Define this bewildering quote for me!
May 12, 2008 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm perplexed by a quote in the signature line of an e-mail that I received this morning: "Bridges prohibit the progress they promote."

"Bridges prohibit the progress they promote."

Have you ever heard of this? Do you have any idea what it could possibly mean? Is there some anti-bridge coalition that I am unaware of? Does this have something to do with the free masons? J/K on that last one...but really, I'd love any insight you may be able to provide.

I can't respond to the person whose signature line this is in (don't bother asking for the drab details on why...I assure you it's very unthrilling), but I'm dying to know what to make of this! I've overheard five or six others who received the same e-mail wondering aloud about it as well.

Make my Monday in the office more exciting -- I dare you!
posted by annie7978 to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A bridge limits travel over it to the road to which it is linked.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:42 AM on May 12, 2008

No idea where the quote is from, but I found a reference to aging bridges prohibiting growth which looks to be relevant to a literal interpretation of that text.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:43 AM on May 12, 2008

Kind of speculating here but this quote brings lots of interesting ideas to mind.

Imagine an island close to the mainland that wants a bridge. The bridge is built and all sorts of wondrous things are expected. But a generation later, the island is completely dependent on the bridge; traffic delays or maintenance work strangles the economy; if the bridge were ever to go down, the economy would collapse.

A bridge is typically thought of as something that unites two areas, which it does, but it also forms a critical infrastructure bottleneck. For example, North Vancouver is completely inaccessible by road except for two large bridges into Vancouver proper. Because North Van's industries are completely entangled with Vancouver's, North Vancouver's future is largely a function of the number of bridge lanes. Traffic engineers have to carefully control all of the lanes leading into and out of the bridge, adding extra delays on arterial roads. Radio traffic reports and electric signs on the highway report the average bridge delay, which is often 20 minutes or more.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:48 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

maybe it's metaphorical bridges... "building bridges" between communities is a way of identifying common ground that exits only in the context that the communities are different... it prevents the communities from perceiving themselves as one community.
posted by ewkpates at 11:48 AM on May 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

As soon as you build a bridge you are placing very real engineering limits on the type and amount of traffic that can use them. No matter how far out you plan for the future, the fact that bridges are built with very real time and materials constraints usually means they're built for expected and anticipated load, not for any possible eventuality. I think an example that people use for this is the bridges that were built into Long Island, ostensibly to bring people there (someone else should know the exact specifics) but, as built could not handle massive amounts of traffic which actually inhibited growth to some extent. Now, this may not be the bad news but on the one hand you say "yes more people car and trucks and things!" but as soon as you've built hte bridge, you've placed limits on that progress.
posted by jessamyn at 11:50 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's the epigraph from Zen and the Art of Civil Engineering.
posted by jamjam at 11:54 AM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

It might mean that if there's only one pre-set path, or bridge, to get somewhere, and that one option limits everyone who wants to get across - you all take the exact same path, and are the worse for it.

For instance, if the goal is "wealth" and everyone crosses the "lawyer" bridge to get to it, you may have reached your goal but you might not have made as much personal progress as if you were more suited to being/had become a doctor, since there is no "doctor" bridge.

Kind of convoluted, but just a total guess.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:54 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Haha... nevermind. I guess I took it very metaphorically.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:55 AM on May 12, 2008

Also, I'd say it restricts imagination and creativity - a bridge limits traffic to that one way of crossing. Promotes linear thinking.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:56 AM on May 12, 2008

Might be interesting to see how the sender interprets that quote . . . or why they use that particular epigraph?
posted by arnicae at 12:06 PM on May 12, 2008

"Prohibit" is the odd duck out for trying to form a definition for this one. Bridges may constrain a lot of things, but prohibit?

Anyways, could this be something akin to the classic anti-Affirmative Action creed of the idea that larger communities will drain smaller communities of resources when they are linked?
posted by unixrat at 12:09 PM on May 12, 2008

Makes me think of a bottleneck.

You can't respond? This doesn't happen to be spam, does it?

On preview: what PercussivePaul said.
posted by moonshine at 12:36 PM on May 12, 2008

Person with a vision: Hey, we should go in that direction!

Less visionary person:
Nah, it would be too hard to go that way. We'd have to create a new path. But look over there! There's a bridge. It doesn't go where you want, exactly, but it must be the best way to go, because everyone is using it.
posted by PatoPata at 1:17 PM on May 12, 2008

Perhaps it is Engrish. Is this person a native english speaker?
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:35 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe damn dirty ape is on the right track here.

Could it be one of those automatic translations into a foreign language and then back again?

