• Logo Doors of Perception (print)

    Logo alleen voor print

Lost In Space: A Traveller’s Tale

As well as being thresholds between land and air, modern airports are gateways to complexity. Through them, we enter the operating environment of global aviation, surely mankind’s most complicated creation. But in airports, although we are isolated from the rythms of the natural world, we remain ignorant of how this artificial one works. The result is to reinforce what philosophers call our ontological alienation: a sense of rootlessness and anxiety; of not quite being real; of being… lost in space.

Aviation is typical in many respects of the way the whole world is going: saturated with information and systems; complex but incomprehensible; an exhilarating human achievement, and a terrifying prospect, at the same time. It’s time design got to grips with these ambiguous features of our technological society. But I’ll return to these broader issues at the end.

Right now, I want to focus on three design questions: why does air travel makes you feel strange ? what can design do to improve the experience? and why go in person, when you can call?

I believe answers to these three questions can be found by looking at the ways that different kinds of space affect the way we think and feel. The first is architectural space, a familar enough concept which is sufficiently mAinstream nowadays to coommand generous coverage in newspapers and on television. Then there is aviation space, the ‘operating environment’ within which airports, airplanes, electronic signals, and people, interact with each other continuously on a global scale. Typical airport plans, of the kind you would find in an architect’s office, say almost nothing about the quality of our interaction with these intangible systems and processes. I will then compare these first two kinds of space to a third, telematic space – the space of electronic communications, where all that’s whizzing around is information.

In order to explain the strange way we feel when traveling by air, and the impact on us of airport and aviation space, I need to explain a bit about the aviation system as a whole, which determines what architects would call the programme of an individual airport building.

Since 1993, the world’s airlines carried more than one billion passengers on scheduled flights every year. That’s equivalent to one sixth of the world’s population. Airlines also carried 22 million tons of freight last year – almost a quarter of the total value of the world’s manufactured exports. It took something like 12 million aircraft departures to carry such stupendous quantities of people and goods around the world. These were to and from about 16,000 airports in the Unites States alone – perhaps 30,000 in the world? Nobody actually knows: no single organisation represents them all.

But the aviation system’s earthbound infrastructure is as nothing compared to the complexity of its operating environment, or aviation space. The aviation system, of which airports are one component, is distributed not just in space, but also in time. Airports exist at the intersection of airways – the space through which aircraft pass – which are densely criss-crossed, in three spatial dimensions,and at different times – by the routes planes are flying, did fly, and will fly.

Aviation space is also saturated with electronic information from humans and machines, chattering out directions to thousands of aircrew – and onboard computers – at any one moment. The fact that people – passengers, aircrew, ground staff, air traffic controllers and the like – are part of the system, too, means that when it comes to complex environments, forget the banks and dealing rooms that feature so prominently on television as symbols of modern space: airports are by far the most advanced smart buildings on earth.

Expansion of the system, and in particular the rate of building of new airports, is staggering. Compound growth in air travel and transport of six per cent or more has a profound impact on the phenomenology of air travel – the vague sensation that these huge flows of people and matter and information are increasing in volume and power all the time.

Once a year, Airports International magazine lists hundreds of new aiport projects around the world. Many are in places I, for one, have never heard of – exotic towns spending tens and hundreds, billions of dollars on new facilities.

No single world body is responsible for the aviation system as a whole. There are airlines – thousands of them: the breakup of Aeroflot produced 800 new ones in the URSS . Then there are all sorts operators and managers of airport – some local, some national. There do exist supranational air traffic control bodies, but they have an uphill struggle integrating national systems.Nobody is coordinating this phenomenal expansion of world aviation. It’s just happening.

Speed is money

This stupendous investment of money and materials is not the consequence of an integrated plan to manage increasing traffic: it is a potent interaction between politics and markets. Economically, aviation growth is a visceral response by the market to apparantly limitless demand. Politically, airports have become economic and political touchstones against which cities and regions measure their status in the world. In post-Cold War Europe more than 300 emerging cities or regional entities are competing with each other to attract increasingly mobile capital and jobs. For them – and for hundreds of other cities and regions around the world – an airport has become a strategic priority.

