This proclamation will surprise those familiar with my narrow band of emotions, but I have a CERTIFICATE OF LIVE BIRTH from the State of Ohio. Good to know, otherwise I wouldn’t be authoring these wobbly, inconclusive writings on design. The CERTIFICATE also records that I’m the legitimate result of a mid-fall 1955 union of Jack and Emily Gordon (little Mother said I was a “happy accident”) listed as Baby Boy Gordon, later to be christened Kevin Dwight.
Jack and Emily sparred over the name. Dad wanted the proper Scottish name Ian, Mom thought that was weirdly foreign sounding, difficult to properly spell and wanted a popular baby boy name of the mid-50s, Kevin. And since little mother was more beautiful than all of God’s angels, she won every household argument.
Away from Mom’s beauty, Dad, however, could never really this go. So in protest he called me Pete our entire lives together. The K word never once passed his lips. Pete was as generic as Slick or Junior or Pal, and got the job done when he was trying to get me to confront another school morning or pull me off the couch for another one of little Mother’s barely edible dinners. Many years later, while signing death certificates at the hometown funeral town run by a former high school classmate, I found out my Dad’s name was really Omar, his father had loved the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” Dad saw an opportunity to ditch the weird name when he joined the ranks of pilot hopefuls in World War II, enlisting as Jack.
Who says instinct lives in the lower animal kingdoms? If I ever have a happy accident, I’ll give the kid a proper Scottish name, Angus. Every boy wants to named after a prize piece of meat.
The day I turned 16, it was an adolescent trifecta. I got my driver’s learners permit, my girlfriend’s father gave me his MG as a down payment on future son-in-law-hood, and I flew an airplane alone—a ritual called soloing that also ends with shirttails scissored away on the ramp by a flight instructor, kind of like circumcision for teens worshiping thermodynamic propulsion. Some years and a fat logbook later, I was flying Dad around coastal Florida, and after a landing in Daytona with an amateurish long roll-out, he said, “You know Pete, you don’t really fly this airplane, you manage it.”
No spanking in life ever stung more.
When Jack, secretly Omar, was 20 years old, he was piloting bombers in the greatest war of all humankind. Each one of those “flying fortresses” was a few millions of war bond dollars commanded by boys only six or so years out of puberty but with superb reflexes, anti-gravitational stomachs, and in the case of my father, 20/10 eyesight. Late in the war, Jack Omar vetted other post-pubescent candidates in a military flight school in Alabama—having to clean up their remains out of the crashed cockpits of his “wash-out” cadets. For Dad, flying was a supremely dangerous, yet joyously sensual experience. And that was the generational difference. He was a stick and rudder man, I was a safety-first button pusher on the auto-pilot that lazy afternoon in Daytona.
The two recent crashes of the 737 MAX and resulting introspection into the culture of the airlines and the aircraft industry have raised this notion of “airmanship.” Early in the Boeing/Airbus rivalry, the chant of “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going” was invoked in defense of Boeing’s stubborn adherence to the tradition of the cockpit controls—yoke and pedals—being physically linked to the aircraft’s control surfaces of ailerons, elevators and rudders versus Airbus’ “fly by wire” ideology of the cockpit as a Game Boy console. As a result of the schism, domestic pilots (largely coming out of a military background) are “stick and rudder” pilots like my father, who are trained in frisky light aircraft and learn to hand fly gut churning aerobatics, but eventually, reluctantly, become button-pushing cockpit managers. Overseas, particularly in Asia, aspiring pilots are groomed through flight schools primarily as cockpit managers, with the sensual/physical experience of “airmanship” pushed aside in the fast track toward the three uniform stripes of a First Officer. In service for three decades, the 737 is a stable, reliable aircraft designed for airmen, but the 737 MAX flight controls have been overruled by computational software as a nod to overseas flight training protocol—so in a sense the plane is fighting with itself.
