Lets not beat about the bush - the 20th century is not even over and already we can hardly remember it or, at best, remember it as a déjà vu because its ending is so much like its beginning. The Empires are collapsing, nationalist fanatics are rampaging across Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Central Europe is being recreated by the awesome reality of a united Germany, Britain and France are rattling their weaponry and indulging in punishment missions against unruly (ex) colonials. True, the Kings and Princes have mostly gone but we still have the industrial Barons and the new aristocracy of managers and mega-managers wielding more power from their corporate towers of glass and steel than most old fashioned Monarchs dreamed of in their puny stone palaces. Even the panacea of a "United States of Europe", that will finally resolve the conflicts and contradictions of 1000 years of bloodshed, has a 19th century aura. The migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as industrialisation drove people from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe, are being replayed now as de-industrialisation closes the factories. Plus ça change, plus c'est même chose.
Of course there are several billion more people and products now than 100 years ago and they are definitely packed together more tightly and moving more rapidly and frequently. Travel has taken on the character of oscillation - like molecules in lightly simmering water. Being under way in the travel capsule. whether in the air or on the road. travel-space is universally the same - one airport/airplane/automobile autobahn is just like any other, just as any large cinema, supermarket department store - or for that matter, shopping street, is practically identical with all the others. The same shops, products, prices and swarms of shoppers/travelers/loiters populate them all. Acceleration seems, in the end, to produce the sensation of going noplace but of being everywhere.
The whole century has been dominated by the telephone and, more recently, by telephone peripherals like the Modem which permits direct telephone communication between electronic devices as well as the fax machines that now dominate business communications. Modern communications technology has made it possible to de-materialise certain products and simply transport the instructions for their manufacture - the most obvious being international publications. But the de-materialisation of much of the production of consumer goods had already taken place with the shift of orientation from manufacturing to marketing - the product is not what is in the box but the brand image printed on the outside - the logo is the product! Using the modem, multinational corporations can dematerialise their logos, marketing strategies and manufacturing instructions into the matrix of the electronic communications space and re-materialise them as brand-name products - Toyota or Pepsi or Persil - anywhere on the Planet.
It is the sensation of being connected to everything that seems to identify the society in which we are living - the society that is emerging from 300 or more years of industrialising and industrialisation. The metaphors of machinery and processes are giving way to metaphors of circuitry and oscillation. At the keyboard of the computer, the supermarket check-out counter, the handset of the telephone, in the railway station, airport or at the Autostrada turnstile, one is at a point of connection - like watching television in the knowledge that you are connected in some way with 3 or 30 or 300 million other viewers, each in a similar posture and intent on an identical image. The TV screen, Iike the airport, is a cultural interface.
Strapped into a padded seat high above the Atlantic or on the Autostrada de Sol it is no longer a feeling of travel but of suspension. Since everything will be virtually the same at the point of arrival as at the point of departure, all that is left to remind us of the period in transit is perhaps the diversion and discomfort of a traffic jam or missed flight connection - like the wars, tyrannies, utopian dreams and technical/scientific triumphs which have merged, as we approach its ending, into a set of anecdotes about the 20th century.
Stepping from our capsule, the noise and confusion at this end of the century is very much like it was at the other.
Vienna, December 1991