The biggest international airports and major hubs – the United States alone has 30 – are like giant pumps that greatly increase flow through the whole system. Phenomenal costs land on those places that wish to keep up. A single 747-capacity runway can cost $200m; an international passenger terminal ranges from $100 million upwards. Once road and rail links, baggage handling systems, air traffic control systems and so on, are factored in, the capital cost of an international airport quickly exceed a billion dollars.Japan’s new Kansai airport cost $15 billion -insofar as anyone actually knows the full amount,or is prepared to say.

The ground traffic generated by all those workers, passengers, well-wishers, cab drivers and so on, is enormous too. Los Angeles International generates more than 150,000 vehicle trips daily in and out of the central terminal area alone – excluding long-stay car parks, warehouses, nearby hotels and their suppliers. For planners, it’s like designing a traffic system for a city with more than half a million inhabitants.

Airports also have huge workforces. Frankfurt, whose workforce is well over 40,000, is the biggest single-site employer in the whole of Germany. London Heathrow,in order to handle more than 1,000 airliner movements a day, employs 55,000 people directly – meterologists, air traffic controllers, pilots, cabin crew, cleaners, caterers, check-in staff, baggage handlers, engineers, firemen, police, security guards. Heathrow’s staff numbers exclude more than 300,000 or more people employed by a myriad suppliers. All those van drivers and sandwich makers.

Airports are also the world’s largest employers of dogs.

It is only because airports are multinational businesses in their own right that costs on this scale can be sustained. Indeed, commercial activity on the ground, not aircraft taking off and landing, is now one of the main drivers of airport design. Less than 50 per cent of Heathrow’s earnings now come from landing fees or servicing aircraft. International transit passengers not flying spend an average of $35 a head at Heathrow’s hundreds of shops, restaurants, hairdressers – and four caviar bars. Heathrow is also the largest market for Havana cigars in the world – including Havana.

Dwell time

In the olden days, when airports were planned and operated as transport utitlities – if only for an elite – engineers and operations people would have regarded an idle passenger as evidence of system inefficiency. Not today. Mobility is just one of the products on sale at a modern airport. So much so that to commercial managers, ‘passenger discretionary time’, or ‘dwell time’- the time spent by passengers killing time between flights – is a sales opportunity. Why else ask people check in up to 3 hours before takeoff?

The management of dwell-time to optimise commercial yield is one reason – traffic jams are another – that between 1950 and 1990, the proportion of time spent in the air by passengers on a journey has steadily decreased. As the transport economist John Whitelegg has observed, the amount of time each person devotes to travel is roughly the same regardless of how far or how fast they travel. Facilities are sited further apart, and people have to travel furether top reach them than they did 70 years ago. “Time is money, we are told, and increasing mobility is a way of saving time”, says Whitelegg; “but how successful are modern transport systems at savnig time?”. If air travel is any guide, the answer appears to be: not very much.

Social speed

In fact, the faster we go the less time we feel we have. Following on from the work of Ivan Illich in the 1970s, the German sociologist D Seifried has coined the term social speed to signify the average speed of a vehicle (and its passengers) after all sorts of hidden time costs are added in. So in addition to ‘getting to the airport’ time – and dwell-time once you get there – Seifried reminds us about the time spent earning the money to go on the journey in the first place. Some urban designers have introduced the concept of time planning to take account of these hidden costs of travel.

Air travel purists, wedded to the fantasy that air travel denotes fast and efficient mobility, face worse disillusion ahead. London’s Gatwick, for example, has developed a $40 million airport theme park whose target is one million people a year – ‘travellers’ whose only destination is the airport itself.

Work space

Apart from shopping and leisure, airports are also being used ever more intensively by businesses. Virtual corporations – companies that have forsaken headquarters buildings for a life on the road – are big users of airports. The growing amount of business carried out across national boundaries in the new economy has fuelled demand for meeting rooms, exhibition and showroom facilities, business centres, and other non-travel-specific facilities – inside, next to, under, and on top of, most new airports. Airports have replaced science and business parks as the epicentre of business real estate.

