I am currently typing this at over 10000 feet -- considerably over, I'm certain, but I don't know the exact number -- in flight to Minneapolis. Delta Airlines has a GoGo partnership that lets them provide free Wifi in the air. Which sounds nice, but given that we are packed in like sardines and that the space laid out for each passenger was apparently done so on the assumption that Delta would now be serving only gnomes, it's much less impressive than it seems. My forearms are pressed at my side, my wrists are arched in carpal-tunnel-inducing ways, and I am thinking: surely this is not such an advance in technology as you'd think? To be sure, it is quite marvelous that I am able to blog in flight. Wonders of technology, to be sure. But right now I would much prefer a wonder of technology that made it economical for me to stretch my legs and not have the measly two feet within which to put a laptop, my arms, and the complimentary beverage that is currently being served. Even if I were doing this on an iPhone or some such, it would hardly be much of an improvement.
But such is our age: we can make an iPad, but God help us if we try to get back to the moon, because the only way we can do that at present is to reverse engineer the way it was done the first time, since so much has been lost. How splendid we are at little entertaining things, and how grandiose we can be about them! But, honestly, there are many levels of practicality and we are failing on several of them.
It shows, I suppose, that there is more to technology than ingenuity and science: it's not that we don't have ingenuity, and it's not as if the basic theoretical apparatus has not improved. But technology has a logistics and an economics that must be respected: you must be able to marshal the actual resources and get them to the right people at the right places at the right times. This is true of science, and, indeed, any intellectual endeavor, of course; to name just one significant example, it seems clear enough that the reason the late Middle Ages failed to achieve a Scientific Revolution a la Michael Flynn was simply logistics: they had all the pieces to do what Galileo did, and many of them were no less ingenious, but they were scattered, the means of communication were not adequate to guarantee that the pieces would eventually come together in the right hands, and resources were beginning to be diverted elsewhere for various reasons. But with technology unfavorable logistics and economics are massively more devastating: requiring far greater resources than purely intellectual inquiry, deviations and problems in the obtaining and distributing of those resources multiply all along the line.
Then, too, technology by its nature repeatedly comes up against dead ends. There's a reason, for instance, that we find it so hard to shake our dependency on gasoline: for the things we want gasoline to do, there is quite literally nothing better than it. It's powerful, it's relatively safe and portable, and we have all the prior technology in place to take full advantage of everything it has to offer. It's at a valley, one might say, in the technological landscape: no matter which direction you go, you do so at some cost: either the fuel becomes less efficient, or it becomes more dangerous, one has to rethink entirely the way we ordinarily do things. I don't know anything about aerospace technology, but I'm sure we're pretty close to such a valley in this field, as well: the basic technology has not undergone any significant changes, at least any that are obvious, in my lifetime. It's all been relatively minor tweaking, and what you get for the cost seems to have been steadily decreasing. Is there really no way to improve on the basic technology, not by increment but by establishing something that is of an entirely new level of development entirely? One wonders. But setting aside abstract possibilities -- it seems that we can't. Progress in technology should make flying cheaper and cheaper, easier and easier; but even when we set aside security and the like, it's difficult to say that we are actually progressing rather than regressing. And that is a bit disturbing.
Perhaps it's really an issue of being outcompeted for limited resources by other technologies. After all, we may be crammed into the cabin, but I am blogging from the air and we do have those iPads and ebook readers and LED lights in our stoplights. Perhaps -- and there is independent reason to think it -- we have become a frivolous and slothful people, unwilling to put the effort in to do what really would be valuable to do. Perhaps we are hitting our limits, and there is nothing more left to do but fall helplessly back to earth like some modern Icarus. Perhaps there are geniuses out there who will show us new ways. Perhaps I am just being absurdly pessimistic because I am cramped into a tiny space too small for this free Wifi to be especially wonderful, and especially at these connection speeds. I do not know. But when people talk of the wonders of technology, I think of them, too; and I wonder, which of them have we failed to achieve?