Escape Velocity

When we’re used to traveling at the speed of data, what do passenger jets have left to offer?

Did you read the story and see the pictures of the guy who constructed a 1:60 scale model of a Boeing 777, entirely out of manila folders? It has taken him over 400 folders and five years so far—or as a CNN article put it, “10,000 man hours.” A slideshow on CNN’s website highlights various interior and exterior views of the small-scale wide-body airliner, basking in starkly silhouetted ambient and spot-lighting effects. The pictures create an impressively hermetic, contained environment, and they draw attention to its utterly precise design: the airliner is represented as a sublime aesthetic object, rendered in exquisite and intensely accurate detail.

The imagination behind this creation belongs to 22-year-old Luca Iaconi-Stewart of San Francisco. The profile picture in the last frame of the slideshow makes Iaconi-Stewart look vaguely akin to Mark Zuckerberg: he sports an American Apparelish hoodie, not too skinny jeans, and cozy looking socks. Iaconi-Stewart has only the wings left to go and he will be done working on a plane that will never fly.

And yet the story is captivating. The plane looks so lifelike, so real. It is a stunning display of sculptural mimicry (not to mention photographic acuity). It turns out that partway through the construction Iaconi-Stewart got ahold of an actual maintenance manual for the plane, and he used the mechanical schematics to aid the exactness of his 3D representations.

But what is the story really about? The quickest answer might be that it is about a person’s obsession. Or perhaps put more generously, it is about dedication, about faithful commitment to a certain object, and doing justice to all its intricacy.

Does it even matter that the object in question is an airplane? In theory, the story of a scale model Titanic or Twin Towers rendered from manila folders would be just as captivating. Wouldn’t it?

My theory about this plane is that it is all about the elaborately constructed — and henceforth displayed in the slideshow — aircraft seating. The slideshow is disproportionately concerned with the construction of the airline seats, and in side notes goes to great extents to explain just how long each seat took Iaconi-Stewart to construct:

Economy class seats took around 20 minutes each…but there were a lot of them. Business class seats each extracted up to six hours of Iaconi-Stewart’s labor. An average of eight hours of cutting, folding, fiddling and gluing per “suite.” No wonder first class is pricey.

The images of these seats reveal their profoundly realistic aura, and more:

Present in these images is the fantasy that airplane seats are sterile environments, clean or at least clean enough to repose in — maybe even fall asleep — for a few hours. This fantasy of the hygienic airliner seat, however, is subtended by another fantasy, one tied to the time of construction: the amount of time each seat takes to make goes up according to the value of the class associated with the seat. As the article itself quips, “No wonder first class is pricey.” Yet this is no mere coincidence of time-consuming (if here contextualized as artistic) labor.

These tiny airline seats are neither simply feats of scaled-down mimicry, nor are they innocent representations of different classes of airliner seating. Instead, these seats depend on a whole host of assumptions about what it means to be a certain kind of individual in contemporary culture—and specifically, a certain kind of individual in relation to air travel. Air travel, after all, is one of our contemporary social practices that lays absolutely bare how class structure works: you either have lots of room of your own, a smaller amount, your seat is a literal part of your labor—or you aren’t even on the plane.

This all refers back to an earlier concept of labor in the article: remember how many “man hours” it has taken Iaconi-Stewart so far? The so-called “10,000-hour rule” (as touted by Malcolm Gladwell) is a corollary fantasy at work here. Having 10,000 hours to do something is no mere maxim of hard work and practice, but also a particular ideology of leisure, class, and freedom (especially the to freedom to work). The person who takes the most time in this political economy is the First Class individual—the person who is assumed to always have had the most time to practice, productively blurring the lines between work and leisure.

When Iaconi-Stewart remarks toward the end of the article that he will do something more “normal” once this project is done, this is actually a shrewd red herring: there is in fact nothing more normal than the idea of the hard working individual who, on his own and in private, spends the perfect amount of time getting so good at something that his story goes viral, his popularity races and his success soars. The prototypical luxury hobby, second only perhaps to stamp collecting, is building model ships in bottles. Now Luca Iaconi-Stewart can fly, First Class. As if he wasn’t already, before—alone with his craft, having the time to excel.

