Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The human condition

We all go through life clutching the illusion that our own small part of the world is important, especially if you come from a first world country. Those of us lucky enough to grow up in the first world tend to travel wrapped in technology, and with a corresponding false sense of invulnerability, from place to place using our cars and our planes, and our chains of virtually identical hotels, as a shield against the "other" world.

But nothing rubs in the fact that most people lead little, unremarkable, lives than being crammed into a metal tube with several hundred people you don't know, and who don't care about you, but are all heading to the same place as you anyway.

Because, you see, for just a few hours, if you're on a trans-atlantic flight, you might as well not exist. You can't be contacted, you're not in the loop, and funnily enough the world gets on just fine without you. This affects some people worse than others, the ones that it hits worst are the ones reaching for their cell phones as soon as the wheels touch runway. The ones that make phone calls before you've even reached the terminal. There are very few people in the world that are going to be missed so badly that they need to turn their cell phones on before they reach the gate, they don't travel in economy.

Most people lead unremarkable lives, but on top of those people's shoulders stand others, people who lead a life slightly more interesting than average. On top of their shoulders stand others, and on top of theirs still others. At the top of the pile stand a handful of people, you could probably name them all, we probably all could. They have the lives we all should have if life were fair, because they get to do things that are not just interesting, but unique.

It's easy to see why people want to be counted amongst the elite group, a group of people probably no larger than a couple of hundred out of the massed billions on our tiny, insignificant little planet. The sports and movie stars, the politicians, the heads of corporations and uncounted millionaires, all of those would like to think they belong, they don't. They're failures, comfortably off failures I'll grant you, but they aren't unique.

I remember quite vividly queuing for a flight out of Heathrow heading for LAX, being pushed aside by some self important guy. "Don't you know who I am?", he said. "No", I admitted, "I don't". "What? I play for England", he retorted. "Which sport?", I asked politely. The look of confusion on his face was almost comical.

So who are these people? They're the explorers, the astronauts and the people smart enough to be pushing forward the frontiers of human knowledge.

Despite my doubts about NASA's Shuttle progamme, and unlike a lot of scientists who believe it could all be done faster, better and cheaper with robots, I have no doubts about the manned space programme. The manned space programme is something we should be pouring money into, it's one of the few things the human race is doing that's worthwhile. There will always be inequality, and depressingly, there will probably always be poverty and hunger. The only way to make things better for the little people, people like you and me, who don't really matter, is to funnel resources towards those people doing unique things, because they're the people who, by pushing themselves forward, take the rest of us with them.

They're going to be introducing cell phone service on planes soon, so people will be able to hide even during those long trans-atlantic flights. That probably isn't a good thing...

Update: Talking about cell phones on planes...