In the 2009 film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a traveling businessman on the road so many days a year that he finds peace in the transit hubs most of us experience as a kind of dull purgatory — airports, frequent flyer clubs, and runway-adjacent hotels. Striding into the chaotic, noisy terminal he tells us that “All the things you probably hate about traveling are warm reminders that I am home.”
In a new book Aerotropolis, Tom Friedman-like prophet of globalization John Kasarda and his co-author Greg Lindsay embrace the placeless-ness felt by Clooney’s character, telling us that like it or not, it’s “The Way We’ll Live Next.” While previous generations built giant metropolitan areas enlivened by the veins of rails and freeways, the new era will witness urban centers so dependent on next-day air connections across the globe that their physical infrastructure will be centered around the airfields. And the inhabitants of the aerotropolis will live in a kind of void, with Lindsay conceding that “One of the great luxuries of the 21st century will be a sense of place.”
Aesthetics will suffer too, with “speed, efficiency, generic ‘world-class’ architecture” becoming the primary concerns of urban planners.
If this vision sounds like a nightmare, you’re not alone. In this fortnight’s London Review of Books, critic Will Self finds the spectacle of Aerotropolis somewhat horrifying:
At the core of Kasarda’s conception of the aerotropolis lies the notion that space – unlike time – is fungible. Not so much wedded as welded to their airline seats, he and his amanuensis see the cities of the future as ‘glocal’ phenomena, where high-density urban centres are air-linked to intercontinental faubourgs. But for space to be fungible contracts have to be fulfilled across all jurisdictions, so implicit in the aerotropolis is not so much globalisation as global governance. Lindsay is a strange chronicler of this brave new world – one part Dr Pangloss to two parts H.L. Mencken’s Homo boobus – but for all that, determined to be likeable. There’s a disarming frankness to the way he recounts the poverty of Kenyan flower growers, simply in order to urge us to carry on buying their posies. His vision for the future of the African continent in the Age of the Aerotropolis seems to be as a vast latifundium sown with GM wheat. Equally brazen is his aside that Apple engineers refer to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen – where the world’s iPhones and most of its iPads, iPods, Playstations, Nintendos and Kindles are assembled – as ‘Mordor’. Why the evil kingdom in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? ‘At its peak,’ Lindsay writes, ‘some 320,000 workers toiled on its assembly lines and slept in its dormitories.’ A rash of suicides among its workers is part of the reason for Foxconn’s relocation to the still poorer and more immiserated interior of the Heavenly People’s Republic.
We might choose to see this as the frownie face that Kasarda’s smiley face tries to mask: an inverted curve where the greatest misery adds to a product’s value in the middle of its global traverse, while the greatest pleasure is accrued by innovators and consumers at either winsome end.
Will Self knows something about the psychic effects of globalization. For his book PsychoGeography, Self walked all the way from his home in south London to Heathrow Airport, flew to JFK on Long Island, and then walked into Manhattan. The effect on his body, he said, was as if he’d walked all the way from London to New York.