I'm thinking 'we'll cross that bridge when we come to it' could come out, in some language with word order differences as 'that bridge will cross us when we come to it' or 'that bridge will be cross with us when we come to go over it' and come back into English as 'bridges prohibit the progress they promote.'
posted by jamjam at 2:09 PM on May 12, 2008

A bridge keeps boats from going under it.
posted by grimmelm at 2:38 PM on May 12, 2008

Give me (or someone else) this person's email address and I'll ask what it means.
posted by ODiV at 3:08 PM on May 12, 2008

It sounds sort of Daoist, but I can't find it in the Dao De Jing. I don't have any Chuangzi, so if it's from him I'm not going to be very useful.
posted by eritain at 3:56 PM on May 12, 2008

I agree with the other posters that "prohibit" is the odd word here. Prohibit suggests that nothing can get through, which seems counter-intuitive with the concept of a bridge. If we reframe the quote as:

"Bridges constrain the progress they promote"

Then we can easily apply the rationale put forward by PercussivePaul or Solon & Thanks (and summarised well by PatoPata's little roleplay), which is that a bridge limits the choices we make, by presenting an easy option that makes us all confirm, limiting creativity. Of course, then we don't get the nice "p-word" alliteration that you have in the original.

With the "prohibits" in place however, I really have no idea what it means. The suggestion that it comes from a Civil Engineering text also implies that those of us applying a sociological bend to the quote might be off the mark slightly!

Maybe we need to ask a Civil Engineer? :)
posted by ranglin at 5:20 PM on May 12, 2008

On review, jessamyn's comment gets us closer to a Civil Engineering perspective, although again she is talking about "limits" and "constraints", which is a far cry from "prohibits" or "blocks".
posted by ranglin at 5:21 PM on May 12, 2008

A bridge could, in a sense, be a different method of "cutting corners," whereas making shortcuts in an already well-laid system could create a greater traffic hassle than having to go all the way around. I wouldn't phrase it in the absolute sense that "bridges prohibit..." but might instead suggest "bridges may prohibit..."

Often doing something the quick way seems tempting and a volley of excuses can be made for doing it in the moment, but they do tend to have some serious consequence that is not immediately apparent.

That's my guess.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 6:49 PM on May 12, 2008

Makes no sense to me, but I asked a friend for his thoughts:

"This undoubtedly refers to a coastal bridge - more of a bridge across a harbor than a bridge across a river. In the times that many towns and cities were created, one side of a harbor was buildable and one side - usually a sandy, marshy part - was not. So even though these communities are very close to each other as the crow flies, they can be very different. Eventually this causes problems when someone proposes connecting them.

If you hold your left hand up and make a "C", you can picture an imaginary community. Just pretend that your fingers and wrist are the coast of a land mass and your thumb is a spit of sandy, relatively undeveloped land - Thumb Spit, if you will. The city - Knuckle Harbor - starts off as a little port at the second knuckle of your index finger, on the deep-water, rocky side of the harbor, protected from the north wind. A scenic, rocky coast continues in a straight line north from the tip of your index finger - Index Point.

As Knuckle harbor develops, the north-south railroad is bent towards the harbor so it touches the big knuckle. Industry and housing start to expand around the harbor and along your wrist, next to the railroad, but ignore sandy Thumb Spit. As the suburbs develop towards Index Point, the little coast road becomes a small highway, and swings around the north side of the harbor, connecting with the railroad at the large knuckle. Later, the Interstate is built parallel to the railroad to the east and a whole inland community develops.

Along the inside of your wrist a visionary developer builds a bedroom community on filled marshland with access to the beach at Wrist Shores. Eventually a casino is proposed for the meaty base of Thumb Spit.

Problem is that it takes two hours for the residents of the wealthy suburbs north of Index Point to either drive inland and take the Interstate south or to drive south to the harbor and then all the way around through downtown Knuckle Harbor.

So, a bridge is proposed to span from Index Point to the end of Thumb Spit and the scenic little Thumb Spit Causeway will now become a highway connecting the northern suburbs to the casino and beach developments.

The bucolic residents of Thumb Spit, who have been selectively piggybacking on the development of Knuckle Harbor - accepting modernization when it suits them and refusing it when it doesn't, are now up in arms. In their campaign to defeat the proposed bridge and causeway they make up a lot of idiotic slogans like "BlueClaw Crabs, not Poker Chips," "Progress Is No Progress when it spits on Thumb Spit" and a lot of other things nobody understands like "Bridges Prohibit the Progress they Promote." "

Still makes no sense to me.
posted by tristeza at 8:50 PM on May 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think they're saying that bridges are built in the name of progress, allowing disparate resources to be shared, easier transportation and communication, etc. But, this enhanced communication and resource sharing smothers development in the local community. Why should the local community grow and develop if it can more easily truck in stuff from elsewhere? Thus, bridges prohibit the progress they promote.

(I don't claim this is a correct statement or even a coherent thesis, only that this is what I think someone may have meant by the statement.)
posted by Brian James at 11:14 AM on May 13, 2008

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