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Edge Tech - Technos
technos: Robert Rossney

Our New Cathedral

The Citroën DS dazzled the world upon its introduction in 1955. Its mysterious ovoid shape, strange fins, and ground hugging profile suggested that it came from the distant future. Its hydraulic suspension not only guaranteed a smooth and level ride whatever the terrain, but made it possible to change a flat tire without a jack: when the time came, the DS just leaned to one side and lifted its wheels off the ground. The car could drive at top speed even with two flat tires (a quality that later saved Charles DeGaulle from an assassination attempt).

Among the dazzled was French semiotician Roland Barthes. The DS inspired him, in an essay called "The New Citroën" (published in his 1957 collection Mythologies ), to observe:

I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived in passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.

Forty years later, the public no longer seems to appreciate any car as a magical object. And the DS itself is crumbling to dust ­ quite literally, if you happen to own one. "It rusts like no other," says one diehard DS aficionado, and even the French can't get parts for it.

We shouldn't be too hard on Barthes. The idea of "the supreme creation of an era" is heady stuff. Once you get it into your mind it's hard to make it go away. It's more interesting to risk looking silly a few years down the line than to leave a seductive idea like that lying on the ground.

• • •

Let me tell you about the supreme creation of our era.

Like the Citroën DS, it was hyped long before it emerged before the public.The flagship product of a high-technology powerhouse in the state of Washington, it has met with amazing success as the result of both brilliant engineering and an enormous (and enormously expensive) public-relations blitz. It's a product so successful that it not only has transformed its industry, but it has no rival.

No, it's not Windows 95. The personal-computer industry is exciting enough, and its tendrils seem to extend anywhere, and God knows we wouldn't be online discussing technology without it. But what I'm talking about now is much more significant. You need only consider the amount of capital involved: Microsoft would have to sell two million copies of Windows 95 at full retail to realize the kind of money that Boeing gets today for a single fully loaded 747-400.


Let us first appreciate the 747 purely for what it does. It is an object the size of a small hospital that flies through the air at 600 miles per hour. It can transport several hundred people a third of the way around the world in a few hours. It can circumnavigate the globe in little more time than it took Magellan to lose sight of land, without subjecting its passengers to anything more rigorous than bad food, dry air, poorly edited movies and a sore butt.

And those passengers occupy only a very small part of the aircraft. "You should see one of them with the interior walls removed," an aircraft mechanic who has worked on the 747 told me. "You can't believe how big it is. It's not an airplane. It's a ship ." (Boeing is fond of pointing out that the entirety of the Wright Brothers' first flight could have taken place inside a 747.)

Its durability is legendary. Not only can a 747 fly a third of the way around the world in a single hop; it can do so again within an hour and a half of landing, day in and day out. There are 747s in the air right now that have been on this schedule since Gerald Ford was President. Boeing 747s have stayed aloft with only one engine working, or even with the cargo hatch open. (When a 747 crashes, it's usually because someone has planted a bomb aboard or fired a missile at it.) According to Boeing, since the 747's introduction in 1970, the aircraft has carried more than 1.5 billion passengers.

The enormous worldwide capital investment in 747s has made transoceanic transportation fast, cheap, and abundant. This has recalibrated the world. The Indian exiles that V.S. Naipaul wrote of in A House for Mr. Biswas  lived and died in Trinidad, the home country unreachably remote. The Canadian emigres in Bharati Mukherjee's contemporary stories visit India regularly. Motorola ferries production from its fabricating plant in Scotland to its packaging plant in Malaysia. It is the 747 that has made this feasible.

The 747 embodies a huge range of technologies. Think of the airframe, the power engineering, computers, radar, the ring lasers in the gyros. Metallurgy. (The 747-400's wings are six feet longer than those on the early 200, but are lighter.) Human engineering. (The 400 has a third the cockpit controls of the 200.) The array of human skills and experience required to keep the aircraft maintained and get it aloft is no less impressive.

But what is most notable about the 747 is that it is not only a hugely capable and sophisticated artifact, it is a mass-produced one. Boeing's enormous factory at Everett has turned out more than 1,100 of them over the last 27 years. Individual planes may vary in terms of the options installed, and whether their engines are made by Pratt & Whitney or Rolls-Royce, but otherwise their componentry is strictly off-the-shelf. So much so that aircraft mechanics can strip any part (except, curiously, the landing-light lens) off of one 747 and bolt it onto another.

Unlike the automobile, magic was never what the 747 was all about. Demystification is. Great distance has always made the world a stranger to itself. The farther away a place, the deeper its mysteries. As people and goods travel inexpensively between, say, San Francisco and Hong Kong, in hours instead of months, the world has grown much smaller. We are living with the implications of that change every day, and for good and ill we have the 747 to thank for it.


rlauriston said:

I narrowly avoided a car crash once--saw a truck losing control, floored the engine, looked in the rearview, and saw the truck jack-knifed across all four lanes of Interstate 80, and cars smashed up every which way. I think maybe that was when I refused to ride in cars for a couple of years. In any case it was much more disturbing than any of the three relatively minor crashes I was actually in myself. But it didn't make me horny--maybe that's because Rosanna Arquette wasn't along for the ride.

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The Citroën DS dazzled the world upon its introduction in 1955. Its mysterious ovoid shape, strange fins, and ground hugging profile suggested that it came from the distant future.

Are automobiles the most important technology of this century? Join the conversation.

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