These multiple programmes and agendas – operational, commercial, political – are one reason why writers have started talking about airports as cities – cities of the air.Both cities and airports cover large areas; both are a complex of intersecting transport systems, economies, buildings, and people.

But there is one crucial difference: cities have inhabitants. At airports, everyone is transient. Herein lies one element of the airport’s existential ambiguity.

The American writer Richard Sennett is particularly outraged that cities have become more like a pump for traffic, than a place to live, and that planners can describe a local airport as a ‘traffic-flow support nexus’. “When public space becomes a derivative of movement”, says Sennett, “it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless… It is catatonic space”.

Catatonic space

The word catatonic is horribly apt as a description of the way these great modern spaces make us feel. What is going on when they have this effect?

Any space, including artificial space, affects our minds and our bodies. But artificial environments shield us from phenomena like climate, and particularly daylight, whose cycles in the natural world expose us physically to the reality of constant change. In an optically static environment, like most airports, the body is physically desensitised from its sense of time.

In a brilliant essay called The Poetics of Light the American architect Henry Plummer observed that “our very sense of being is based on an experience of process, activity, and movement. We seem to find an image of our own existence in the changing lights of the natural world”. Moment-to-moment mutations of light also provide what the philosopher Henry Bergson called “lived time”, and Ernst Cassirer “a consciousness of sequence”. I was reminded of this recently when, wandering slack-jawed around Anchorage airport en route to Japan, I accidentally stepped outside to an Alaskan night: it was literally like waking up from a dream. Startled by the cold, dank spooky Alaskan air, I lost my bearings for a moment. Where was I? Luckily, a blast of noise, and the warm embrace of kerosene fumes, reminded me where I was. For a moment there, I could have been lost to nature.

Lived time, natural time, cold, dank spooky Alaskan air time, stands in stark contrast to the so-called objective time of clocks and departure times at airports. According to the psychologist David Winnicott, loss of temporality is a feature of the psychotic and deprived individual, in which a person “loses the ability to connect the past with the present”. The bridging of the present into the past, and into the future is, says Winnicott, “a crucial dimension of psychic integration and health”.

So there you have it. Air travel, by scrambling your mind-and-body clock, creates the preconditions for psychosis. So that’s another reason it makes you feel strange!

This will not come as dramatic news to architects. As far back as the 1930s, the celebrated Hawthorn Study analysed a connection between light and mental comfort. Hawthorn’s work represents the pre-history of environmental psychology and has been an established branch of science for about 15 years now. It is to environmental psychologists that we owe the term ‘sick building syndrome’, and the development of so-called ‘environmentally porous’ new buildings. The smartest new structures now let fresh air and daylight in.

I have suggested thus far that the challenge posed by airports to architecture and design is threefold: the designer confronts contradictory operational and commercial agendas; she has to tackle the impact of artificial environments on our physical/mental state; and there is the problem of cognitive disorientation, of not understanding the system, on our mental/physical state.

The contradictory agendas of airport operators are by themselves an intractable problem facing architects and designers. Remarkably, the architect is one of the few people on earth – along with the planner and the economist – who grapples materially with the big picture – the totality of the aviation system. Almost everyone else tends to be a specialist in one bit of the system. But it is obvious, given these conflicting agendas, that the chances of an architect imposing a coherent design solution are small. I will return to the consequences of that in a moment.

The second problem – of artificial space which isolates us from natural rythms – can be and is being tackled by letting in fresh air and daylight – just as almost any nineteenth century parent, opening a child’s window at night, would have known intuitvely! Window manufacturers are making a huge song-and-dance out of the fact that their latest high-tech products, some of which are being used in airports, can actually be opened. Even where windows remain sealed, letting in daylight is now a fully-blown fad in airport design.

