Dreamliner and A380: The changing ‘myths’ of technology

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The Boeing Dreamliner was revealed to the world earlier this week. It is an impressive example of early 21st century design and engineering. A streamlined twin engine jet aircraft able to carry up to 330 passengers, it uses an all-composite fuselage and is intended to be 20% more fuel efficient than other airliners of its size. There are some fascinating details in the construction and design of the Dreamliner. A rounded sawtooth pattern on engine fairings is specifically designed to minimise sound.

And it is not just the design that is important as the Guardian notes:

Boeing’s first new jet in more than a decade has been described as arguably the most important in its 90-year history, and has already excited commercial interest, with more than 600 orders from 47 customers, racking up sales worth more than $100bn.

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In a striking contrast the Airbus A380 is a behemoth. A double deck four engine aircraft that can carry up 853 people, it only uses composite materials for 25% of the airframe. There are fuel efficiencies in the size and the passenger capacity, although these are partially offset by wake turbulence that necessitates aircraft taking off after an A380 to wait a number of minutes in order that turbulence from the engines dissipates. But part of the rationale behind the A380 is that it is so large that it will partially minimise the number of journeys taken.

Remarkably the Dreamliner is the first Boeing to be given a name (the term ‘jumbo jet’ applied to the 747 was a colloquialism). “Dreamliner” embodies a host of significations, aspiration, a nod at the past in respect to the original use of the word ‘liner’, a softened and humanised nomenclature which rises above the scientific rigour of numerals. Although the Dreamliner is somewhat more rakish than rival designs, the original concepts for the Dreamliner were considerably more futuristic again with a sweeping nose and a shark-like tail fin.
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The Dreamliner has a remarkable interior. There is a soft, almost organic semi-circular cabin roof which creates an impression of remarkable spaciousness. Now, cynicism is entirely appropriate at this point. The actual interiors will probably be more cramped as individual airlines attempt to compact as many passengers into the space as possible. The talk from Virgin Atlantic that they will include a creche towards the tail of the aircraft appears premature. The images depicting large comfortable padded seating with unfeasibly generous space around them will no doubt be ‘rationalised’ to something a little more familiar to the general air traveller. Perhaps inevitably pre-production images of the A380 also present a similarly organic interior, albeit somewhat more familiar.

But rather than embodying a paucity of ambition, they represent, for all the fluff regarding the name and interiors, a form of negotiation with a socio-economic climate which places environmental considerations on a much higher level than hitherto. Simply put, the Dreamliner and the A380 represent in their radically different ways a means by which the airline industry can compromise with changing societal demands. And, as was pointed out by Greenpeace, while a welcome change, the reality of international air travel is such that demand continues to increase so that the decreased environmental ‘footprint’ of the Dreamliner and the A380 is subsumed in greater numbers of aircraft.

Or as Friends of the Earth aviations campaigner Richard Dyer said:

“This is a welcome step because it’s a significant improvement on what’s gone before, but we don’t see this kind of improvement that often and the growth in passengers completely overwhelms it.”

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There is a paradox here. The Dreamliner is simultaneously welcome and unwelcome. It can only minimise environmental damage, not negate it. And here we see a transformation in ‘myths’ of technological change from the 1960s to the 2000s.

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Anyone who has seen the cramped interior of Concorde at first hand will appreciate that speed trumped comfort. For all the significations of luxury that were embodied by Concorde during the two decades it was in service it was far from the most comfortable means of intercontinental travel. Indeed the interior (above) is curiously similar to those of aircraft during the first era of international air travel when it was very much an elite pursuit.

On a purely technological level the failure of other supersonic transports, such as the short lived US program and the somewhat longer lasting, but ill-starred Soviet SST, indicated that these were, in a world of increasing travel for all, something of a cul-de-sac. Too extravagant, too costly to maintain, too much a part of a wave of technological innovation that was unconsidered and unrefined. It is hardly overstating the case to see them as part of a cohort of technological artifacts, including space technologies, which represented a very different view of technology. But paradoxically this was also the start of an era where travel opened up to a much broader range of people, where the Concorde, fast as it was, was entirely overshadowed by the sheer press of numbers travelling globally, albeit largely from the more developed countries. Ascribing such change to a form of societal democratisation would be only part of the reason. Economic growth and increasing prosperity were equally responsible. But there was, as ever, a price.

Donald Horne has noted this in “The Public Culture” when he writes that industrialism, and more specifically science and technology, had over a:

‘restricted part of the earth … produced great engineering triumphs…but who can now believe, as seemed the case until the end of the 1960s, that economic growth would continue forever, and that out of this growth the materially deprived woould, in due course, if they remained patient, get their modest share? As a matter of fact, that is exactly what, in the OECD complex, they continue to believe…’

And although the protean march of technology during the latter half of the 20th century has stalled there is a sense that what we see now is smarter, more functional and yet also subtly humanised. Passenger numbers increase. A flight can be purchased for literally a few cent. Yet, this remains open to a foreceful critique, since the Dreamliner is an artifact produced in that same ‘restricted part of the earth’. The world has changed, technology has changed the world. The ‘myth’ of unrestrained technological progress may have faded but it is replaced by a new ‘myth’, that of technological damage limitation.

Ciarán Swan

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