If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

More than 150 years ago John Ruskin imagined the experience of flight. Now, thanks to Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, we can begin to imagine the possibilities without it.

Robert Paterson provocatively suggests in Volcano & Air Travel – A Black Swan? What might happen:

At the moment we are all treating this event as a temporary inconvenience. But what if this is not temporary? The last time this volcano erupted in 1821 the eruptions lasted for months… So imagine European airspace being closed until September – possible? What then?

Robert has a list of sensible ideas about the impact on airlines, on shipping and other industries. Disruption for some of them could be serious and long-lasting.

But beyond the purely economic effects what could a sustained bar on air travel mean for our working and cultural lives? It might not all be doom and gloom. To see why, let’s revisit a concept proposed by Clay Shirky, most notably in his 2008 essay “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus“.

While not a member of Nick Carr’s band of New Luddites I could never completely buy Clay’s assertions about the unprecedented good of the internet, that it somehow unleashed new creativity. But I did like his comparison of television’s 50-year hegemony to the role of gin in our first industrial cities, both social sedatives to dull people’s shock and anger at their dislocation.

What did the people of the post-war consumer economy do with their free time? he asks…

Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis.

But I wonder whether prolonged television viewing is just one of several 20th Century innovations that continue to impair our faculties. Now, with help from that volcano, I understand why Dopplr tells people with no planned trips, “We envy you”.

Even before we count the cost to the environment, air travel is broken.

  • First there are the physical symptoms of travel sickness, jet lag, oxygen depletion and sleep deprivation, symptoms not so far removed from the inebriation of Georgian London.
  • Then there is the time lost in check-in queues, intrusive security, departure lounges, time buckled up with no electronics at take-off and landing, the isolation from the network connectivity on which we have come to depend.
  • Add to this the rootlessness engendered by rapid and repeated separation from locality and time-zone, the zapping through cities like a remote-control-happy TV-addict, its apotheosis the non-dom always on the move in search of tax efficiency.

Together these factors – physical, temporal and moral – conspire to sap the frequent flier of her creativity more lethally than the DVD box-set she doubtless slumps into at the end of a punishing week of travel.

And the worst part is, we inflict this malaise disproportionately on our leaders, making the term of a president, prime minister or CEO one long ear-popping whirlwind of tarmac, takeoffs and landings. Wouldn’t we rather these people were well-rested, grounded in a locality and on top of their game?

So I propose a new measure to complement Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. Imagine a world where our smartest and most powerful people travelled less and engaged more fully in their local communities. The time they have hitherto wasted in transit could instead be invested in family relationships, friendships and civic engagement.

In the airborne ashes of Eyjafjallajökull, we see the beginnings of the Transitive Surplus. How would you use yours?

Update 24/4/2010: Via booktwo.org, I found Andrew Losowsky‘s “open call to designers, writers, photographers, illustrators, art directors and anyone else who is stranded by the ash cloud“. An immediate example of the Transitive Surplus?

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