The logic of movement

A spectacular example of this trend is Kansai International Airport in Japan which opened in 1994. It’s a $15 billion pheneomenon, described – even by the can-do Japanese – as “an exceptional endeavour for the country”. To secure the 500 hectares needed for airport with a projected capacity for 160,000 aircraft movements a year – in a country where 70 per cent of the land is occupied by mountains – the airport is built on an artificial island. It’s about 5km offshore from Osaka, where the average water depth at the site is 18.5m, with unstable clay underneath. Preparation of the the site began in 1987, and involved driving one million sand piles into the seabed. They then built an 11km long seawall, which outlined the island, And filled the resulting hole with 164 million cubic metres of soil.It must have taken a lot of buckets and spades.

Meanwhile, Renzo Piano, working with engineers Ove Arup and partners, won an international competition for the 300,000 m2 terminal. The central concept, the geometry of the main roof, was inspired by the design of an airflow, and developed by reference to fractal geometry. Renzo Piano believes that an “air terminal should be structured as a diagramme of the people moving through it. The entire building – structure, light and air movement – should complement the logic of passenger movement”. To its credit,the airport has also segregated commercial activities on another level, allowing passengers more or less uninterrupted access from landside to airside. With a main span of 82.5m-long main beams over the 300m long main halls will afford travellers the pleasure of being part of a moving throng in a great space. The roof is airy and uncluttered and full of light. The design allows people to experience a drama of changing space, light and sights -familiarity intermixed, as the jury report put it, with “bold revelations of the future”. Passengers arriving from the mainland enter a great canyon- the interface between nature and the machine – that is some 25m wide and 300m long.

At their first briefing meeting, Piano’s team was presented with a 2,000 page summary of the technical briefing. As legend has it, the great man ceremoniously threw this $50 million document in the trashbin – if only to make the point that he needed to start with, and hold onto, a clear design concept. The details could be worked out later. Amazingly, the design concept survived a vast, fast, multi billion dollar programme more or less intact – although even the Japanese ran out of money towards the end and had to trim the ‘wings’ of Piano’s masterpiece by about half, pending expansion later.

Kansai successfully emerged as an architeturally coherent building. But the opportunity to build a new island, built on millions of sand-piles, and to spend $10 billion, is not an option for most airport developers in the world. So the third design problem I want to discuss – the cognitive dissonance that comes from being a rootless monad in an architecturally opaque space – is likely to remain pervasive in airports around the world unless new design stratgies are developed.

Countless modern writers, from Karl Marx, to Baudelaire,to Richard Sennett, have written about the alienation you feel in modern cities. Urban anxiety is part of our culture: Bladerunner; MTV videos of wild creatures singing songs amidst burned out cars; the lurid urban advertising used by law-and-order politicians during elections. All these media use urban angst as their backdrop. But psychologists have only recently addressed the phenomenon. They have now discovered the importance of what they call “situated understanding” – a phrase of Hubert Dreyfus – the fact that having a clear mental picture of an artificial environment contributes to mental health.

When it comes to giving us a clear mental picture of our environment, architecture has not exactly excelled itself in recent years: in most airports, one is situated in a box – and it feels like it. After a pre-history involving utilitarian brick buildings on the edge of fields, airports once seemed destined to become the architectural equivalent of modern cathedrals. Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal in New York had a particularly strong impact on the public imagination and became for many critics a symbol of modernity. But, as Reyner Banham so memorably observed, the TWA terminal was obsolete before it even opened. Designed for fleets of propeller-driven Lockheed Constellations, by the time it opened the first jets, the Comets and Boeing 707s were in use, and the terminal’s airside had to be encrusted with jet-blast deflectors. Today, Saarinen’s masterpiece at JFK has almost disappeared: you glimpse it every now and again, cowering between lumpish great buildings like a lost child in Times Square.

Planners, besieged by data, can’t really help but think in terms of boxes. Boxes contain lots of space, can be packed together, and stack up nicely. And frankly, a well-made box is preferable to artworks like Roissy Charles de Gaulle in Paris. This monument to system complexity looked stunning on paper – but turned out a nightmare to use. I must have been to Roissy 40 times; it’s nice, as you glide down those capillary-like tunnels into the featureless aorta of the main building, to imagine oneself in a Jacques Tati movie. But I still have to think twice, and sometimes ask at Information, where to catch the railway shuttle.

