Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

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9781594631849: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

Combining the deft social analysis of Where Good Ideas Come From with the optimistic arguments of Everything Bad Is Good for You, New York Times bestselling author and one of the most inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture, Steven Johnson, maps the ways a connected world will be both different and better.
 
Steven Johnson proposes that a new model of political change is on the rise transforming everything from local government to classrooms to health care. It’s a compelling new political worldview that breaks with traditional categories of liberal or conservative thinking. Johnson explores this innovative vision through a series of fascinating narratives: from the “Miracle on the Hudson” to the planning of the French railway system; from the battle against malnutrition in Vietnam to a mysterious outbreak of strange smells in downtown Manhattan; from underground music video artists to the invention of the Internet itself. At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and uplifting case that progress is still possible.

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About the Author:

Steven Johnson is the author of seven bestsellers, including Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You, and is the editor of the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites—most recently, outside.in—and writes for Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and three sons.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Commercial airplane crashes are one of the few events guaranteed a place on the front page of every national newspaper. Somewhat less common on the front page, however, is a story about a commercial airplane crash that didn’t happen. But every now and then one of these non-events manages to cross the threshold into newsworthiness. One such unlikely story appeared on page one of the January 12, 2009, edition of USA Today: “Airlines Go Two Years with No Fatalities,” the headline proclaimed. An analysis by the paper had discovered that the U.S. commercial aviation industry had achieved a milestone unprecedented in the history of modern air travel: despite the dramatic increase in flights compared with earlier decades, not a single person had perished in a commercial air accident during the years 2007 and 2008.

A two-year stretch with zero fatalities was, statistically speaking, a remarkable feat. Only four times since 1958 had the industry managed to make it through one year without a fatal accident. But the safety record was part of a long-term trend: in the post-9/11 period, chances of dying on a commercial flight were nineteen in 1 billion; an almost 100 percent improvement over the already excellent odds of flying in the 1990s. According to MIT professor Arnold Barnett, this meant that an American child was more likely to be elected president of the United States in his or her lifetime than to die in a commercial jet flight.

The story caught my eye in part because I had long maintained that news organizations presented a misleading slant on current events—not the conventional slant of the Left-Right political world, but the more subtle bias of being more interested in bad news. “If it bleeds, it leads” might be a good strategy for selling papers, but it necessarily skews our collective sense of how well we are doing as a society. We hear about every threat or catastrophe, but the stories of genuine progress get relegated to the back pages, if they run at all.

But this USA Today article was bucking that trend of negative bias. And so, inspired by its refreshing story of progress, I decided to write a little essay about it, for a website at which I happened to be a guest contributor that week. I summarized the article’s findings, and made the point that we might have fewer people suffering from fear of flying (and thus spending less time on much more dangerous highways) if the media did a better job of reminding us of these genuinely extraordinary achievements.

A more superstitious person might have worried that saying such things in public was tempting fate. In fact, when I had talked about airline safety with friends in the past, I’d often been accused of just that, a criticism that I would inevitably laugh off. Surely fate had better things to do than worry about my monologues.

But within a few hours of publishing my little riff about airline safety, while I was sitting in a television studio waiting to do a book promotion, my phone began buzzing with e-mails and text messages from friends who had seen my piece. A US Airways jet had crash-landed in the icy Hudson. Look what you did, my friends said. I had tempted fate, and fate had slapped me back across the face.

By the time I actually managed to get to a television set to see the live report, it was clear that the plane had in fact survived the landing with minimal structural damage, and a significant number of survivors were clearly visible standing on the wings, waiting for the ferries and police boats that would rescue them. I penned a quick, sheepish entry promising to keep mum about air safety for a while, and mothball that piece I was working on about the planet’s amazing streak of avoiding species-extinguishing asteroid collisions.

Then a funny—and wonderful—thing happened. The world quickly learned that all 155 passengers and crew aboard flight 1549 had survived, with almost no serious injuries. Flight 1549 went from being a devastating rebuke to my optimism about commercial aviation to being a ringing endorsement of it. If you believed in that sort of thing, you might have said that I had tempted fate, and fate had blinked.

