Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The new Airbus Superjumbo

A while ago, a friend of mine criticised a technology company for its tagline, about the 'enabling the mobile lifestyle'. They provided software solutions for mobile telecoms companies, but he argued that it could be a tagline for Ford or Boeing just as easily. Anything that drives mobility. The concept of mobility is an intriguing one, and is related to its antonym, staying put. Mobility is of course relative, and implies that there is a fixed point from which one moves, or perhaps it represents the abdication of home, of place. The sense of place has long been important, whether related to the environment in which one lives, as for example with the nomadic peoples of the world that tend to travel within a region, or to a fixed location - the land, and ownership of the land.

The sense of place is being lost. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, the barriers to mobility have been coming down dramatically. Travel has never been easier, and access to information about remote places has never been so readily available. Social mobility too has meant that while one's geneology does not lend itself to advancement, liberal democracy and free market capitalism makes it possible for humans to advance beyond their social layer, and better themselves. Hereditary hierarchy is no longer la mode. Not only has the difficulty relating to getting places been removed, but the difficulty relating to the return trip have similarly been diminished. Going a long way away is not like a death. In the Irish famine (1840's), emigrants to America were waked before they left, because the family were pretty sure that they would never see them again. It's not so any more.

And so we build bigger planes, faster cars, smaller mobile phones, and more powerful computers that facilitate this abdication of place, the destruction of the need for presence. The impact of all of this has been to decimate communities and families. People leave as quickly as they can, moving away to centres of commerce and social betterment. People follow opportunity, capital and class. The farmers, the land people, remain rooted to the land, and somewhat in limbo. Having the farm is important (honour thy father and thy mother) but it is as much an albatross as it is a gift. It restrains potential progress, the development of intellectual capital which is so highly prized.

Yet the land is solid. The land is real, tangible, and far less susceptible to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The land offers up its bounty, provides shelter, food and place. It defines people, and people benefit from it. The absence of land, the absence of place, and the absence of community damages people.

Many of my friends (all of them, in fact) live in the cities of England and Ireland, a long way from home. They tend to have fleeting, fragile, ad hoc communities in which they live and work, and return often to the home community diaspora, if attending a Munster rugby game, an Irish soccer match, or attending to Christmas duties in the great return. There is true, unexplained and unquestioned solace in this, and the urging to return and stay permanently grows ever stronger each Christmas.

We will return someday, or we will carve out for ourselves a community of real substance in our adopted home. It is necessary for survival, as it is necessary for growth. Until that day, we will ride our Superjumbos, talk incessantly on our cellphones, and surf the web, thinking we know it all.

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