Technological De-evolution

Last week France and England announced the end the end of supersonic passenger travel for the foreseeable future. I always wanted to fly on the Concorde, and had always assumed that it, or something like it, would always be available, if only I could afford it. Now, given concerns about safety, cost, and noise it’s not clear when I’ll ever have that opportunity.

It’s sad to see a technological marvel relegated to history not because it was made obsolete by a newer, better model or overshadowed by a greater achievement, but because of concerns of risk and cost. Part of the job of engineers, and part of our definition of technological progress, is finding ways to make things safer and cheaper, so to discontinue something like the Concorde for those reasons is an admission of defeat. Seen in the context of our times, however, it doesn’t seem surprising. The Concorde fleet was designed and built in the 1970’s, no successor has been built or planned. It’s been 30 years since men last walked on the moon. The last men to walk on the moon are old now. The original space-shuttle fleet of 5 has been reduced to 3 from catastrophic accidents, no new shuttles are planned, and NASA expects that an all-new orbital vehicle is at least 10 years away. Given their track record for long range planning, one could easily replace 10 years with never. Even before 9/11, our passion for building massive skyscrapers was on the wane, with major companies choosing suburban campuses over towers downtown. Is the Western technological culture cresting? Have we have reached a time when children will grow up reading about major technological achievements as things of the past, wondering if they’ll be reached again in their lifetimes, and measuring adulthood by the moments when they come to understand that they will not?

There are perfectly logical reasons for the demise of all these things, especially if you view the world through the eyes of an accountant or an actuary. On the other hand, there are benefits gained from their existence that are difficult to measure and enter in a spreadsheet. These things are symbols of the power of reason. They remind us of the amazing things we’re capable of. It was not by mere chance that the terrorists chose the world trade center to knock down. It was symbolic not only for its height, but the fact that there were two. It proudly said, It’s not a fluke. We can build as many of these as we want!

I don’t deny all the other areas where progress is still ongoing. Computers get smaller and faster. High-school students carry working Star Trek communicators in their pockets. We’ve landed probes on asteroids, and sent a robot to explore Mars, and we’re sending more. This is all true, and I’m not saying that we’ve reached the pinnacle, and it’s all downhill from here, but rather that we’ve entered into a period where there are great achievements of the past, unequaled by anything in the present. Also, fast computers and cell phones and the Internet don’t have the same iconic value as moon-shots and skyscrapers and supersonic airliners. And as for the robot probes of other planets, these are great achievements indeed, but there’s still something about being there. The new World Trade Center will be the tallest building in the world, but it won’t be inhabited all the way up, and the top part will just be a big sculpture. It seems strange for a New York skyscraper not to have offices way up at the top. Likewise there’s something about sending people to the moon or another planet that just seems fundamentally different than sending a robot or a probe. But maybe this is pretty much it, and we’re going to have to leave the exploration of other worlds to our mechanical progeny, and take our satisfaction in the fact that we made them.

I have an etching that my sister made in high school. It’s a teenage art student’s study in perspective, except instead of the typical receding street or railroad track, its a skyscraper receding into the distance below; the top of the building is above the clouds, and the nearest rooftops are far below. On the rooftop is a human figure, arms upstretched. It’s called Man the Creator. My print is framed, but not hung up because I dropped it and broke the glass in the frame, and haven’t had time to get it replaced. I should probably work on that.


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