Sunday, June 15, 2008

Future Shock

These shopping plazas just keep getting bigger and bigger you know. Last week I paid a visit to the new Plaza Grande which stretches all the way from the currently under reconstruction Hotel Indonesia almost until Tanah Abang.

I felt some initial disorientation upon leaving my taxi as the building of this behemoth of a Plaza has entailed a complete transformation of the surrounding area's topography. "Jagung Tinggi!! Where the hell am I?" I thought cryptically as the Plaza loomed over me ominously.

I located one of the entrances and headed for the automatic sliding doors. As I entered, too extravagantly coiffured local ladies exited and got into a top of the range BMW. Clearly this Plaza was going to be the utmost in discerning luxury; reassuringly expensive and free of vendors selling three pairs of socks for Rp.10,000.

Inside I was soon lost within the maze of boutiques, escalators, mezzanines and 'air bridges'. The place was so huge and opulent that it seemed like some vast intergalactic space station populated by hyper rich humanoids. A retail simulation of reality blasted out of orbit and freed from the surly terrestrial bonds of affordability, sweat and dirt.

I spiralled upwards through the labyrinth of escalators, heading ever deeper into the heart of the Plaza. The upper floors seemed to push further and further into the realms of a weightless virtual reality, a future interior world in which the pleasure principle is the only social imperative and all mankind has left to do is shop and have fun.

The restaurant food court floor is an absolute fantasy land. It is draped entirely in the mellow browns and rustic hues of ethnic fabrics. I came across a mini funfair on my epic voyage as well as an indoor beach (yes really). Elsewhere, the Grande's upper floors are a postmodern, post historical mix-and-match of Elizabethan lamp stands, Roman Fountains and Greek friezes. It all seemed like some hi-tech, hedonic hologram world in which debit cards and doughnuts reign supreme.

I read recently that the city apparently plans to develop Jl. Casablanca as Jakarta's answer to Orchard Road in Singapore. A huge mall complex that will no doubt leave even the Grande in the dust, just as the Grande has left that previous plaza size record holder, Senayan City, behind.

And so Jakarta's Plaza bubble continues to grow apace, driven by a thirst for instant profits, a dearth of imagination and, these days, a reckless disregard for the impending inflation hikes and consumer crunch. Yes, the shopping mall continues to spread its deodorized tentacles throughout every vacant space in the city; these days usually with some attached luxury apartments spliced onto the side. Jakartans highest aspiration is apparently to be able to walk straight out of one's front door and into a Plaza without having to first expose oneself to the city's fetid air.

It may be that at some time in the future, all of the city's plazas will join up and be linked by various 'air walks' and travelators into one huge indoor society of petty bourgeois shoppers. The huge meta-plaza will link up with apartments, hospitals and schools to create a total life plan for the middle and upper classes whilst the underclass squats in rags over bonfires outside the Plaza's portals, roasting dead rats on sticks, left permanently out in the cold (warm?) A new generation of kids will be born inside the meta-mall and stay there for the duration of their lives.

I too began to get an uneasy sense, as I wandered around the enormous Grande, that I'd never find the exit. My whole dystopian omni-mall fantasy/nightmare was starting to remind me of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. In Wells' seminal science-fiction novella, a man invents a time machine and travels into the earth's future. When he gets there he finds that mankind has diverged into two distinct species.

The overclass, called the Eloi, have had all of their material needs met by an advanced technology which has subjugated nature to its own designs. The Eloi live in a hollow utopia however as this amazing technology, through the meeting of all of their material needs and demands, has led to their devolution. The Eloi no longer have to strive and struggle for anything and they have thus become incurious and physically weak.

The underclass in this future are called the Morlocks. The Morlocks are cannibal and bestial, resembling human spiders. They live underground and maintain the machinery that keeps the Eloi docile and well fed. Both species are of sub-human intelligence.

I think that old HG's book can be viewed as a political allegory as much as anything and perhaps the seeds of this extreme vision are being sewn in Jakarta and in other large cities around the world. As I wandered around the Grande, gradually feeling myself pacified and mollified by the shiny lights, piped music and glittering consumer durables, I began to feel my inner Eloi struggling to emerge.

Dave... my mind is going Dave... no hang on, that was something else