A Metaphor for Our Times

By Will Baker

 

The recent crash of the Concorde might very well be a metaphor for our times. These planes, each of which are over twenty years old, are considered by many to be symbolic of the technological prowess which we have been able to achieve. A transatlantic flight in the Concorde takes less time than watching a feature length movie. This startling fact demonstrates how, through technology, we have managed to make the world a much small place than those that have come before us. But in addition to the tragic loss of more than one hundred people, was something else not lost as well?

Some folks have likened the Concorde disaster to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Although there are certainly similarities between these two events, I view things somewhat differently. My understanding of the cause of the Challenger explosion is that the launch was attempted when the outdoor temperature was simply too cold to be prudent. Yet it was launched anyway, perhaps ironically in an attempt to keep the program on schedule, to prove the shuttle’s reliability and dependability. However, what occurred with the Concorde appears to have been the result of aging systems and a convergence of mechanical failures.

Yes, these planes are getting old, and so might our global aspirations be regarding where past generations expected new technologies to take us. In 1969 I watched in awe as a fellow citizen of the Earth walked upon the moon. But it has been decades since we have been to the moon. And other than such innovations as Tang instant drink, the microwave oven, and advancements in semi-conductor technology, what do we have to show for the experience? Why did we go at all? Was it really only to beat the Russians? If it was, than there is more irony to be found in the fact that when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon, the rest of the Earth, at least everyone with access to a television set was watching. And these folks, Russians included, were not watching an American walk on the moon, they were watching a human being walk on the moon. And it seems to me that that act united us. It was a global triumph.

And it seems to me, that to a lesser degree, we all have taken some pride in the Concorde also. True, no U.S. airline operates the plane, yet we citizens of the United States take pride in this amazing plane’s existence. Therefore, in a way, it is our Concorde as well. Just like the Lunar Module belonged to the rest of the world. And even though not many of us can afford the price of a ten thousand-dollar round trip ticket, it seems to me that there are those among us who are still proud that this service is available to those that can. And perhaps some of us have thought that, eventually, the price might come down, so that more mainstream folk could one day take a ride.

Perhaps the metaphor has to do with unrealized potential. We really have made the world a smaller place. From the first moment when images of the fragile blue ball that is our world were transmitted back to Earth from an Apollo space ship, we had the opportunity to unite ourselves in the amazing understanding that that is where we all live. On a tiny speck of blue floating in the immenseness of space. And since then we have had advances in communications and information technology available to us so that the situation might be maximized. And the gravy on this meat platter is that we have also managed, at least thus far, to refrain from annihilating ourselves through a nuclear holocaust. By the way, I should point out that there are many folks who feel that the Concorde is simply a plaything for the rich and famous, which grossly pollutes the environment by virtue of it’s very operation-the aircraft equivalent of an SUV if you will.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the Concorde is a symbol of achievement. But that symbol is getting old. And I wonder if there is a lesson for us all, having to do with what happens when a people pins its hopes and dreams on technological advancement. At the end of the day, symbolism not withstanding, the Concorde is just a machine. And in an imperfect world, machines breakdown. So what are we left with? Well for the folks touched directly by this tragedy there is simply heartache. For France and Great Britain, the two countries that fly these planes on a daily basis, symbols of their national identities have been tarnished, and for the rest of us, we have a similar feeling. I believe that the Concorde crash bothers us all, and in a manner that is quite different than the feelings associated with a "run of the mill" plane crash. It seems to me that we sometimes look to technology to redeem us. And we know that technology has its downsides, such as pollution, the threat of mass annihilation through war and alienation created because we have been given the means to live our lives at a much more rapid pace than imaginable by previous generations. But then we also look to technology to save us from these things. Thus, it seems to me that we sometimes feel that technology might some day save us from the consequences of living in a technological age.

But does it really matter? Again, Concorde is just a machine. To be sure, we must empathize with the families of the victims, but perhaps this crash might provide us with an opportunity to revisit our expectations regarding the extraordinary technology, which has crept into our everyday lives. It seems to me that we have begun to take this stuff (the assorted machinery) for granted. But at the end of the day, they are really just tools. And just like every tool since the invention of the first hand held stone hatchet, the intent behind the tool is what is really important. Do we want our symbols to represent jadedness and complacency, or rather should they be symbolic of an optimistic outlook, and a view of going forward? I am also wondering if we have indeed reached our "high water mark", as some would lead us to believe. I for one, hope not.

 

 (Essay Collection)