Sim city without batteries

When complex systems are not hidden or disguised – for example in the vast, cathedral-like dealing rooms built by Japanese banks in the 1980s – the geometry and atmosphere of the space is determined by the technology, not by a designer. Architecture really doesn’t have a language for unstable contexts of this kind – still less for ones like airports where large numbers of people, as well as data, are passing through. As the architect Bernard Tschumi points out in Architecture and Disjunction, “three thousand years of architectural ideology have tried to assert that architecture is about stability, solidity, foundation, when it is the very opposite: like modern scientific knowledge, buildings are constantly on the verge of change.” And as Donald Schon put it in The Refelective Practitioner back in 1971, “design is now increasingly taking place beyond the stable state”.

Beyond the stable state

Some architects have at least acknowledged the problem that confronts buildings and urban spacesin an era of speed and change. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas talks about the “incoherence, or more precisely randomness, that is the underlying structure of all architects’ careers. They are confronted by an arbitarary sequence of demands – parameters they did not establish, in countries they hardly know, about issues they are only dimly aware of”. We have dismantled urbanism, says Koolhaas, leaving only architecture – “more and more substance is grafted on starving roots”.

The trouble is that although Koolhaas the critic understands the problem, Koolhaas the architect can’t do much about it. An extremely macho ‘hundred crane man’ during construction of Euro-Lille in France (quantities of cranes are a measure of how big a building project is), his project celebrates space, change and movement but does virtually nothing to to give passers-through a cognitive sense of place. You feel like one of those tiny humanoid figures architects use to decorate their models – sleek, but blind.

Signs of the times

Some airpoort managers do try out new tools and techniques to make complex space more inhabitable. Schiphol in Amsterdam, for example, installed a large Jenny Holzer artwork in one particularly vapid void. Cryptic words and phrases flow up and down the 20 metre-high stack of digital displays all day long. Jenny Holzer’s use of typography and digital displays has a particular resonance for anyone contemplating the notion of semiotic pollution in the sheer volume of information swirling around us. I guess these are the first artists to have spent a lot of their lives staring at departure boards. But this large, strong, clearly-conceived, and subversive object, is pitiful in the context of Schiphol as a whole. Phenomenologically, it is inert. It is powerless to communicate amidst the silent roar of people, movement and information that pervades the airport.

Cartography also fails in such contexts. Maps represent one of the fundamental tools by which we make sense of the world; as cartographic historian Stephen Hall has explained, “they mediate between an inner mental world, and an outer physical world, of which the map reader may have no direct experience”. By that definition, maps should be an excellent antidote to the cognitive fog that surrounds us in vast artificial environments such as an airport. And it is true that the best maps and charts do inform you where you stand in relation to the whole. But what they do not do is convey a sense of movement, of flow, of process -which is the experiential reality that you are aware of, but cannot see, in places like airports.

It is not the role of signs, either, to reveal the fundamental structure of a system.Their role is to control and optimise flow, to induce your movement in a particular direction at a particular time. They are the graphic design equivalent, for humans, of the metal strips on the floor that robots follow blindly around automated factories.

Don’t get me wrong. I love good signs.When I arrive back at Schiphol from any other airport in the world (except possibly from the new bits of Frankfurt, whose Grundig digital signs are also fab) I get real pleasure from the sheer design quality of the banks of video information screens, and those large yellow signs. If one is going to be processed by a system, better to be processed by an elegant, even beautiful system, than by a bad one.

But I return to my point that neither maps, which are representation, nor signs, which issue instructions, can help us understand the system as a whole. Visual displays to explain complex processes do exist – the French make particuilarly beautiful ones for their nuclear power stations; and the Japanese make wonderful, high-resolution digital displays for banks and dealing rooms that are a sheer pleasure to watch; but neither airport operators nor architects seem have thought about presenting information to the public using new media in a creative way.

