About twice a week I perform a special ritual.
It involves me logging onto a website called QuickBooks. Within its digital walls is a record of my entire financial world since April 2014. This is a date that marks an accounting rebirth - clarity from the foggy mist of badly formatted excel documents. Once logged in, a dashboard of numbers and figures fires into life, every nuance of earning and spending over the last 30 days is displayed in neat graphs that bounce up and down in boxes scattered over a screen. Money earned brandished clearly across the top of the page as a badge of honour. Money overdue flashes at me in orange. It’s a challenge: egging me onto hunt down what’s owed to me and log it into the system. Go on boy, bring in that bacon.
I’ve always been fascinated by the cargo cults of the South pacific. In the aftermath of world War 2 many islands across the region became strategically important to American forces. Military bases sprung up on tiny patches of land throughout the ocean – on islands previously untouched by outsiders and inhabited for millennia by indigenous peoples. Of course, these people had no say in the cohabitation of their ancient lands, the Westerner appeared, and they were left to react: anything other than complete passivity would have been met with unnerving force.
To the islanders the arrival of these strange neighbours was met with justifiable fear and fascination. These newcomers wielded tools and technology from the outside world that were far beyond comprehension, wealth and ownership of goods that could only ever be dreamed of. These objects gave the bearer immense powers to counteract the very real physical forces of nature. The most lauded of these objects was the aeroplane, a great winged beast that carried white men across the ocean to their shores.
The islanders coveted a plane deeply, but how to get one? They were cautious, they held back, studying the Americans and their actions - figuring out the crucial ingredients required to invoke a plane to land. It seemed that what was needed were an air traffic control tower, a runway and a bait to reel it in.
The next step then was obvious: to create those objects themselves, using tools and materials familiar to them. Towers were erected out of sticks, men and women cleared a strip of land and lined up beside it in wait, at the other end a final lure: a perfect facsimile of a plane ,stitched together from straw and palm leaves, all in the hope that a aircraft could be evoked from the skies and land fully formed on their island.
This was of course in vain. Hindsight provides a particularly bruising hue to this tale.
Documentation of these cargo cults was spread around the world, we sat around the breakfast table gawping in fascination at the errors of these people. Individuals who had no say in their colonization, who were desperate to better their own lives yet provided with nothing more than a smirk and ridicule dressed up as anthropology. After all we Westerners would never fall for such empty ritual, would we?
I find myself thinking about the cargo cults as I flick through my accounts on QuickBooks. It’s a deeply powerful tool that turns the work of an office of clerks in a simple series of scrolls and clicks. But beyond the practical I cant help but inject a thick ooze of the ceremonial into the proceedings.
Once all practical chores of accounting are done, I move onto my own incantation of wealth. I take a look what jobs have been finished, and which have been sent to an accounts department. I scroll down the list, taking out a notepad and pen and begin to write down what is owed, one amount placed over the other. Once the list is complete, I add it up - long addition, carrying my tens and hundreds all the way along.
Eventually a figure is totalled, and its then that I know for sure whether or not the gods are smiling down at me,
Of course, there is a practical point to this, knowing what is owed to me is a basic lesson in money management. But QuickBooks could do this equation for me in a second. There is something more in this act of adding up, a slow tally building up into a scribbled column.
It’s as if this process itself has the ability to affect the outcome, that somewhere in this ritual I’ll convince the numbers to add up to more so that one day I’ll reach a point of finality, that I’ll have invoked such an abundance of wealth that work will become a hazy memory of the past. But really, deep down I know this can’t be true. It’s a routine and like any ritual it’s doomed to be repeated week in week out. No matter what structures I build, a plane is never going to land.
There’s something huge looming on the horizon. It's assumedly towering in height yet its vertical scale is somehow illegible. It’s the length that hits you, it stretches out so far into the distance that it’s almost pulled into two dimensions. We sit on the side lines, plunged into the world of Abbott’s Flatland, with only the edges and shading of the construction to guide us. Butisn’t an abstract creation. It’s is a building with a very specific purpose. It has no visible windows and no visible doors- the only clue to it's function is the neat row of square apertures punctured into the side and the lorries, coming and going like bees to a hive.
And then there’s the colour. It’s glorious. A neat gradation from dark blue to white wrapping the whole exterior in a monochromatic rainbow. On a clear day this almost blends into the sky above, It’s almost comic really – an elephant hiding behind a sapling - because this building is of course an Amazon distribution centre.
There many other elephants in the room (globalisation, capitalism, dubious work ethics) but maybe this camouflage is the point. Amazon, and the vast sea of the internet in which it lives, doesn’t exist does it?
It’s all virtual – without weight. We type our requests into a screen and hours later that bundle of pixels is materialised into something real, we don’t want to know the logistical intricacies that allow commodity to travel from A to B. The warehouse pretends to fade into the sky and it’s ludicrous, but it’s just enough to make us believe it doesn’t exist. It's a magic trick and if done well the audience will gladly applause their own deception.