, making it very difficult for us to ‘switch work off’. It has also made it far easier to work at home, which for the committed worker can make it even harder to formally end the day when there are no colleagues or bosses telling you it’s time to go home. This spread of technology into our lives is thought to lead to an increase in levels of dopamine, a sort of pick-me-up drug the body releases after exposure to adrenaline, which can frazzle our pre-frontal cortex and leave someone feeling drained and unfocused- obvious signs of being overworked

Then there is the issue of competition. In the past, competition in industry would usually have been limited to a few other industries in the local area- in the grand scheme of things, this could perhaps be scaled up to cover an entire country. The existence of trade unions helped prevent this competition from causing problems- if everyone is desperate for work, as occurred with depressing regularity during the Great Depression in the USA, they keep trying to offer their services as cheaply as possible to try and bag the job, but if a trade union can be use to settle and standardise prices then this effect is halted. However, in the current age of everywhere being interconnected, competition in big business can occur from all over the world. To guarantee that they keep their job, people have to try to work as hard as they can for as long as they can, lengthening the working week still further. Since trade unions are generally limited to a single country, their powers in this situation are rather limited.

So, that’s the trend as it is- but is it feasible that we will ever live the life of luxury, with robots doing all our work, that seemed the summit of Churchill’s thinkings. In short: no. Whilst a three-day weekend is perhaps not too unfeasible, I just don’t think human nature would allow us to laze about all day, every day for the whole of our lives and do absolutely nothing with it, if only for the reasons explained above. Plus, constant rest would simply sanitise us to the concept, it becoming so normal that we simply could not envisage the concept of work at all. Thus, all the stresses that were once taken up with work worries would simply be transferred to ‘rest worries’, resulting in us not being any happier after all, and defeating the purpose of having all the rest in the first place. In short, we need work to enjoy play.

Plus, if robots ran everything and nobody worked them, it’d only be a matter of time before they either all broke down or took over.