Friday, October 19, 2007

Airships and the Future That Wasn't

I obtained the picture above, of Moffet Field's Hangar One, from this boingboing post. The post seeks to drum up some publicity for the campaign to save the structure, which the Navy wants to tear down as it is contaminated with PCBs and thus useless. Boingboing makes the case that the structure should be saved as it is one of the few distinctive buildings in Silicon Valley, a region that, despite its economic power, is otherwise fairly void of interesting architecture.

I read about this just a few hours after I had been teaching my "cyberculture" class and discussing the transition of the Silicon Valley area from being dominated by the aerospace industry to electronics industry and using that as a parallel for corresponding shift in American Popular culture from space travel as an emblem of the future - the future of the rocketship, if you will - to cyberspace as an emblem of the future - the future of the matrix. I wished I had read about Hanger One before my class, so I could have used it as an example.

Hanger One, you see, was a part of a yet older, and less remembered future. The future of the airship. Hanger One was, believe it or not, the hanger for America's flying aircraft carrier: the USS Macon.

For those who didn't already know, during the 1930s the United States built and briefly operated two huge airships, Macon and her sister ship Akron, each outfitted to carry five small biplane fighters. Both, sadly, were lost in bad weather. This ended the flying aircraft carrier project.

I am, as you've probably guessed by now, a sort of airship enthusiast. For me, the lost future of the airship is interesting and romantic, I think because it is in some ways a more human future than the one we live in now. The Akron and the Macon were intended to scout for enemy vessels using human eyes and brains and pilots. Their technology augmented the body, but still relied on human control and skill. Instead of the flying aircraft carrier, the technology that would become the eyes of the fleet in World War II was radar. Radar, married to the electronic digital computer, has evolved over the last 60 years to give us the "future" warship that is the Navy's present - the AEGIS destroyer. Instead of the swashbuckling crews of the Akron and Macon, launching their tiny fighters with their hair in the wind, we got the plugged in crews of the AEGIS ships, who monitor an automated combat system in a darkened room. The major choice the crew makes is to turn the system on, after that most functions are automatic, guided missiles fight guided missiles at speeds too fast for a human being to make a meaningful decision.

I am often a cyber-enthusiast. I am, after all, right now plugged in to a massive automated system, which will deliver my words to far away friends without further intervention on my part. Remembering the airship past, however, puts me in a more cyber-pessimistic mood. Internet socializing is not unlike the AEGIS ship, digital expressions flying around at light speed while bodies and their senses stay at home. Perhaps a packet with my words in it will be, in an unlikely circumstance, routed through one of the antenna arrays on the mast of the Empire State Building (originally, the mast was to be an airship mooring point) but I will not be there to see it, to feel it, to taste the wind.

The danger, I think, comes when we try to build a new world in our computers, as John Parry Barlow and others sometimes seem to advocate, and thus forget material circumstances in a rush of postmodern digital exuberance. If we keep material circumstances in mind however, we might build a new world with our computers and that might open some interesting possibilities.

The Akron and the Macon were brought down by weather, after all. With weather radar and GPS to guide them, the new generation of airships being worked on by Zeppelin and others
might just have a fighting chance...

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