October 22, 2019

The Sudden End of the Jumbo Jet

“When is the future no longer the future? Only a decade ago, air travel seemed to be moving ineluctably towards giant planes, or “superjumbos”. But last week Airbus announced it will cease manufacturing its A380, the world’s fattest passenger jet, as current trends favour smaller and more fuel-efficient craft. Progress changed course. A more vivid reminder of lost dreams will come in a few weeks: 2 March marks the 50th anniversary of the maiden flight of Concorde. Once upon a time, all aviation was going to be supersonic. But sometimes, the future is cancelled.

What if what we think is going to be the future right now is cancelled in its turn? We are supposedly on an unstoppable path towards driverless vehicles, fully automated internet-connected “smart homes”, and godlike artificial intelligence – but, then, we’ve been promised flying cars for half a century, and they are still (allegedly) just around the corner. We live in a time when technological change is portrayed as an inexorable, impersonal force: we’d better learn how to surf the tsunami or drown. But as a society, we always have a choice about which direction we take next. And sometimes we make the wrong decision.

For one thing, history is full of technological marvels that were abandoned for reasons that were only reassessed much later. To most people in the late 19th century, when fleets of electric taxis operated in London and Manhattan, the electric car was clearly going to win out over the filthy petrol-driven alternative. But then vast oil reserves were discovered in America, and the future went into reverse. Until, in the late 20th century, global warming and advances in battery technology made electric cars seem like a good idea again. Similarly, vinyl records have enjoyed a major resurgence in the age of the MP3: not necessarily because they are an objectively better sonic format, but because it turned out that people liked owning their culture as physical objects.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"During the debate on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal in the United Kingdom’s Parliament on Saturday—which ended, as these things often have, with a vote calling for another delay—Johnson exposed the most basic blindness of Brexit..."

"Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, wants to change his story about Ukraine. On Thursday, at a press briefing, Mulvaney confirmed that when President Donald Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in July, one reason was that..."

"I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food..."

"The ultrasound technician places the wand on my daughter’s lower abdomen and moves it slowly across taut skin glistening with gel. I’ve been holding my breath since being ushered into the dimly lit cubicle to witness a sonogram that will..."

"Even many Democrats are criticizing Senator Elizabeth Warren for refusing to admit, in plain words, that her Medicare for All plan will require taxes to increase. They’re right to complain. The point could hardly be simpler: All presidential..."

"How do you update Watchmen for 2019? That might sound like a question with an obvious answer: You just do Watchmen. After all, the graphic novel, which has been consistently in print since its 12-volume run ended in 1987, is pretty terrific..."

"The climactic face-off of the 2019 Israeli Apartheid Week at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg took place on a wide, sunny plaza, between a statue dedicated to the millions of anonymous miners who had toiled under inhuman..."

"Mark Zuckerberg has rarely been so compelling. Facing increased scrutiny — especially after leaked audio of an internal meeting in which Zuckerberg called Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) an existential threat — the Facebook CEO outlined his..."