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The other night I watched the movie Airport (1970; Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and Jean Seberg). Passengers in its airport scenes were carrying old-fashioned luggage like your grandparents once used: plump rectangular Samsonite chunks with single handles. Looking at this obsolete luggage was slightly cringe-inducing for a 21st-century traveller, sort of like watching an eightysomething shovel dense wet snow. People really used to do this? As an added bonus, the passengers who weren’t carrying luggage were smoking — rarely has 1970 ever felt so far away. All in all, it seemed more like Bruegel the Elder’s 16th century than it did Richard Nixon’s America, and it certainly made it clear how far not just air travel but airline terminals have come in the past four decades.
Can you guess what the single biggest factor for change in airport design has been over recent decades? The answer is: wheeled luggage, and because of this, most every surface in a modern airport has been made as smooth and flat as possible, with bumps and gaps eliminated — just a seamless plane to ensure that the trundling of your luggage is both quiet and stylish. This smoothness helps define an airport’s sexy allure. It’s the opposite of your daily life, and this relentless smoothness lends most airports a borderline life-after-death tone. Sometimes an airport’s spell of smoothness is broken and we’re returned to the mundane realm. For me, this happens each time I visit the Air Canada domestic lounge of Vancouver International Airport, where the architect chose rough, lumpy chunks as flooring, and anything on wheels, be it a demure carry-on or the Rubbermaid cleaning trolley, sounds like Kimba the elephant on a rampage.
Women living in industrialised countries tend to fall and break their hips more than women in less industrialised countries. For decades, this tendency was accredited to some sort of lack in the diets of the western woman — or to a long-term accumulation of toxins — or to some sort of existential failing on the part of modernity. The real reason, it turned out, had nothing to do with these notions. We in the western world walk almost entirely on flat, smooth surfaces. Because of this, stabiliser muscles in the ankle and lower leg remain largely undeveloped so that when a disruption is encountered, the muscles and reflexes needed to cope with it aren’t there, so people trip. It’s that simple. There’s a lot to be said for walking in nature, and it’s not just for the fresh air.
Segways are terrific. They really are, and anyone who’s ever used one will testify to this. The thing about Segways is that they’re like flying dreams. You just think of going somewhere and they take you there effortlessly and with no learning curve. They are like walking or running but with all the boring bits removed. But boy, did Segway blow it. It’s possibly the best product ever destroyed by clueless consumer and regulatory rollout. I suspect that in the future, when energy and noise pressures grow too large, people will rediscover the Segway. But I hope they’ll then call it something else and release it into the world more intelligently. A few years back, I visited Austin, Texas, where Segways are street legal. I remember people in the streets using them for day-to-day living . . . And talk about futuristic. Forget flying cars. Segways were it.
In the past year I’ve taken trains throughout Europe and, as someone who comes from a place where there are, for all practical purposes, no trains nor places to go in them, European train travel can never for me lose that seamless sensation of infranational fluidity — the magic of floating from one country into another atop a continent as polished as the terrazzo flooring of Heathrow, Schiphol or da Vinci. Newspapers. Magazines. Meals. The countryside. Hey — wanna go to Warsaw this afternoon? The procedural logistics of crossing between Canada and the US in a train rivals a trip into East Germany in the 1960s, whereas four border crossings on a small Eurotrip is no big deal. I never take this for granted but my impression of Europeans is that they do take it for granted, yet also that this may be coming to an end. In spring I took the Thalys rail line between Holland and France several times, and when photos of last month’s failed gun attack made the internet I found myself saying, Ahh, yes, the distinctive Thalys maroon upholstering. The head-buzz of having had half a cup of coffee too many. A soiled and finger-worn copy of Le Figaro. Trying to get some, any, form of 3G connection. Whoosh!
There are few utopias in western culture. The senior prom. Two weeks in Hawaii. Maybe win the lottery. Hollywood. Retirement. Yet all of these utopias are being chipped away at. One has one’s prom and then it’s over. Consequence-free air and land travel are being ever more securitised and stripped of ease. The mathematics of retirement make it a dream that grows further away every day. As we weaponise the physical world, only Hollywood, in league with the internet, retains some power to create a sense of someplace that transcends our daily reality. When we look back on right now from the perspective of a few decades, I suspect we’re going to think of it as the Age of Ease. And what’s wrong with that?
Afternote: I wrote this piece on a flight to Schiphol. Three minutes after deplaning, two security guards on cloud-grey Segways silently overtook me and rounded a corner. The moment was slightly thrilling, as though I’d spotted two endangered birds in the wild.
It felt like the future.
Douglas Coupland is currently artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has a museum show at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art.
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland