Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


Before continuing with my serialized autobiography, I’d like to do some blogging….

Hurray for Orville and Wilbur Wright! Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle featured a number of articles honoring the 100th anniversary of their first flight. Staff Science Writer Keay Davidson contributed the contrarian, “Techno-skeptics weren't all wrong about Wrights,” (though I’ll be criticizing it, I think it raises some interesting questions and I did enjoy reading it.):

“Aviation pioneers weren't just nuts-and-bolts types who loved tinkering with gadgets. They were also social utopians. They believed airplanes would transform the world.”

“Consider the closing vision of an 1894 book by Octave Chanute, a leading aviation enthusiast and ally of the Wrights: ‘Upon the whole, the writer is glad to believe that when man succeeds in flying through the air the ultimate effect will be to diminish greatly the frequency of wars and to substitute some more rational methods of settling international misunderstandings. This may come to pass not only because of the additional horrors which will result in battle, but because no part of the field will be safe, no matter how distant from the actual scene of conflict.’”

According to Davidson, Chanute and the other aviaphile dreamers were wrong:

“The results of military aviation include some of the worst horrors of the 20th century, events so ghastly that a single name evokes them: Guernica. Dresden. Hiroshima.”

I don’t share Davidson’s confidence that Chanute was wrong – at least not based on this quote. All 3 of Davidson’s examples of the ghastly horrors of military aviation occurred in the same war, which was also the first war in which aerial bombing was effectively employed, and the last war (so far) in which two opponents bombed each other. The learning process suggested by Chanute might at least partly explain Thomas Friedman’s McDonald’s dictum: “No two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other…” – though, of course, since the US’s post–Cold War world order destabilization campaign we’ve had to change that to “…except for the US bombing of Serbia…,” or just replace McDonalds with Starbucks, as Fukuyama suggested.

If Chanute was right in the longer-term, then we can conclude that sometimes (at best) the world isn’t transformed by potentially horror-producing technologies until actually experiencing the horror. And the one-sided bombing of the various non-McDonalded countries over the years brings to mind the joke:

Question: What’s the difference between a language and a dialect? Answer: A language has a navy.

Davidson stacks the deck, in way that’s surprisingly innumerate for a newspaper’s Science Writer:

“Suppose you had lived in 1903 and someone told you, ‘If heavier-than-air aviation comes true, then 71,000 people will die in plane crashes over a half-century [1945-2001].’ How would you reply? Would you say, ‘No problem, those deaths are worth it if I can get to Reno a few hours earlier’? …

This is deceptive since it presents the human cost of aviation without comparing it to the cost of the alternatives, and also includes no benefits except the ability to get to Reno more quickly. (I see why Davidson is a Science Writer, rather than, say, an options trader.) Aviation has enriched people’s lives by making travel cheaper, quicker, and, yes, safer – unlike, say, nuclear weapons, which never did anyone any good, and reportedly are still on hair-trigger alert in civilization-destroying quantities. Which brings us to the conclusion of the aeronautics-skeptical article:

“Already, skeptics warn us of the possible consequences of unregulated biotechnology, nanotechnology and other futuristic wonders that true believers claim will enrich our lives at no social cost. Like Newcomb and Melville, the new doubters might prove wrong on certain facts. But on matters that count most in the long run, they might prove terrifyingly right.”

“Unregulated”? But the only actually-existing technology (though I’m sure more are in the pipeline) with the capacity to destroy civilization is entirely regulated.

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