Slow space

The same cannot be said of artists. Throughout the twentieth century artists have intervened in a variety of ways into manmade space: futurism, cubist collage,Duchamp’s readymades, Dada, constructivism, surrealism, Fontana’s spatialism, Fluxus, land art, arte povera, process art, conceptualism. These groups and ideas all confronted the movement, energy, dynamism, and sheer process–ness that modern man encounters, in the modern places we have made. They treated the deadness and catatonia of modern public space both as a rebuke, and a challenge. Their aim has been twofold: to create reflective, liminal or ‘slow’ space on the one hand; and to animate space, to give it a narrative content, on the other.

In recent years a new generation of media artsists has emerged with new tools and new ideas.. Jeffrey Shaw’s piece Legible City, for example, is a quite remarkable idea: the participant bicycles down virtual street where instead of buildings, you pass words. Shaw worked with a writer on the project, and together they created a template for the words based on the grid and actual buildings of Manhatten. If you turn a corner, you move from one narrative – or sentence – into another one.

Keiici Irie, one of the most brilliant of the new young architects in Japan, used sound to animate and delineate spacein a project called Movable Realities; you pass ed through ‘cones’ of sound, each of which plays a different sound sequence. In a show called T-Zone which we did together in London and Glasgow, Irie created 10m high slabs slabs of glass behind which were video cameras which captured your picture as you walked past, and replayed them with a delay on small monitors. In Glasgow we had to turn the thing off because the frequencies were interefering with air traffic control at Glasgow Airport. [Just in case you were wondering what possible conection this had with airports!].

Another Japanese artist, Toshio Iwai, who designs games for Nintendo and installations for the Group Of Seven Summit, intervenes in space with crisp, evocative, and visceral combinations of computers, projectors, and various interfaces. I do not mean to be over-literal about this, but one could at least imagine an enriched design scenario for airports which combined the latest mapping and computerised cartography with the spatial sensibility of the best artists – and simply bring the places to life.

Let me remind you of the three questions I posed at the beginning: why does air travel makes you feel so strange? how might design improve the experience? and why go in person, when you can call?

My reason for telling you about media artists followed my reluctant conclusion, concerning question two, that architecture and design by themselves lack the motivation and the tools to improve our experience of airport space. My thought was that perhaps different specialisms, like cartography or media art, might be able to add a new dimension to the articulation of these spaces.

The trouble is, I’m not completely naive: it’s highly unlikely that airports and their design can be influenced in such interesting ways – let alone by artists. Some enlightened airport operators do try to make their facilities cleaner, easier to use, more humane. Schiphol exemplifies this. Sometimes they even hang art on walls, or put sculptures in the concourses. But apart from the fact that most concourses are semiotically stronger than most art, this is not really the point. The fundamental logic of airports – their basic operating software – is to process passengers, not to enlighten them. Even Schiphol suffers gravely from the fact that no person, and no team, is responsible for the perceptual integrity of the airport as a whole.

But there’s another, quite different reason why my contemplation of radical design scenarios for airports ran out of steam. Aviation as a whole is already far too greedy a consumer of energy – and space. If we are serious about striving towards a sustainable world economy, and given population and other trends, we have to increase the energy- and matter-efficiency with which live on this planet by a factor of 20. Getting a bit better each year will not be enough. In this rather daunting context, there’s no way our world can afford the continued mad growth of aviation. If we are serious about a sustainable economy then aviation will have to contract.

It sounds implausible, but consider this: matter is more expensive than energy; energy is more expensive than information. It is almost infinitely cheaper to move information than people or things. So why not fly less, and communicate more?

Hence my third and final point: the telematic alternative. Rather than try to “cure” the alienating effects of airports – for example, by radical artistic intervention into airport space – should we not be looking for alternative ways to achieve the same ends as air travel, without the obscene consumption of energy that we now know aviation entails? Why go in person when you can call?

From aviators to avatars

Despite all the hoopla about highways of the mind, the capacity of information and communication technology to recreate what it’s like to be in a meeting with people somewhere else is a long way off. A lot of the whizzier demonstrations you see or hear about are either faked, or cost $10,000 an hour. But whether or not the technology will actually deliver distant verisimilitude now, or later, is not the main point. Existing forms of comunication deliver perfectly satisfactory results to billions of people everyday; POTS they call it in the trade – or “Plain Old Telephone Service”.

