Gongol.com Archives: May 2023

Brian Gongol

May 30, 2023

Science and Technology Looking out the window

Plenty of people alive today are no more than one or two generations removed from ancestors who lived before the Wright Brothers launched the age of powered flight in 1903. It would do many of us some good to ponder this kind of thing once in a while. Only a couple of generations ago, literally nobody had ever gotten to see above the clouds without climbing a mountain. Now, a passenger just has to look out the cabin window of a jet airplane. ■ It's easy to underestimate and underappreciate the dramatic changes that have improved life in our own times and in the times that preceded us. Technologies often streak from magic to mundane in about as much time as it takes for a child born at the technology's outset to reach legal adulthood. We only incentivize this pipeline from adoption to presumption by rewarding people for being "digital natives" -- or whatever broad generational definition for technophiles is yet to come. ■ To appear to take advancements for granted is often the price of entry into the world of "cool". After William Shatner took a brief ride into space, he wrote, "when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold...all I saw was death." Not cool. It would have been much cooler to say that the trip felt like no big deal. ■ But we should take that moment to look out the cabin window -- and to really consider just how much change can take place in an astonishingly short time. Not because the time itself is the material subject at hand, but because of the fragility it represents. All of the human progress that has been made in virtually every area that matters has been iterative, not breakthrough. We often consider the Wright Brothers' success as a breakthrough, but it was really the result of persistent, methodical effort built on a foundation of research and support. And nearly everything that has happened since that time to permit the ordinary air traveler to see above the clouds has also taken place one small piece at a time. ■ Our entire modern world is built on complex relationships, narrow specialties, and, above all, basic mutual trust. None of it works if we can't trust one another -- to do our best at our specialties individually, to follow through on our promises, and to stay out of the way when others peacefully engage in whatever they choose to do either for fun or for profit. ■ Those who make their way by promising aggressive disruption or by threatening to boldly dismantle systems and institutions out of spite are dangerously prone to wrecking things far beyond their own intent. Having a firm appreciation for just how elaborate the structures of the world have evolved to be is the first step towards understanding how delicate our modern comforts often are.

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