A dream within a dream: Newsletter #38

Sleeping on a long haul flight is like a dream within a dream. The dimly lit cabin, the flickering screens and the row upon row of blank faces reminds me of myths where the boatsman ferries the dead to their maker. Landing does nothing to dispel the illusion. Regimented lines, the cataloging of your possessions, the orderlies inspecting every inch of your body which is then conveyed into a final X-Ray to certify your readiness for heaven; it's like a dress rehearsal for the day of judgment.

Once the pearly gates open, the intrepid traveler is released into the terminal, a dystopian paradise if there was one. We know we are being observed by man, beast and robot; the electric lighting masks any sense of night or day. Meanwhile, the store upon store of superfluous luxury goods with attractive young things peddling liquor, perfumes and shoes is a parody of the fate that awaits the faithful.

I find the whole experience alienating by design, a journey through a series of spaces where we are with others but entirely on our own. Everything we do betrays that tension, that we have cast our lot with strangers who shall remain strangers. No talking with one's rowmates on the plane, no talking with the co-occupant of the precious table in the cafe. The bathrooms are the worst, with condoms lining the walls promising a lurid future and the stream of men waiting patiently to exchange bodily fluids. No greetings, not even the barest hint of eye contact. We are aware of each other but we don't exist for each other. All our communications are with authorities and salesmen.

Meanwhile, I have been told that the rich and the powerful enjoy an entirely different world behind closed doors and drawn curtains. Smiling attendants, warm greetings with fellow tycoons, privacy in the toilet. In other words, the basic elements of human fellowship have been monetized and are available only to those who can pay.

Culture is produced and replicated through a few archetypal sites: schools and colleges, temples and churches, parliaments and museums, factories and corporations. The architecture of our cities reflects this influence, as anyone who visits a temple town or factory town realizes immediately.

The airport is a relatively new entry to this list, a modern temple to energy culture. Fossil fuel is the new oblation to the gods with nuclear energy waiting in the wings. Energy is particularly important for Hollywood style technological imagination, which revels in fast cars and faster spaceships none of which are possible without massive energy sources.

Energy imagination is one thing, but energy culture in practice looks like the airport, a world of alienation by design and of absolute hierarchies enforced via surveillance. As climate change looms upon us, we know the dangerous consequences of energy culture for the natural world around us; the airport is a living reminder of what energy culture means for social relations as well.