Object 59

Secret Life of the High Street

2038, Birmingham, England

Excerpt from “Secret Life of the High Street”, a children’s article published in 2038:

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a busy high street? When you go to get your hair cut or grab a bite to eat, it's easy to miss the web of information and technology that helps keep the centre of our towns and cities humming along smoothly — and while it might not seem as exciting as the latest headband, it's just as important!

So, let's begin with... a load of rubbish! You might think that litter isn't important — after all, how difficult is it to keep pavements clean of gum and wrappers and plastics? Well, consider this: just 50 years ago, you'd be hard pressed to walk even a metre or two in any city without spotting a piece of litter! We might have grown a bit more considerate since then, and we might use a little less packaging, but it’s cleaning bots like brushtails that have made the real difference.

It's thanks to these tireless helpers that litter rarely lingers for more than a few minutes before being collected. But let's not give all the credit to the brushtails, because if you've watched them carefully, you'll know that most of the time they don't spot litter themselves. Instead, they're directed to litter, sometimes within seconds of it being dropped, by tiny localisers embedded into paving stones.

Every square metre of pavement has one of these ant-size sensors, and they communicate with one another to make up a picture of everything that happens on the street. As soon as they notice something wrong — like a small litter-sized object dropped by accident, or worse, a large person-sized object hitting the ground hard — they'll call a brushtail or a paramedic jumper.

The localisers aren't just there to help fix things that go wrong; they also work non-stop to provide the super-precise positioning information that makes our glasses and lenses work properly and lets brushtails know where they are and where they're going, even in the worst of weather. That's how bots and people can navigate among each other so smoothly. And after dark, they're still hard at work co-ordinating kwalas and copters to inspect and repair important parts of the high street, from benches and charging loops to streetlights and nests. By getting this done at night, they stay out of the way of pedestrians, and they also take advantage of cheap electricity.

But we aren't in the high street to just admire the lack of litter — we're there to meet friends, go shopping, and get some business done! So let's take a look at a typical building along the street — a cafe.

Now, there are all sorts of different cafes out there. Some are more than a hundred years old, made from bricks and mortar; but most are in the 'traditional synthetic' style of steel and glass from the turn of the century. What both of these styles have in common is that they were built before most people had glasses and lenses — that's why they have so much space and so many fittings for fixed adverts and signs. Can you imagine that people actually had to climb up on a ladder and stick a poster on a window to let customers know there was a sale on?

Modern cafes and shops that were built more recently are very different. Instead of giving a lot of space over to fixed things, they're all about letting the owners and customers change things easily, which is why their interior walls, windows, countertops, and doors can all be moved, sometimes by drones and sometimes by themselves. Only the exterior walls are fixed — and on some newer Sterling tensegrity buildings, even those can shift.

The reason for this change is simple: it lets people and businesses make better use of the scarce space on the high street. It's a bit of a waste to have a clothes shop or hairdresser only open for eight hours a day when it could be converted into a restaurant or bar afterwards. Modern buildings let businesses change things around very quickly, saving everyone money and helping improve the diversity and liveliness of high streets.

Which brings us onto another important question — why do people still go to high streets, anyway? Well, let's look at what it was like in 2000. Back then, people bought all sorts of things in high street shops, from food and toys to — don't laugh! — books, music, and videos. These days, a lot of those physical things have been replaced by much cheaper (and better) digital goods, and most of the remaining physical things, like food and toys, are delivered to us at home.

It might sound like it was more fun to do all your shopping on the high street, but think again — in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you'd see exactly the same shops with exactly the same products whether you were in Shanghai or Sydney or San Francisco. Mass production, mass media, and mass financing were still very powerful forces back then. It took a long time for the 'chains' to start losing their lustre and for more 'independent' and original shops to take their place. It wasn't much fun for the people who had to work in those chains either, with long hours, low wages, and precarious lifestyles, all to sell the latest cheap fashions or faux-authentic coffee.

People didn't just go to the high street to buy things — they also went there to meet friends in person, to get food, to have a drink, to get their hair cut or skin treated. In other words, they went there for services that were too expensive or less fun to do at home. It's the same today; if you want to get a skin treatment, you're hardly going to install all of the equipment in your bathroom, and if you're going to have a dinner with a dozen friends, sometimes the city centre is the easiest and most interesting place for everyone to meet.

Now, let's talk about transport. If you look closely at the surface of a road near the pavement — you might need to look under any tables or chairs that have been set out there — you'll see strange darkened sections that mark out lines or boxes. Those are relics of 'parking lines' and 'parking spaces' that have had their paint removed. 'Parking' is from back when people used to drive cars manually — yes, with their hands and feet! When they were going to work or going shopping, drivers would leave their cars sitting on the side of the road, taking up valuable space for hours. Be thankful you live in the world as it is today.