If the aim of air travel were simply to exchange information, then we wouldn’t bother doing it. The trouble is – to state the obvious – that’s not why we do it. It’s that mind-body business again: experientially, there never will be an alternative to actually ‘being there’. Now I know that – and you know that – but the terrifying thing is that the world’s telecommunications companies don’t appear to know that. On the contrary: they’re spending vast amounts of money and gobbling ludicrous quantities of bandwidth in the search for systems and networks that will reproduce as closely as possible the sensation of ‘being there’.

At Germany’s huge GMD national computer laboratories, for example, one team has harnessed together a whole row of super-fast Thinking Machine computers in order to increase the perceptual depth of its ‘virtual conference room’. GMD’s idea is to recreate, as closely as possible, the experience of sitting round a conference table – only with the people opposite you being located in differenm parts of the world. Most major TelCos are engaged in similar experiments – mindless to the fact that most of us find real meertings, let alone virtual ones, futile enough.

Skip Ishii, a researcher formerly at Japan’s NTT, and now at the MediaLab in Boston, is a leading critic of Being There-ness as the strategic aim of TelCos. Ishii points out that the human eye has something like 40 million receptors in it. Many millions more receptors are to be found in our ears, up out noses, in our skin and on our tongues. There are dense clusters of receptors elsewhere on the body, too – but this is a family readership, so I will not dwell on those! Even if you could capture the smells, sounds, tastes, and feel of a place, digitise them, and send them down a wire – you’d still never get near the sensation of Being There. Why? Because we humans are not so dumb. Our minds and out bodies are one intelligence. We’d just know, that’s why.
So why bother trying? Well, there’s big business in all this. Assuming, as the industry does, that 2 billion people will be flying annually by 2005, and that 20% of that number will be travelling on business, as forecasters predict. That’s 400 million business travellers who might be persuaded – or told by their boss – to take the superhighway of the mind instead of flying.

As a matter of fact, this is already happening. Sales of videoconferencing equipment and services in the United States climbed from $350 million in 1992 to $7 billion in 1997- and the graph continues to rise. But the real growth is in the internet, and there, the graphs are not shooting upwards for the reasons the TelCos imagine. The geometric explosion in usage of the Internet is despite the fact that it is actually rather difficult to use, is low in information content quantitatively, and is many many years away from ‘Being There’ verisimilitude. Most of what you send or receive is boring old text. Visual trickery will come: as we have seen, industry is busy developing high-bandwidth networked computer graphics and real-time simulators. But funnily enough, the prospect of virtual reality ‘coming true’ is not what is turning on one million new Internet subscribers a month,now. Simulation, per se, has already lost its allure.

No. What drives the explosion in Internet usage is something else, a new quality to existing communication,the quality of connectivity.

Connectivity is the capacity of the communication networks to connect everything and everyone, to everything and everyone else. Unlike the telephone, whose great advantage is its intimacy as a medium – you use the phone, but you don’t think about it – the Internet very positively conveys the idea of shared communication space. So although the engineers and bandwidth junkies will continue their quest for ‘Being There’ verisimilitude, the more interesting task for design is to enhance the communication quality of cyberspace by more artful and indirect means.

The promise of proxemity

To give you a flavour of what this might involve,let me tell you about a project called The Poetics of Telepresence which the Netherlands Design Institute commissioned from two English designers, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby.

Their idea, which was to look at the effect of fusing physical and telematic space, was inspired by the obscure (outside Umberto Eco books) social science of proxemics. Proxemics looks at how different spatial relationships – standing close, standing apart, eavesdropping – change the whole tenor of the way we communicate. Dunne and Raby extrapolated from these findings to ask: why should videoconferencing always be face to face? They developed scenarios in which each person sits inside a box in which the weather in the other person’s ncountry is represented, and listens to the person’s voice. They also asked, why limit contact to speech, or sight? We could use radio to trigger heat devices remotely, or to emit smoke or smells. [I particularly liked the idea of a “hot air” button on my telephphone, so I could politely let the person at the other end know she or he was talking nonsense]. Temperature is highly evocative of the body: to recreate an intimate atmosphere of co-presence for a call, why not make the area warm?