Aircraft, like most products of the twentieth century, are not “digital natives.” Most of them, like my little single engine joy ride manufactured in 1968, are a DaVinciesque vision of wires, levers and pulleys that expand the physicality of the pilot. But the mechanical linkages between the pilot’s hands, feet and the control surfaces also offer a sensual reward of flying – you can feel the three axis forces of flight – pitch, raw and roll as you force the control surfaces of elevator, ailerons and rudder against the airstream.
The “fly by wire” generation of aircraft removes these physical linkages in favor of “virtual” linkages in the sense that the flight controls are “linked” to computers that actually fly the aircraft and variably mimic the sense of resistance in the pilot’s hands and feet.
As I’m still immaturely addicted to the joys of thermodynamic propulsion, I drive two cars. One is a 1974 MGBGT, owned and loved since new and the other is a new BMW Z4. My beloved MG has direct rack and pinion steering, hydraulic brakes and crank-down windows. It always leaked a little exhaust into the cabin and is a sensual joy to upshift and downshift through the tree-lined hills of suburban Atlanta. It’s basically a tractor cloaked in a sculpturally beautiful body shell. The Z4 is also a seductive hot body in a strip-mall parking space and has power everything. But it has a sensual flaw—the steering is electric, meaning I’m not physically steering the car, I’m directing a Game Boy console. Although programmed to mimic driving forces at different speeds, the result is a sloppy, less-than-satisfying drift. Push the “sport” mode button and the steering tightens up and the exhaust actually burps and growls a little more menacingly, although it’s Internet-rumored to be artificially generated through the car’s concert quality sound system.
Some things in this life aren’t meant to straddle the digital native/ non-native divide.
Karl Marx once observed about Modernism, “all that is solid melts into air.” It was a musing on the tearing down of social and religious canons, coupled with a new open architecture glowing internally by arc-lamp incandescence —a rift between pre and post-Marxism/Edisonian reality.
For me, I’ve been navigating a different rift between physical and virtual sensuality for over two decades. Unlike the “digital natives” at the office, barely post-pubescent graduates of design schools, who were raised with Gameboy joysticks and back-pocket cell phones, my designs are the result of manual labor. Although my office cabana is a glass fishbowl, a voyeuristic peep show, I shamelessly revel in the daily sensuality of the feel of graphite dragging across the tooth of paper or the soft violence of the sound of ripping a fresh sheet of trace. I sharpen my color pencils with a knife, like whittling, because I love the smell of the freshly chiseled cedar. On the other side of the glass, my digital native counterparts mask the plastic rhythm of the slapping of QWERTY keystrokes with their diurnal earbud stream. Who makes better shapes? Right now it seems to be even odds at the track, but my self-comforting sense is that my side of the glass is more sensually self-gratifying and hence satisfying.
I’m single finger typing right now on an iPad, a 21st century product that’s revolutionized our ideating and socializing for a decade. For the office “digital natives” that means the iPad hit town right about the same time as their adult hormones. For them, creating with virtual, digital expansion of their physicality is the ether in which they swim, and they look into the Santa’s Workshop of my glass cabana like I’m a near extinct species on display at the zoo – Homo erectus pre-digitalis. A few weeks ago, they pityingly released me from my confinement and invited me to swim with their pod. I strapped on a virtual reality headset with digital “paddles” as disembodied hands. The headset looked like scuba goggles for the blind.
Swimming in their 3D ether I was expected to gesturally draw, my disembodied paddle hands flailing like a spastic orchestra conductor, three dimensional complex shapes and position them in a virtual context. The whole experience was so disorienting I wanted to puke (actual puke not virtual,) and this is coming from a pilot trained in recovering from extreme spatial disorientation. I quickly begged to be returned to my cage and the comfort of my real hands in a familiar tactile grip on a purple flair pen.
Recovering my balance, I’m envisioning an immediate future in which I could sensually, physically draw, on paper, and have those fluid gestural instinctual shapes be captured 3D computer entities, ready to be enhanced by more capable digital natives. One of the interesting things about the two sides of the glass is that the future (in my vision of it) will always be both. Maybe I’m a sentimental optimist, but as long as there are good smelling pencils around, paper to shred, bend and fold humans will always want to manipulate the tangible into beautiful.