Of course, I had nothing to do with the safe landing of US Airways 1549. The question was, Who or what was responsible for that plane managing to lose two engines during takeoff and still keep its cargo secure? The mass media quickly offered up two primary explanations, both of which turned out to be typical interpretations of good news. First there was the hero narrative: Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who had indeed brilliantly navigated his plane into the river with great poise under unthinkable pressure. And then there was the quasi-magical rhetoric that quickly became attached to the event, the Miracle on the Hudson. Those were the two options. That plane floating safely in the Hudson could be explained only by superheroes or miracles.

There was no denying Sullenberger’s achievement that day, but the fact is, he was supported by a long history of decisions made by thousands of people over the preceding decades, all of which set up the conditions that made that perfect landing possible. A lesser pilot could have still failed catastrophically in that situation, but as good as Sullenberger was, he was not working alone. It was surprising and thrilling that all 155 people survived the crash, but there was nothing miraculous about it. The plane survived because a dense network of human intelligence had built a plane designed to withstand exactly this kind of failure. It was an individual triumph, to be sure, but it was also, crucially, a triumph of collectively shared ideas, corporate innovation, state-funded research, and government regulation. To ignore those elements in telling the story of the Miracle on the Hudson is not to neglect part of the narrative for dramatic effect. It is to fundamentally misunderstand where progress comes from, and how we can create more of it.

Any attempt to explain the confluence of events that came together to allow flight 1549 to land safely in the Hudson has to begin with the chicken gun.

The threat posed by bird-impact strikes to aircraft dates back to the very beginnings of flight. (The Wright brothers recorded bird strikes in their journals during their experimental flights in the early 1900s.) The primary vulnerability in a modern commercial jet lies in birds’ being ingested by the jet engine, and wreaking enough internal damage that the engine itself fails. But there are degrees of failure. An engine can simply flame out and stop functioning. Or it can shatter, sending debris back into the fuselage, potentially destroying the plane in a matter of seconds. The former, it goes without saying, is greatly preferable to the latter. Most bird strikes involve only one engine, leaving the plane perfectly capable of flying on its remaining engines if the main structure of the plane is still intact.

Today’s jet engines are therefore rigorously tested to ensure that they can withstand significant bird impact without catastrophic failure. At Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee, a team of scientists and engineers use high-pressure helium gas to launch chicken carcasses at high velocity into spinning jet engines. Every make of engine that powers a commercial jet aircraft in the United States has passed the chicken gun test.

The chicken gun, it should be noted, is an exemplary case of government regulation. Those dead birds being shot out of a pneumatic cannon are Your Tax Dollars at Work. For the passengers flying on US Airways 1549, those tax dollars turned out to be very well spent. Because the first lucky break the plane experienced after a flock of Canada geese crashed into both its engines was the simple fact that neither engine disintegrated. Neither one propelled shards of titanium into the fuselage; neither engine caught fire.

The phrase “lucky break”—like the whole premise of a Miracle on the Hudson—distorts the true circumstances of the US Airways landing. We need a better phrase, something that conveys the idea of an event that seems lucky, but actually resulted from years of deliberate preparation and planning. This was not a stroke of good fortune. It was a stroke of good foresight.

In fact, the advance planning of the chicken gun was so effective that the jet core of the left engines continued to spin at near-maximum speed—not enough to grant Sullenberger the thrust he needed to return to LaGuardia, but enough so that the plane’s electronics and hydraulic systems functioned for the duration of the flight. The persistence of the electronics system, in turn, set up flight 1549’s second stroke of foresight: the plane’s legendary fly-by-wire system remained online as Sullenberger steered his wounded craft toward the river.

The history of fly-by-wire dates back to 1972, when a modified F-8 Crusader took off from the Dryden Flight Research Center on the edge of the Mojave Desert. The brainchild of NASA engineers, the fly-by-wire system used digital computers and other modern electronic systems to relay control information from the pilot to the plane. Because computers were involved, it became easier to provide assistance to the pilot in real time, even if the autopilot was disengaged, preventing stalls, or stabilizing the plane during turbulence. Inspired by the NASA model, engineers at Airbus in the early 1980s built an exceptionally innovative fly-by-wire system into the Airbus A320, which began flying in 1987.

