Evan Davis was shocked to hear, during a Today feature on the perils of the current heatwave, that care homes for the elderly don’t have air conditioning. He must have led a sheltered life. Or rather, an air-conditioned life, a life programmed and mediated by career journalism, acted out in conference rooms, studios, airport lounges and hospitality suites, the frictionless non-places of global capitalism. Obviously this sticky issue never came up in those Oxford PPE seminars (although hothousing humans for profit must have been on the curriculum in some form, surely). But he didn’t let the revelation put him off his stride, and anyway the schedule had already moved on to some other pressing topic, such as the royal carcass or the Olympic legacy.
Later, reflecting on this exchange in the seething oven of a warehouse where we, the elderly-in-waiting, carried on our monotonous manual work while upstairs the air-con irrigated the cool and spacious offices of the mouse-clicking bosses (not so much a Dragon’s Den as a Vampire’s Attic), I realised this summed up my impression of the interchangeable cast of politicians, media professionals and business leaders who preside over our overheated lives: an air-conditioned existence. They are cushioned by a mental, physical and financial zephyr which is taken for granted even as it is denied both to those who most need it, and those whose labour funds the refined atmosphere to which they have become accustomed.
The heat at the core of the economic meltdown is purely symbolic; unlike the markets, the actual temperature is carefully regulated. I couldn’t imagine the CEO of RBS sweltering and glugging warm tap water as he fixed the figures for his company’s privatisation dossier, any more than I could picture the Today team propping open a fire exit as they got to grips with the latest episode in the Euro debt saga. The so-called crisis has now reached such a plateau of air-conditioned normality that every default or bailout seems only to constitute an administrative adjustment which ensures that the presenters, politicians and business leaders can carry on living in high-level comfort, while those below them search ever more desperately for rest and shade. Unless those media professionals work for a Greek state broadcaster, that is, in which case the ideological air-conditioning unit is broken beyond repair.
But such tensions seem far away from the smoothly ventilated discourse of the BBC media-industrial complex, even when it touches on those locations where its correspondents might conceivably feel the heat. I recently watched an edition of Davis's business show The Bottom Line on the BBC News channel [radio version available here], in which he hosted a breezy round table discussion with a group of travel and tourism executives. The recorded show was overlaid with a live news ticker at the foot of the screen which looped updates from sites of geopolitical upheaval - Syria, Turkey, Egypt - while above the scrollbar these people traded club-class corporate clichés, as if their entire shared worldview was air-conditioned, mediated to the point of virtual reality.
The participants in these shows, however, are aware that in order to justify their indulgences they must as least appear to take account of those economic factors which affect the rest of us. Whether dehydrating in a residential home or taking on fluids in Costa Coffee, the ‘bottom line’ is no longer just a matter for entrepreneurs but the Plimsoll line of the cruise liner Big Society on which we are all supposedly sailing together. “People are re-prioritising their discretionary spend”, one of the show’s guests euphemistically observed; but the annual package holiday was not deemed to be under threat. On the contrary, the consensus in the studio was that even for those facing insecurity or redundancy, it was as inevitable and affordable as television or toothpaste. Another guest was a director of a Greek holiday resort, and while he admitted that his domestic business had taken a hit, his sales pitch betrayed not the slightest ripple of anxiety. Indeed, he painted Greece as a popular destination offering exceptional value for money due to the very crisis from which, he insisted, it was now recovering.
The real and virtual occasionally overlapped: the execs acknowledged that travel operators had to watch out for episodes of national unrest, as if protests or coups were unexpected weather events, matters for insurance and contingency planning. Whether it’s the Arab Spring or the ash cloud, the panel agreed, people want peace of mind. They weren’t alluding to the minds of those occupying Tahrir Square, although no doubt this has already been written into the brochures as a tourist spectacle. The same cities whose mass protests and violent suppressions bruised the news feeds were viewed here purely as products to be sold. An easyJet executive reported, “We were barely affected by what’s going on.” UK travellers apparently keep on flying regardless of political turbulence, protected by the sunscreen of capital.
These passing references between the lines of upbeat PR were uncanny, as if some background disturbance had become momentarily audible before the mechanism corrected itself and the glitch was forgotten again. As the credits rolled, guests and host stood up and left the air-conditioned studio together, no doubt adjourning to an air-conditioned bar where they would congratulate each other on their performances, before each returned to their air-conditioned apartments for a night of guilt-free, air-conditioned dreams.