Air travel and appreciation

This video clip of Canadian comedian Louis C.K. on the Conan O’Brien show is quite amusing. He is talking about how people take air travel, and technology generally, for granted. He has an amusing way of turning around the common gripes people have about air travel:

‘And then, we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway, for 40 minutes. We had to sit there.’ Oh? Really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?

It’s true that people fail to appreciate the immense effort and skill reflected in things like computers, pharmaceuticals, global communications, as so forth. At one level, that is simply a lack of curiosity. On another, I think it’s a kind of defence mechanism: people are completely dependent on these technologies, and yet few understand them at all. Most people probably couldn’t even explain how an airplane wing produces lift. That general point is especially well made by James Burke. He chooses an even more banal technology example than air travel, elevators. In the first episode of his series, he demonstrates how our attitude towards them demonstrates our dependence, ignorance, and vulnerability.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “Air travel and appreciation”

  1. If the peak oil people are right, this may well be the high water mark for human civilization.

  2. It’s unusually likely in the case of air travel. It may never be economical using biofuels, and planes powered by things other than liquid fuels are a distant dream.

  3. Most of the things that we own are black boxes to us! We know the surface function of things but not how they accomplish their functions. A good example is computers. I can send an email but I don’t know how sendmail protocol works. Do I need to know this? Well it’s interesting stuff and it has a neat history. But I don’t need to know *that* to send an email – that’s totally abstracted away from me.

    It’s a consequence of how capitalism evolved – we make almost nothing that we own, and we buy it all. We specialize in something, get paid for it, then use our money to buy black boxes. Our actual material goods – food, medicine, equipment, computers, clothing, etc – we don’t know how most things work at the technical level. Or who made it, where, and under what conditions, etc.

  4. I don’t buy the underlying argument. You could rephrase it so:

    “People are completely dependent on red blood cells, and yet few understand them at all. Most people probably couldn’t even explain how their lungs extract oxygen from the atmosphere.”

    “People are completely dependent on the process of evolution” “People are completely dependent on the existence of spacetime” “People are completely dependent on gravity” etc etc.

    I don’t think anything interesting or remarkable is being said. We are all dependent on an infinite number of things, all of which we cannot possibly hope to comprehend.

  5. I enjoyed the Louis CK clip. In addition to your point, it also in a very humourous way illustrates the tendency of some people to complain.

  6. The clip is much funnier than the transcript. Louis CK has an amusing way of being angry and exasperated.

  7. We are all dependent on an infinite number of things, all of which we cannot possibly hope to comprehend.

    It’s more about appreciation and understanding. That being said, when presented with something you don’t understand, acting blasé about it is a kind of psychological defence mechanism.

  8. Haha.. I definitely agree with the post and some of the comments. I guess it just goes to show that we tend to neglect the things most important to us. Just as the famous quote shows, “You don’t know what you got till you lose it.” Well, I guess that’s just life!

  9. The notion of “value” showing up here is interesting. We should appreciate, i.e. Value air travel because it is “complex”. It is not by accident that we’d say this – complexity is itself a value for us. All transcendentals (catagories) are values for us.

    Have you finished the Pirsig book?

  10. I don’t know if it’s complexity itself that is being lauded. Rather, I think the human tendency of ‘shifting baselines’ is what is being condemned. At one point, being able to cross the continent by train was an amazing leap in transport capacity. Now, most people consider it intolerably slow.

    While technological progress is largely driven by people being unhappy today with what delighted them yesterday, there is certainly a case that can be made for restraining that instinct. Not least, that case would involve how the rapid-boredom instinct forces you to chase ever more exotic things forever.

    Have you finished the Pirsig book?

    It is still in progress.

  11. I agree. If most of the people today were around in the early days of treking from one place to the other or using camels and donkeys, they sure will appreciate air travel more. Thanks for sharing this.

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