Steve Talbott


1. Flights of Optimism



Have you heard the story of Alberto Santos-Dumont? The flamboyant Brazilian was the only human being ever to own a personal flying machine. Taking off from the street alongside his apartment and flying low over the rooftops of Paris on shopping trips, he would throw his red tie down to the admiring crowds below, then descend grandly in front of a fashionable shop, handing the "reins" of his compact dirigible to the doorman for tethering alongside all the horses.


At the time (which happened to be during the first years of the twentieth century), Dumont may have been the most famous person in the world. In the biography, Wings of Madness, Paul Hoffman writes that "There are corporate moguls who have helicopters who can fly from their backyards to the roof of their office, but they don't fly to dinner; they can't fly to Barney's to shop. Nobody has had a personal flying machine other than Santos-Dumont".


According to Hoffman, whom I recently heard in an NPR "Weekend Edition" interview, Dumont invented the dirigible by marrying an early automobile engine to an elongated, hydrogen-filled balloon. He would wave his hat over the primitive engine to protect the balloon from the occasional flurry of sparks (incidentally triggering a Parisian fashion craze for slightly singed Panama hats). Attracted to the idea of flight all his life, he later played a role in the development of fixed-wing flight, and believed in the almost mystic qualities of the experience of height. He held dinner parties where the guests dined ethereally at ten-foot-high tables.


But what intrigued me most about Dumont was his naive optimism. As Hoffman puts it, "He thought flying machines would bring about world peace. He thought you could fly and visit people with whom you had differences and that would help you understand them better".


World War I, with its casualties inflicted from the air, shattered Dumont's faith, and may have contributed to the shattering of the man himself. His last years were unhappy ones. In 1932, during the Brazilian civil war, a plane was shot down a few blocks from the hotel where he was staying. Upon hearing the news he took one of his red ties and hanged himself from a bathroom peg.


As readers of NetFuture know, recurrent episodes of technological optimism and disappointment -- prompted, for example, by the development of electricity, the telegraph, automobiles, radio, and television have punctuated the last couple of hundred years. Nor are we exempt from the syndrome today. Digital networking technologies aroused a millennial fervor among the cognoscenti, and this has been followed, in the current, post-utopian Internet era, by the inevitable downers: pernicious spam, spam-rage, virus wars, pop-up commercialism, ubiquitous pornography, and thriving, hate-based web sites.


I keep looking for some more profound point to make about the long, eccentric history of technology-based hope and and disillusionment, but I always come back to the simple, if disastrous, projection of human qualities upon external devices -- as if our past moral failings resulted, for example, from inadequate machinery of communication rather than from the persons doing the communicating. Certainly it's true, as Dumont believed, that visiting others can help us understand them better. But such free movement can also make it easy, if we are so inclined, to blow ourselves up in their faces. The inclination is the decisive issue, not the technical means for giving it expression.


However, that last statement may encourage too stark a distinction between means and what we express with them. After all, every technical device is not only a means but is itself a human expression -- an expression you can see reflected, for example, in the gadget hound's gleaming eyes as he leafs through a Sharper Image catalog. When looked at in these terms rather than as a mere object, the device will certainly be found imbued with qualities, including moral qualities. This is hardly a secret to the manufacturers and marketers who go to such lengths to invest their products with these qualities in the first place.


All human constructions and, in general, all human activities are laden with meaning -- even when we mean them to express meaninglessness. The problem with undue technological optimism (or pessimism) is not that we view material devices as the bearers of meaning. Rather, it is that we forget how all these externalized meanings are, in the end, our meanings.


We can have a hard time recognizing our meanings for what they are once they have been "frozen" and objectified in metal and plastic. Extraordinary self-knowledge is required of us at a stage in our history when we can so skillfully make things en masse, and when we have learned to think of these things as objects essentially independent of ourselves. Only through an exceptional sort of awareness can we recognize the hopes, fears, values, desires, and viewpoints by which we make these objects what they are.


Knowing next to nothing about Dumont's life, I can only speculate about the meaning of his airships. He seems to have been moved by a genuine idealism. But a disappointment so excessive that it leads to self-destruction hints at a correspondingly destructive hope. It would be interesting to explore whether, in addition to Dumont's perhaps rather-too-abstract ideal of peace, a more immediate meaning of his inventions lay in the self-aggrandizement they afforded, symbolized in his love of elevation and in the condescending gesture of the dropped tie. If something like that were the case, then the transformation of his tie into the instrument of his final, extinguishing descent might appear almost tragically natural. And the development of airborne warships would appear less a contradiction than an extension of such a motivation.


Whatever the case with Alberto Santos-Dumont -- and I emphasize again that I do not know the truth of his life (and am quite certain that not even a small part of his life can be summarized adequately with the simplistic remarks above!) -- the important point is that there are always many such stories to tell, for good or ill, about every technical creation we employ. The sooner we learn to discern these stories within our own psyches and bring a ruthless self-criticism to them, the happier our technological experience will be.