Terre des Hommes, part III
(Postcard of an Aéropostale airplane above Casablanca. Source: link)
This post builds on previous entries about "Terre des Hommes", Saint-Exupéry's autobiography (the preceding one can be found here).
I keep enjoying the more reflective passages of this book.
L'avion est une machine sans doute, mais quel instrument d'analyse! Cet instrument nous a fait découvrir le vrai visage de la terre. Les routes, en effet, durant des siècles, nous ont trompés. [...] Elles évitent les terres stériles, les rocs, les sables, elles épousent les besoins de l'homme et vont de fontaine en fontaine. Elles conduisent les campagnards de leurs granges aux terres à blé, reçoivent au seuil des étables le bétail encore endormi et le versent, dans l'aube, aux luzernes. Elles joignent ce village à cet autre village, car de l'un à l'autre on se marie.
I would translate this as follows:
"The airplane is of course a machine, but also an amazing analysis device! This instrument has allowed us to discover the true face of the Earth. Indeed, the roads have misled us for centuries. [...] They avoid the barren soils, the rocks, the sands, and instead espouse our needs, taking us from fountain to fountain. They lead the farmers from their barns to the wheat fields, and pour the still sleepy cattle out of their cowsheds and onto the pastures. They connect this village to that other village, because their dwellers intermarry."
There is a fascinating interplay between the artefacts we create and our worldview. Saint-Exupéry highlights the worldview induced by a previous artefact (roads) and how it kept hidden from our sight many aspects of the world. Arguably these aspects are not so useful, e.g. deserts and barren places, indeed the reason for building the roads in the first place was so that people could efficiently find and make their way from one useful place to the next, abstracting away the less useful. However, the important point is that they were interpreted as less useful at the time the artefact was created, which may not stay relevant forever. Since an artefact quickly blends into the landscape, we easily forget that it's even there, which means we also forget the assumptions built into it. So we run the risk of doubly forgetting: forgetting the useless aspects, and forgetting that we chose to forget them.
This begs the question, which aspects are we blinding ourselves to by adopting the airplane artefact, or any artefact? What are we forgetting? Can we even know? What if the next artefact doesn't correct this bias, but makes it even stronger?
One aspect that I think about a lot, both at work and for fun, is scale .
While the airplane allows us to see forgotten places, the scale at which we see through the plane window may be misleading. From thousands of meters of altitude, a desert may look even less inviting than from the ground, or make us miss crucial details, thus reinforcing our belief that there is nothing of interest to be found there. In this sense, could we be triply forgetting?
Interestingly, as airplane artefacts were followed by spaceship artefacts, the emotional impact of scale flipped. While the human scale is the nearest to our heart, and the birds-eye view afforded by the airplane may be a bit colder and depersonalized, it seems that the view of Earth from space stirs up a nearly spiritual connection with our fellow humans and other inhabitants of the planet. At least this is what stands out in Kevin Kelley's beautiful collection of astronaut testimonies called The Home Planet, which I highly recommend.
It may be impossible to be fully aware of the biases induced by our artefacts, starting with the arch-artefact of language (cf. previous parts) through which we interpret and understand so many things. However, we would be well-advised to keep close tabs on the changes in perception that new artefacts bring, because they may reveal which things were forgotten, or which are about to be.
 There is much to say about scale, which has many different meanings. I will probably write a series of posts on this topic soon.