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An eye-opening opportunity that is not merely pie in the sky

Forty years ago, when Marshall MacLuhan published his classic Understanding Media, he coined the phrase, 'The medium is the message'. A terse formula which, although it was parroted by intellectuals for years, was seldom truly understood.

What it meant then - and still means today - was that the importance of any new technology is best measured in the change it makes to the scale of our own affairs. Thus great historical events such as the invention of gunpowder, printing, the steam engine, the telephone, the airliner and the Internet were all in their different ways experienced most as extensions of ourselves.

This is a critical tool that, through neglect, is still worth using. For instance, has anyone ever thought of applying MacLuhan's semiotic can-opener to the meaning of the London Eye? That vast crashed windfarm lookalike on the South Bank of the Thames, whose New Year's resolution is to become enshrined as a national treasure by winning permanent planning permission.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. Unlike practically every other Millennium project the Eye is popular, profitable and - one or two heart-stopping erection glitches aside - problem free. Better yet, it is so clever that if there remains a single unclaimed prize for a perpetual motion machine it should put itself forward immediately.

Rotating 24-7 and collecting money all the time, it is the forerunner of a new kind of self-funding development corporation, for to call what it does 'urban regeneration'gravely understates the case.

Any government in need of the odd £200 million to keep a few trains running must surely see by now that the way to do it is to put up a 'West London Eye' over Paddington and get the punters to pay for it.

You can imagine the horizon in 50 years' time, dotted not with windfarms but with 'wheel farms', the key structures in an economy as productive and yet as terrifyingly abstract as one that produced the statues of Easter Island.

There can be no such great effect without a great cause, so clearly we must look for the message not in the paltry 'regeneration' that has so far taken place at the foot of the Eye, but in the powerful impression it has made on its millions of passengers. The Eye may go nowhere but it certainly does something to us. We step aboard and rise to a height of 135 metres and then equally slowly shrink back to our normal 1.7 metres. This is no negligible experience, it exposes the unprotected rooftops of the city for 25 miles around and reveals the proximity of famous landmarks previously thought inaccessible.

After their 'flight', the Eye's passengers feel as though they 'possess' the city. As a result there are people who have 'flown' on the London Eye 50 times or more. They could be paying off the national debt by skipping into a transparent capsule for 30 minutes of 'flight'.

It was the balloon entrepreneurs of the early 19th century who had the original idea of charging punters for a trip of this kind. Then, in the late 20th century, the same technique was applied by a later generation of promoters using a helicopter - technological successor to the balloon - to hover above the site of the then unbuilt Number One Canada Square in London's Docklands to give potential 'possessors' the same view as would be enjoyed from offices on the 46th floor.

But the Eye is different. The balloon car, like the helicopter cabin, can only take a handful of passengers and must charge a lot for the privilege. Neither could ever achieve the Henry Ford scale of throughput combined with ethereal silence that has turned the Eye into a veritable cash register, a tote, a casino, a great train robbery.

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