As the internet stirred at the turn of the 1990s, its distance-closing properties were talked up. Speculative accounts of the near-future involved little things like the abolition of geography, with executives plugged into each other via remote interfaces regardless of where their offices were or whether they had any.
Amid all this, the Heathrow debate is wonderfully grounding in its tactile basics. We are talking about a line of concrete, and aircraft no faster than a generation ago. The world economy still rests on jet engines, container vessels, warehouses, US Navy-patrolled shopping lines. People and things still need to move around in real space and time.
When Robert Solow, the American economist, said the computer age is “everywhere but the productivity statistics” it was still 1987. His attempt to curb our credulity about what machines can do reads even better after three decades of Palo Alto hype.
Another economist, Robert Gordon, has charted the meagre returns achieved by the internet compared with innovations such as electricity in The Rise and Fall of American Growth – some people’s idea of the best work of nonfiction of 2016. For a sense of the primacy of the material world over the digital, you can pore over his 780 pages of you can reflect on the concrete strip that is roiling British politics.