Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The step-off- the-plane test

I'm sitting here at JFK for an early morning flight. I still find it remarkable that you can sit on a plane for a few hours ..... and step off the jetway onto a different continent, into a completely different context. (G loves to tease me about feeling this way.)

But it is a routine miracle of daily life, beginning in the 1960s.

I'm heading for the west coast today.

Fifty years ago, that would have been a four day trip by rail. One hundred fifty years ago, it would have been six months around Cape Horn and the worst ocean storms in the world. Now I can complain about the airline pretzels instead while I watch the midwest roll by beneath my window.

I've been thinking about recent arguments that we have not seen much technological progress in the last three decades in daily life - with the huge exception of computers and the Internet.

This flight today will take just the same flight time as 1970, and counting in having to arrive earlier at the airport for security reasons the journey will actually take longer.

Of course, the ticketing and reservation systems have changed. Travel agents are mostly a memory. The pilots carry their charts in iPads. Efficiency has been upgraded in so many ways.

But economy class seats have not.

The availability and variety of products has grown enormously since 1970. Try finding arugula or szechuan peppercorns in a supermarket back then. We have three hundred channels on tv instead of three.

And perhaps we travel more frequently than we did. I was in this very terminal less than ten days ago going to Miami.

But if you look around at the streetscape of New York, it does not look as "advanced" to visitors as it did in 1970. Cities with a fraction of the income, like Shanghai, have a towering skyline. Dubai was pretty much a dusty fishing village in 1970 and now has its own array of glittering towers and overflowing malls.

How do we recognize a place is wealthy or advanced now, at first glance as we step off the plane?

Part of it is orderliness. The streets are clean, the subway works, the police aren't corrupt.

Part of it is aesthetic appeal. Wealth surrounds itself with beauty and culture. We were sitting in Bryant Park the other night at twilight and it was just lovely, as the light slowly faded on the surrounding buildings and the evening air was fresh. In second-tier places you get ugly concrete slabs and miles of bland or unimaginative housing.

Part of it is culture. I was at the Metropolitan Museum yesterday, that vast treasure house, and saw their exhibition on Indian Painting. (Worth seeing).

Part of it is education. New York has its world-class universities and intellectual fireworks.

But it is not as easy any more to tell how wealthy somewhere is just by stepping off the plane and looking for superhighways or a skyline.

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