So there I was in my London hotel one morning last week, working my way through croissant and coffee, and thumbing idly and without much interest through the free Telegraph that had been deposited at my door.
The subtext of the ad is, of course, the chaos BA’s inflicted on travelers since its move into the new Terminal 5, and beneath that Heathrow’s horrible longterm reputation as an abattoir of on-time departures. Clearly, the ad’s objective is to reassure a flying public already wary of the brand-new, £4.3 billion terminal – once burned, and so on. There’s nothing in and of itself so very engaging about this, but the mode BA (or their agency) chose to drive the message home is of intense interest to me: gathering actual use data, foregrounding it in the ad copy at high resolution, and publishing within hours.
This is how the ad reads: “YESTERDAY AT T5 AVERAGE TIME THROUGH SECURITY WAS 4.7 MINS. This picture was taken at 9:44am yesterday and shows Amanda Gemmill on her way to Beijing to watch her boyfriend compete in the Men’s Eight Rowing Final. 4.7 minutes was the average time the 842 customers we asked told us it took them to pass through Security yesterday, between 6am and 2pm. We had to stop at 2pm so we could make this ad.”
That last line, even apart from its annoyingly coy self-awareness, reads like a dispatch from some rapidly obsolescing culture, doesn’t it? Because every other aspect of the ad is about as contemporary as it’s possible to be, a clear transitional step toward the sensor-fed, data-driven, realtime Minority Report scenario. In fact, it’s not so very far from the fully dynamic Times Square adscape that GSAPP students Matt Worsnick and Evan Allen envisioned for their thesis project (and which I discussed in “Urban Computing and its Discontents“).
All that really remains is for embedded sensors to replace the clipboard-bearing interns importuning tourists, and for the flimsy pulp the Telegraph is printed on to give way to some kind of networked display surface, and BA’s copywriters can substitute an elegant little Mad Lib for their coyness: “It took [number] customers an average time of [time] to pass through Terminal 5 security during the last hour.”
You know, Lev Manovich, in his “The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada,” describes Lars Spuybroek’s 1993 Water Pavilion like this: “Its continuously changing surfaces illustrate the key effect of a computer revolution: substitution of every constant by a variable.” He’s talking about architecture, but the point is just as true of anything that’s become digital, dynamic, and networked. And that’s just what I see happening here, albeit incrementally and hesitantly. I feel like I’ve caught a glimpse of the Missing Link.