I recently read William Langewiesche’s Aloft (Penguin Modern Classics), his collected essays on flight.

One of these, justly regarded as a classic, deals with the loss of Valujet 592 near Miami in 1996, an accident which bears a strong resemblance, in his telling, to the parallel experience of rail privatisation in the UK. Deregulation permitted much of the business of running an airline to be reduced to contracts, in the “firm as nexus of contracts” model so beloved of business schools, and put out to tender. This resulted in ignorance, embitterment, ugliness, and failure. Go read the book.

But it struck me that a lot of Langewiesche’s work has a distinct message about the necessity of politics in the broadest sense. In American Ground he, among much else, says that the United States has the trick of drawing strength from argument, and a lot of his writing makes the case again and again for thrashing things out, for the danger of pensée unique and the more subtle danger of the consensus that substitutes for thought and conceals important prejudices and assumptions.

This requires, among other things, a degree of egalitarianism. You can’t have a useful argument with a steamroller that will simply crush you. It also requires a certain respect for the anomalous, the specific, the subculture, the historical quirk.

Another of the essays in Aloft is on air traffic control as a profession; Langewiesche makes the interesting point that the system has a lot of inefficient historical quirks and redundancies, which seem to be ripe for disruption and in need of modernising reform and you get the picture already, but which contribute in subtle ways to its resilience and its ability to recover from crises, which happen all the time.

His account of this recovery reminded me strongly of the Internet and especially of the NANOG mailing list, an institution which emerged, interestingly, around the same time as the US ATC system in its modern form, and which outsiders always want to clean up and straighten out.

He also discusses the notion of the “normal accident”, and makes a great point: couldn’t the idea that some things are just too complex and system-inherent accidents are inevitable be used as an excuse for big business to get out of its responsibilities? (Interestingly, the guy who invented it seems never to have thought of it that way.)

This is of course what happened with much of the broader social critique of planning, technocracy, modernism, and the like; although the critics hoped for anarchy or at least liberty, what they got when their ideas were implemented was neo-liberalism.

In the end, it strikes me that the meta-narrative here is that the institutions of anti-planning aren’t necessarily stable at the next level of abstraction up. They need constant policy inputs to function without ending up in one pathological mode or the other.

If you think that, you will probably end up in some sort of “varieties of capitalism” position. And you know? You can see market socialism from there with a good pair of binoculars. The rarity of this position explains why some of his readers probably find him conservative.

1 Comment on "Aloft"

  1. I’m reminded of the book – “The Myth of the Paperless Office” – largely about the affordances present in the paper systems used in ATC. Of course technology has progressed since then, but you can still see how “simplification” (in this case through technological imperative, rather than the drive to contractuals) removes resilience.


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