May 10, 2013
There are two distinct phases of technological and innovative development: there’s the "Wow, that is awesome, what a wonderful age we live in!" phase, and then there’s the "Yeah, I’ve seen that. What else have ya got?" phase. Of course there’s also the third phase, which depends on what kind of technology you’re dealing with. For most of human history the third phase has been "Oh, it’s broken, I’ll fix it myself." Advances in technology, however, required an alternative, which was, "Oh, it’s broken, I’ll have to find someone who knows how to fix it." And increasingly this has been superseded by a third alternative, "Oh, it’s broken. I’ll have to buy a new one because it would cost ten times as much to try and get it fixed, even if I could find someone who could, and there’s a better one out now anyway."
One area where seem to have been stuck in the second phase for a long time is flight. Well, comparatively speaking, the development of flight has advanced pretty quickly. It’s gone quickly enough that you’d think we’d still be amazed that we’ve gone from a world where most people didn’t travel more than twenty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime to one where most people still won’t travel more than twenty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime, but where those with the resources can travel to almost any part of the planet within less than twenty-four hours. After all it’s only been a hundred and ten years since the Wright Brothers, a couple of guys who owned a bicycle repair shop and who realized bicycles had long since reached phase two, and also to overcome the stigma of being saddled with the names Wilbur and Orville, made the first working airplane. Even though they were from Ohio they went to North Carolina to conduct their first flight, mainly because, if they’d done it in Ohio, they would have been routed through O’Hare, which is something everyone wants to avoid, but that’s another story. As I was saying there have been some pretty significant innovations in flight, although recently the best engineers seem to have been able to come up with seems to be making airplanes bigger and able to burst into flames in creative and surprising ways.
Actually the last time I flew I think I witnessed what was the first real innovation in flight in decades: instead of a couple of flight attendants doing the safety demonstration and showing us how to put on seatbelts and place the oxygen masks over our faces in the event that the plane suddenly lost pressure or burst into flames they lowered a video screen and we watched a short film in which someone who I’m pretty sure was an actress hired to play the role of a flight attendant gave the safety demonstration, thus automating one of the major responsibilities of flight attendants. If I were a flight attendant I’d be really worried about this trend, because you know it won’t be long before someone finds a way to automate the drinks cart and the process of handing out packets of salted peanuts, which is the only other job flight attendants have. The only other significant innovation that I know of is in-flight wi-fi for laptops and other mobile devices, which still baffles me. The flight attendants will say you can’t play games on your phone while the plane is on the runway–another job that could easily be automated, by the way–because it screws with the plane’s radar. Why do they need radar on the ground? If the pilot doesn’t know where the runway is or which way to go before the plane takes off we’re all in trouble, but then how does some kind of magical wi-fi service that the plane carries with it not affect the radar when we’re at twenty-thousand feet and need it the most? This is probably one of those things that someone could explain to me, but it would cost a lot.
Anyway, like anyone who saw the movie 2001 well before the year 2001 I’m a little disappointed that technological developments haven’t kept up with the vision of Kubrick and Clarke, and that we don’t have commercial space flights to the Moon yet. But we will soon have commercial space flight. Well, at least they’re calling it that. The so-called commercial space flights being offered by Virgin Galactic may represent the first time ever in human history that an innovation has skipped phase one and gone right to phase two. Now I’m a space and science fiction nut, so you’d think the idea of commercial space flight would really excite me, even though right now space, or at least the space that’s currently within human reach, doesn’t have much to offer. It’s cold, it’s dark, and there’s nothing to do up there. It’s just like Winnipeg. There’s not even a drugstore where you can buy postcards that’s say, "Greetings from SPACE". Still I think it would be pretty cool to even orbit the Earth, to look back on this small blue world, perhaps with the opening notes of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" ringing in my ears. The problem is Virgin Galactic, while claiming to offer commercial space flight, isn’t really. This is what they’re offering: for two-hundred thousand dollars you can spend three days in training to take a two hour flight that will take you to a suborbital position and then return you to Earth. I’m pretty sure that a two hour flight will mean that, even if you’re weightless at the flight’s peak, you’ll only be there for about ten minutes before you have to come back down again. And once you’re back you can reflect on the irony of having flown Virgin Galactic, since you’ve just been fucked out of two-hundred thousand dollars and didn’t even get dinner and a movie. Or maybe I’m just jaded by a lifetime of reading science fiction and expecting bigger things from spaceflight. Or maybe it’s because I did once take a flight that took me off the planet. It was a long trans-Atlantic flight. I’d been bumped so I was upgraded to first class, which meant I would get my drinks for free, but that didn’t stop me from having a couple of pints of Guinness–or maybe half a dozen, my memory is hazy–before boarding. Takeoff was delayed, so the flight attendant gave me a couple of those little bottles of Scotch to help pass the time, and I had a couple more once we were in the air. Then there was a bottle of beer with lunch followed by coffee with some kind of liqueur, followed by a few more little bottles of Scotch. After all that I was unquestionably not on this, or any other, planet for the rest of the flight. I offer this recipe for spaceflight completely free of charge, although, these days, on most flights that much alcohol probably will cost you about two-hundred thousand dollars.