Twenty-one years later, Chesley Sullenberger was at the controls of an A320 when he collided with that flock of Canada geese. Because his left engine was still able to keep the electronics running, his courageous descent into the Hudson was deftly assisted by a silent partner, a computer embodied with the collective intelligence of years of research and planning. William Langewiesche describes that digital aid in his riveting account of the flight, Fly by Wire:

While in the initial left turn [Sullenberger] lowered the nose . . . and went to the best gliding speed—a value which the airplane calculated all by itself, and presented to him as a green dot on the speed scale of his primary flight display. During the pitch changes to achieve that speed, a yellow “trend” arrow appeared on the scale, pointing up or down from the current speed with predictions of speed 10 seconds into the future—an enormous aid in settling onto the green dot with the minimum of oscillation. . . . Whenever he left the side-stick alone in the neutral position the airplane held its nose steadily at whatever pitch he had last selected; that the airplane’s pitch trim was automatic, and perfect at all times.

Most non-pilots think of modern planes as possessing two primary modes: “autopilot,” during which the computers are effectively flying the plane, and “manual,” during which humans are in charge. But fly-by-wire is a more subtle innovation. Sullenberger was in command of the aircraft as he steered it toward the Hudson, but the fly-by-wire system was silently working alongside him throughout, setting the boundaries or optimal targets for his actions. That extraordinary landing was a kind of duet between a single human being at the helm of the aircraft and the embedded knowledge of the thousands of human beings that had collaborated over the years to build the Airbus A320’s fly-by-wire technology. It is an open question whether Sullenberger would have been able to land the plane safely without all that additional knowledge at his service. But fortunately for the passengers of flight 1549, they didn’t have to answer that question.

The popular response to the Miracle on the Hudson encapsulates just about everything that is flawed in the way we think about progress in our society. First, the anomalous crash landing (fatal or not) gets far more play than the ultimately more important story of long-term safety trends. As a news hook, steady, incremental progress pales beside the sexier stories of dramatic breakthrough and spectacular failure. For reasons that are interesting to explore, it also pales beside stories of steady, incremental decline. You can always get bandwidth by declaring yourself a utopian; and you can always get bandwidth by mourning the downward trend lines for some pressing social issue—however modest the trend itself may be. But declaring that things are slightly better than they were a year ago, as they have been for most years since at least the dawn of industrialization, almost never makes the front page.

Consider this observation from the entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, published in National Review:

When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds—from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century—reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story—“Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?”—barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.

But raw airspeed is only one unit by which we can measure our transportation progress. It happens to be the sexiest metric, the one that gets the headlines when the first commercial jets hit the skies, or the Concorde breaks the sound barrier. But focusing on that metric alone distorts our broader measurement of progress in modern aviation. Most passengers would probably value safety over speed, particularly if the speed already on the table happens to be 600 mph. And indeed, our progress in aviation safety is off the charts. One small historical anecdote illustrates how far we have progressed: In many airports in 1964, a few steps down from that copy of Popular Science at the newsstand, you could find a little booth where you could make a last-minute purchase of life insurance right before you boarded the flight. Not exactly an encouraging sight, but that foreboding was appropriate. At the time, your odds of dying in a commercial jet crash were roughly one in a million. Today it is a hundred times safer. If jet velocity had increased at that same pace, flying from Paris to London would now take about five minutes.

Even if the raw airspeed of commercial jets has flatlined over the past forty years, average travel times have nonetheless decreased, because it is now so much easier to fly to midsized markets, thanks to the growth of the overall industry and the modern hub system that creates a flexible network of large jets and smaller regional planes that deposit passengers on the less populated spokes of the network. If you were flying from New York to Los Angeles in 1970, you’d get there about as quickly as you would today. But if you were flying from New York to...

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