We are fooled into thinking that tomorrow is going to be better. Slaves to the economy we have created, we hurry along an endless treadmill to a meaningless future. Why aren't we living for today?
I often pass through airports in the United States. It is a strange, enervating experience. American airports offer so many distractions - shops, bars, restaurants, televisions, lounges - and yet I am always nervous about finding my connecting flight. I trust neither myself nor the logic of the building. So I am stuck in a strange, floating realm of indecision. I want to stop, I am supposed to stop, and yet I do not dare. This feeling mirrors the inconclusive nature of the place itself. Wherever the airport is nominally located - New York, Indianapolis, Miami, San Diego, Washington - it is never really there. In an airport a city's name does not denote a locality, it is merely a label attached to a point on a journey. I am a piece of luggage, a parcel, a letter or even a plane. I am in transit.
But once I was shocked out of this anxious, dream-like state by a sign. It was, I think, in the airport at Newark. I was on my way to Atlanta, so I cared nothing for Newark the city, only Newark the airport. Work was being done on the terminal, making navigation more difficult and fractionally increasing anxiety. In my usual airport state of enervation and distraction, I was physically hurrying and mentally lingering. Then I saw a sign on one of the partitions that concealed the messy spectacle of the workmen from the gaze of the passengers. It apologised for the inconvenience and then explained that "We are knocking down yesterday to build tomorrow".
I was so startled that I stopped and stared. Why, I wondered, did they want to knock down yesterday? What was so bad about yesterday? Well, obviously yesterday stood in the way of tomorrow and tomorrow was a good thing, so yesterday had to be knocked down. But where did that leave us today? Midway between yesterday and tomorrow. In transit in time as well as space. And, of course, when we got to tomorrow, there would be another tomorrow after that, requiring more yesterdays to be knocked down. We in the airport were in transit, not between two fixed points but between other states of being in transit. We would never get there because there was no "there" to get to.
What shocked me about that sign was the way it seemed, in such a bold, frank, American way, to celebrate all this. I knew that, to most Americans, it would be unremarkable. Of course, they would think, we must knock down yesterday, we must move on, we must progress, we can't be held back by old things. And I knew they wouldn't understand my queasiness - panic, almost - about the idea of for ever being in transit. They would see themselves as marching purposefully into the future, because the future would be better than the past. The American project - building America - endures in the imagination and keeps the crowds marching confidently through those airports.
And there was I, English, immobile, dry-mouthed and pale before a builder's sign. I had remembered another trip: a visit to Microsoft in Seattle. Bill Gates had been about to produce his book The Road Ahead, about the future of information technology. His people showed me the cover and asked what I thought. "It's terrible," I said. They looked shocked, and I knew I had been tactless. But it was awful. It showed an Annie Leibovitz picture of Gates, sideways on, with his face turned towards the viewer. He was standing beside a road that ran up a hill and vanished over the horizon. He seemed to be in a desert and the colours were muted, almost drab. The picture made you feel empty and lost; it provoked in me an airport-like anxiety. The road went nowhere and it went on for ever. Gates was the custodian of that road. The image, his face, the title, all told the reader there was no escape. You had to be on this interminable road or you were lost in the desert. It was a nightmare image.
My comment made no difference. They used the cover and the book did not do as well as expected. Not that it mattered. Microsoft continued to conquer the world. On January 23, 1992, its market capitalisation had already passed that of General Motors. Tom Peters, the management writer, said it was the symbolic end of the industrial revolution. How wrong he was. He just meant metal-bashing had given way to the manipulation of information. It is still industry. Gates, just like Ford and Rockefeller before him, remains the custodian of the never-ending road.
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