***

In other viral air travel news, Politico recently published a tell-all article by one Jason Harrington, former TSA agent and now MFA candidate in creative writing.  This is a story of a budding writer qua blogger, who anonymously chronicles the injustices of post 9/11 airport security, scared for his life, blogging from public computers in FedEx and UPS stores in presumably nondescript areas of Chicago. The story ends with Harrington’s ascension into an MFA program while throngs of blue-shirted government agents carry on scanning, searching, waving on, patting down. It would be like a parodic remake of The Matrix—only this is real.

The story is fascinatingly concerned with the technics of writing in our late digital age: hitting “publish,” watching “traffic” pulse on the screen, counting “hits”…all these things take precedent as the airport fades into ambient noise, like so many ignored boarding announcements overhead. And what lies at the center of Harrington’s expose is how he (via his blog) has “gone viral.” Consider this sampling of phrases from the article:

I’d had some experience with blogging…

I registered the blog…

…I had enough material to fill out a year’s worth of blog posts…

I published the first post…

I followed that post with several others…

From the moment I clicked publish, I was nervous…

…discovered that a blog…had linked to me…

A couple days later another niche blog picked up my site…

…I logged in and saw that the graph for my blog’s web traffic…

I sat in front of my laptop until 5 a.m., transfixed, clicking refresh over and over, watching the visitors arrive in real time…

…in response to a blog post…

…masked my IP address via TOR…

…began posting from home, unmasked…

I tracked my site’s web traffic…

I watched the hits coming in…

…glancing over at my screen…

One day, I received an e-mail…

…three weeks after my site went viral…

People wrote in to the blog…

“Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why, why do you persist?” This is cyberpunk without the punk; a digital thriller without the thrill. The suspense of serious political “whistleblowing” is fraught by the “tragicomedy” of errors the TSA is known and shown to be. Are we really worried for this blogger’s fate? Note too how Harrington’s article is published under a column at Politico called “Primary Source.” The blog has reached its apotheosis.

If a viral story bodes well for a potential best-seller novel at Hudson News, a viral story about a viral story perhaps bodes doubly well for the literary agent on the prowl. Of all the emails and social media pings likely received by Harrington after the publication of the Politico article, were any of these from literary agents who could already visualize the book’s cover and its prominent placement, if not at airport bookstores, at least at Barnes & Noble and on the homepage of Amazon?

For really this is a story about books, about writing. Interwoven in the countless references to blogs, we also have the story of a burgeoning writer—the real kind. Harrington mentions an op-ed in the New York Times, and takes a job with the TSA in the first place so that he can work “toward a degree in creative writing.” Titular, generic, and other canonical allusions crop up throughout the piece: Catch-22, McSweeney’s, “Shakespeare and Nabokov and Baudelaire” — even the selectee passport list becomes “like a little poem: Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan?/ Iraq, Iran, Yemen?/ and Cuba,?/ Lebanon-Libya, Somalia-Sudan?/ People’s Republic of North Korea.” In short, an aura of literariness is made to emanate from Harrington’s banal airport job.

Harrington’s story—at least this chapter—ends with him “flying to visit universities,” having been accepted to MFA programs in creative writing, aware of his own shifted status as a passenger subject to screening. Hardly a terrorist, but neither without guilty conscience, Harrington turns in his TSA uniform and takes to the sky.

***

Where the story of Iaconi-Stewart was about working within the system to reify the class system, Harrington’s story is about escaping the airport system, if only then to novelize it as a literary schema. The airport, including all its foibles, is worth writing about.

Yet we are a long way from Arthur Hailey’s 1968 potboiler Airport, which besides basking in the exaggerated romance of everyday airport operations also made bold (if now appearing somewhat misguided) speculations about the future of air travel. Rather, these two current stories are tales of a petrified world: mobile and intricate, certainly—but still, frozen in place. Yet around all this, humming in the background, air travel is there. Even as I write these words, an email update from the New York Times flashes in the corner of my screen, assuring me with the words “Airbus to Increase A320 Production.” And for how many passengers at this moment is the urgent question on their lips, “Is there wifi on this flight?” as if moving at 500 mph is slowing them down.

In these two viral stories about air travel, the end of airports is nigh. These are stories that revel in Internet communications and class distinctions settled in Silicon Valley; air travel has become little more than a pretext. We might conclude that while the aviators have travelled the world in various ways, the point is really just to blog about it.