The big telecom companies emphasize ‘purposive’ communication – all those ghastly television advertisements with dynamic business persons doing deals on mobile telephones. But a lot of the most important communication is informal, accidental, and happens by chance. In the brain, intense activity takes place in liminal parts of the cortex that nobody understands, but know are important. In offices, the water cooler or coffee machine tends to be more important than the boardroom as a communication nexus; so why not create similar reflexive spaces and street-corner moments in cyberspace? Dunne & Raby came up with ideas whereby telecommunications might allow you ‘bump into’ people in distant spaces.

New ways by which people might be represented in telematic space include the use of ‘avatars’; these are images or symbols (the word has origins in Hinduism) either literally or metaphorically represent a particular person. Microsoft have an avatar team whgose experiments include Miro-like squiggles that co-habit so-called chat-spaces with others of their (ie our) kind. An English team is developing 3d whole-body scanners thatr will be installed, rather like passport photo booths, in public spaces. Having digitised your whole body, you will be able to send it out into the internet on your behalf where it will meet and hand out with other avatars.

Speed is God; time is the devil

The thing about air travel is that it affords you the illusion of compressing space and time. But, as John Urry has observed, “speed turns nature into landscape” – and we have no real idea what this unprecedented explosion in mobility and telecommuniccations portends. It took centuries for information about the smelting of iron ore to cross a single continent and bring about the iron age. During the time of sailing ships, it took years for knowledge and technologies to spread around the world. Just 100 years ago, 99 per cent of all people lived their lives within a 50 kilometre radius of where they were born.

All that has changed – and in a couple of generations. The telegraph and radio made it possible to deliver information point to point, simultaneously. Radio, television and satellite increased the communicational footprint. Now we have the internet and world wide web – and nobody really knows what the interaction of this new medium with the old ones will mean in the medium term for the nature and dynamics of knowledge.

We tend to scoff nowadays at nineteenth century medical experts who warned that the acceleration of life, and use of the telephone, would cause “serious mental degeneration”; we think it quaint to discover that the word ‘phoney’ should derive from early descriptions of the communicative quality of telephones.

But how sophisticated are we, really, today? We seldom step back and think critically about the aviation system as a whole, for example, preferring to pass our days either mindlessly passing through it – or working intensively on small bits of it: flying aircraft, managing passenger manifests, delivering canapes, designing avionics, staring at air traffic control screens. There are thousands more functions in the system, and millions of people work on them day and night. But aviation is so complex that we find it hard to grasp as a totality. Even social scientists hold back. They will wax indignant about the impact of television, or of the computer, but I have yet to hear a behavioural critique of aviation – even though aviation has transformed the way we experience ‘here’ and ‘now’ and ‘there’ and ‘then’.

I set out to explore a common activity, flying, and to provoke you look and think about it differently next time you do it. My proposition is that in the modern world – of which airports and air travel are a paradigm – ignorance is not bliss. We need new design languages, a grammar of complexity, to describe the contemporary world – not as it used to be, and not as the engineers would like us to see it, but as it actually is: a world of global computer and communication networks; of distributed intelligence; of interactivity; of connectivity.

In the seventeenth century we were exposed by science to the fact that – to cut a long story short – the world is not flat. Today, to cut an even longer story even shorter, the world is more complicated than it used to be. But we made it, and we can still understand it. We have to, if we are to control it.


This is the text of the Lumiance Lecture that I gave in Amsterdam, in 1994, at the invitation of Harry Swaak, the founder and (then) CEO of Lumiance. Harry was also also chairman of the board of the Netherlands Design Institute where I had started work as its first Director 12 months earlier.

This entry was posted in art & perception, mobility & design, most read. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

  • Only shown in print

    Contactinformation John

  • All Blog Posts