“I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters… People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already.”
(George Orwell, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad“)
And there’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see,
But everywhere I go, I’m looking
(Rich Mullins, Here in America)
I usually take books with me on airplanes, but in most cases I don’t end up reading much. This is in stark contrast to my usual behavior on the ground; at home I am seldom without something to read. On planes, however, my attention is attracted elsewhere: I usually end up spending the entire flight watching out the window. The view is usually mostly clouds, but watching the weather patterns change as the landscape shifts underneath is alone worth a few hours’ fascination. Add to this speculation over and contemplation of the geometric road patterns and clusters of buildings, and an average plane flight over ordinary land can become mesmerizing.
“There is no such thing as an uniteresting subject,” wrote Chesterton, “the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” If this is true of subjects, it is even more true of sights. Chesterton adds, “The higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored.” I find landscapes and the passing small scenes of nature and human habitation fascinating. My wife and I often take our children on long car drives on the weekend for similar reasons: we delight to see the fascinating glimpses that pass by as we drive along the roads. Every tree and hill, every corner of the road and old country store or typical house’s yard hides a quietly epic story. We’ll never know them all, but the whispering sights are compelling.
“This typical gift of the born biologist [is] the gift for observation,” writes Etienne Gilson. Observation is at the heart of science, and observation leads its way, if followed to its end, to contemplation. The scientist seeks to know, in his own particular sphere, what is; and consideration of what is, ending in praise and gratitude, is the heart of contemplation. In the end, the philosophers tell us, what is and what is true and what is good and what is beautiful are one. The observer, then, or the contemplative, must keep his eyes open.
The Spike Aerospace company is planning to construct a small, supersonic private jet plane, which, in lieu of windows, is outfitted with cabin-length screens that display outside views. In place of the smallish widows typical of passenger jets, wall-sized unbroken views of the surrounding airspace will surround flyers. The views would be provided by a series of cameras outside the aircraft that provide images to be displayed inside.
To get the practical concerns out of the way, there are a number of issues that would affect this technology as a replacement for windows. In the first place, it would only work if you were viewing from reasonable distance from the screen—and only as long as you did not move. Unlike normal windows, there would be no change in perspective as you shifted your viewing angle. A second issue involves the rate at which the image is refreshed. If it is noticeably delayed, even by a small amount, the difference between the plane’s motion as seen by the eye and the plane’s motion as sensed by the inner ear could result in major cases of airsickness.
Time will tell whether this proposal ever becomes reality, but if we leave these technological concerns aside, the idea of an “enhanced” window experience appeals to me. A wide, unencumbered view of the sights that I normally enjoy from my constrained window seat seems intriguing. If such technology can be made to work, it might in fact serve to provide the same experience as airplane window watching, but on a more comfortable and accessible level.
Yet it is not the difficulties of making it work that seems to me to be the biggest challenge to this sort technology being used well; the chief challenge would seem to come from other technology. My most common experience on planes lately has been of my fellow passengers sliding the shades shut of their windows so as not to interfere with the screens on their iPads and phones and DVD players. I do not say this to criticize; after all, an iPad may simply serve as a more portable library of books. But the point is that the passengers are looking elsewhere than out the windows. My observation has been that views out of windows—whether of cars or planes—are quickly judged to be boring. I suspect that the large window-screens of the Spike airplane would soon meet the same judgment, and the technology would be adapted to allow the display of movies and sports games and selected entertaining backgrounds.
My youngest daughter has become fascinated with the movie Finding Nemo, and claims that she is Nemo, the clownfish. Just to demonstrate the happy place of technology in our own lives, we have played for her on our television an hourlong video of a saltwater aquarium with clownfish, streamed over Amazon’s video service on our Roku box. The Luddite might object that a video of a clownfish is no substitute for the real thing, and he is right, but a saltwater tank (or a diving expedition on the Great Barrier Reef) is far beyond our abilities, and we are happy to use technology to bring her the next best thing. In any case, I am perhaps more interested in encouraging her to watch the real fish on the videotaped aquarium than the animated movie, as charming as it may be, and she finds the video aquarium to be fascinating. In one of my favorite essays, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad“, George Orwell writes, “I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.”
It is perhaps childish to be most fascinated by a swimming clownfish, or the clouds passing by a plane, and childish too to think that technology could be used in the furthering of such a nobly idle pursuit. More likely it will soon be turned to advancing flashier distractions. Perhaps, though, the better word is not childish but childlike, and one can hope that the technologies will find, here and there, more fresh and innocent users.
Image: Spike Aerospace