As much as human flight was about conquering gravity, it was also about seeing the world anew from a privileged position in the sky. To many early passengers, viewing the geographic composition of the Earth from an airplane was like being god. It was a time of spectacular faith in a shapeable future, when technology, as the American literary critic Leo Marx suggested, seemed to have replaced political will to bring about a utopia. If early aviation prompted a culture of technological utopianism, it also presented a paradox. On the one hand, many thought that the solo aviator symbolized the democratic power of the everyman; on the other hand, only a privileged few actually could get on an airplane. The corporate executives of General Motors understood this paradoxical elitist stratification of society and sought its inchoate reversal as a shrewd marketing tool. Visitors to Futurama, the auto giant’s most popular show at the 1939 World’s Fair, sat in a virtual cockpit to embark on a simulated flight over a future America of 1960. The idea was that if the fairgoers saw the world of tomorrow from the same lofty perspective of corporate bigwigs, then they would be seduced to feel that they were co-builders of the shining world they had just witnessed below. Technology and utopianism have a long, shared history in America. From the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, the narrative has always transcended the physicality of technology to reveal a powerful nation-driving myth.
Adnan Morshed, PhD, is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. He is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (University Minnesota Press, 2015) and Oculus: A Decade of Insights into Bangladeshi Affairs (2012). As a practicing architect and urbanist he has designed buildings in the U.S., Lebanon, Malaysia, and Bangladesh.
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