The Speed of Flight

"Time is a jet plane. It moves too fast." --Bob Dylan

Something about flying on a jet airplane makes my mind wander.

Usually I try not to think about what would happen in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, or about how (and why!) my seat cushion could be used as a flotation device. But there is a weird science to jet travel that can confront you at any odd moment.

Here I am on my way from Dallas to Atlanta. I am eating a roast beef dinner with rice pilaf and a green salad at 31,000 feet above the Mississippi River. Here is a radish in my salad. Where did it come from before achieving its present altitude? From a fertile valley in California where several tons of radishes are produced per week? When the first radishes were cultivated, who would have expected this subterranean vegetable to someday be moving through the air at 400 miles per hour, 31,000 feet above the earth?

We are flying east as the sun is setting behind us. We are at the very moment of dusk. A few miles below, the sun has already set. A low layer of clouds underneath spans acres and acres -- if there are such things as acres up here. It is an expanse of gray matter, resembling pictures of the human brain. But a higher level of clouds is still illuminated. These clouds are smoother, like sand drifts in the desert. We are speeding toward darkness, into a different time zone. At some point we lose an hour. If we didn't return to the west would we ever get it back?

The clouds become dark and then everything turns blue and strings of yellow lights become visible. Then the blue turns navy blue and we are beginning our descent. You can only hope that the landing gears open and that the flaps that go up on the wings don't give way to the thousands of pounds of air pressure. When we stop, a disembodied voice speaks on behalf of the entire flight crew in welcoming us to Atlanta. The voice says that she hopes the next time we fly we will find it a convenience as well as a pleasure to select Delta Airlines. A convenience? We have risen above the clouds and traversed 800 miles and burned hundreds of gallons of fuel into the atmosphere and risked a loss of cabin pressure and this for our mere convenience? Amazing feats have become convenient as science has marched forward.

Yet still, the journey has taken two hours of our time, not counting the hour we lost. A greater convenience would be to travel from Dallas to Atlanta in a matter of minutes. A few years ago, I noticed a story in the New York Times that raised such a possibility. Aeronautical experts were hard at work, we were informed, developing plans for an airplane that could fly coast to coast in about twelve minutes. The military was leading the way on research because it valued the possibility of reaching any point on the globe within 90 minutes. But the experts predicted an eventual civilian application for jet travel at 30 times the speed of sound.

I think of this news item quite often. It's not that I am dissatisfied with travelling at a pokey speed that is less than the speed of sound. Nor do I foresee any real need in my life to make it from New York to California in twelve minutes. It's just that the very idea of it -- the very fact that scientists are at work on the aerospace craft -- is such crystal-clear evidence of our most basic American urge: make everything faster.

We take it as a natural phenomenon that the pace of life is faster now than it was before the industrial age. But now it seems to be accelerating so fast that the change is detectable from year to year rather than from generation to generation. It was only a few years ago that grocery checkout clerks rang up the bill on big mechanical cash registers, pushing three or four keys per item. Those who grew up in small towns may remember a time when clerks would even pass the time of day with their customers. Now the bill is rung up as computer codes are waved past a laser, and an automatic voice disinterestedly announces the price. The principles of assembly line efficiency have given us fast food and the style of the fast food joint has been extended to other businesses. You can get an oil change or a jiffy lube for your car in ten minutes. You can buy a new tire, have the wheel "computer balanced" while you write the check, and be on the road again in 15.

Everything speeds up. Minutes and seconds matter. In competitive arenas athletes strain to shave fractions of seconds. Recently, when Florence Griffith Joyner set a new world record in the 100-meter dash, a sportswriter described her improvement over the old record as a "huge" margin. Huge in this case turned out to be 27-hundredths of a second.

We are entering what Jeremy Rifkin calls the new "nanosecond culture." In his book Time Wars, Rifkin contends that computers are defining a new temporal awareness, just as mechanical clocks did when they first came into use in the 15th Century. In the world of computers, the unit of time is the nanosecond -- a billionth of a second. "Though it is possible to conceive theoretically of a nanosecond, and even to manipulate time at a speed of that duration, it is not possible to experience it," writes Rifkin. "This marks a radical turning point in the way human beings relate to time. Never before has time been organized at a speed beyond the realm of consciousness."

Everywhere we look nowadays we see signs of computer-driven efficiency. Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta would not have been able to receive my recent flight -- nor the other 800,000 it gets per year -- without computer controls in the cockpits and in the air traffic controllers' tower. As we touched down in Atlanta I happened to be absorbed in an article in Sky magazine on a new rage in the business world: voice messaging. As best I could figure it, voice messaging amounts to the use of sophisticated systems in which a caller can leave a message at a computerized switchboard and words can be routed to an individual or to hundreds of individuals, ready to be heard at the recipient's convenience. The unproductive and inefficient game of telephone tag is done away with. So is face to face conversation -- an out-of-date and time-consuming method of communication that is anathema in the computer age.

In a like manner, many in the business world have become caught up in time-management seminars. Executives and managers are trained in eliminating low priority activities and are taught to use datebooks that encourage constant recording of "data" with easy "retrieval." The irresistible promise is that of accomplishing more in less time. The secret is to learn to run your life as if it were computer-programmed.

Rifkin worries that the nanosecond culture is pulling us further and further from the natural rhythms of the biosphere -- that everything is reduced to short-term gain and in the process we test our ability to cope with stress and the earth's ability to accommodate the ever-growing stream of production and waste that issues forth.

What he doesn't sufficiently acknowledge is the existence of powerful imperatives that drive our quest for efficiency and speed. Our country has developed on the principle that production is good and more production is better. The idea generally is to produce a lot of goods, so that workers can have money to buy lots of goods, so that there will be a reason to produce even more. As long as this principle guides a competitive economic system nothing is more natural and inevitable than to seek more efficient production.

Beyond this, there is an allure to efficiency all its own. When Frederick Taylor revolutionized the workplace with his pre- industrial time-and-motion studies he succeeded in dehumanizing workers. Yet there is a certain thrill to Taylorism that any worker who has eliminated wasted motion and needless effort can recognize. The impulse is older than the invention of the wheel.

Why does the scientist become captivated with the idea of flying us from coast to coast in twelve minutes? Because it is a stunning advance. Because it can be done. Because speed is intoxicating and addictive. Never mind that faster and faster speed makes for a more spectacular and calamitous crash. We haven't yet discovered the outer limits. For the time being, we can't help ourselves.

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