Ben and his reluctant automobile set out toward a frontier, a place off the map of what we know but still within the boundaries of these United States. He goes seeking what difference that distance makes.In so doing, he tries to reach strangers, exploring the modes that shape those interactions, and what comes of recognizing the systems that guide us along the way. In essence, I think he touches upon what it means to be a nation and to share it, borders, laws, resources, and all.
The landscape of Aroostook County is foreign to him just as it is to us, and that unintelligible nature comes through in language. When his bearings fail him in “impossibly vast” and “endless expanses”, he finds that the only landmark, Mt. Katahdin, appears static despite his speed. The distance from understanding the landscape becomes a distance from knowing the people, too, and not merely because his car breaks down but also because the people express that cultural separation as rooted in geography: “we just do things differently up here,” drawing a line in the earth, before the resident continues, “…unless they’ve lived in The County.”
Ben rightly points out that this forgotten corner of America is deprived not merely by its lack of conversation with Massachussets or financial resources, but by its exclusion from the American infrastructure state. From this perspective, the distance was built that way. Indeed, the sense of denial felt by citizens provides insight into the expectations of government and the long legacy of America’s promoting infrastructure development on its frontiers.
The government that builds infrastructure for its people envisions the ideal road as a continuity to connect strangers, equalize opportunities for rich and poor regions, and to foster participatory government. Last year, Jo Guildi explored this democratic optimism of government in her Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State. She traces the early origins of state-sponsored infrastructure to Britain in the 18th-century to find that throughout history, this central planning ultimately stratifies people by the degree of access to infrastructure, and the concentrating of power and expertise in decision-making inevitably excludes.
If the success of lower Maine is evidence of what such access can provide, then the arguments of Aroostook illustrate a pressing issue for the continued growth and development of any nation-state, as Guildi writes:“Over the right to participate in the market…infrastructure pits region against region, experts against the people, and class against class. It produces and informs the identies and divisions that characterize politics in the modern era.”
The national fabrics of transportation, data networks, healthcare, and education in this country are being built and remodeled at a desperate pace for the next generation. We would be wise to consider the expertise and resources central authorities can provide—not only what those plans look like locally and for those who receive benefits, but also how those systems shape the environment we see and affect those left on the outside. As we surf this next great egalitarian space online, celebrating, critiquing, and protecting its promise, Ben asks us to think about the roads.