The German aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1894. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
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Will Self: Fearless flying is an act of collective delusion

If only you could still sit next to the pilot.

I was hungover and jittery in St Louis, and there was a blizzard raging across the Midwest. As I looked at the departures board in the airport it riffled into DELAYED, DELAYED, DELAYED . . . the only exception being the New York flight: my own. Cursing this glitch that was sending me to my doom, I tramped down the companionway, reflecting ruefully on how my last moments on earth were to be spent noting, yet again, the bizarre habit air transport infrastructure designers have of fitting odd vertical surfaces with carpet.

On board the plane, things got worse: it was virtually empty, confirming my worst suspicion – to fly in this maelstrom was suicide and the other passengers had all checked in to the airport Sofitel to watch reruns of Friends. I have heard it said often enough that you should be worried on a plane only when the flight crew start to look anxious – but I couldn’t even see any stewards to assess, and we were still on the tarmac.

I plonked myself down beside the only other passenger. It’s a tactic I had used in the past to ameliorate my fear: because I’m at least demi-English, not keeping a moderately rigid upper lip can strike me as a greater solecism than dying quite pointlessly. “Nervous?” my neighbour enquired. He was youngish, casually dressed, and the picture of sang-froid. I explained that I felt I’d every right to be, given this was the only flight taking off into the kind of weather that did for Captain Oates. “You shouldn’t be,” he said. “These planes are flown on a wire – that’s the expression we use – and it’s effectively impossible for weather to bring them down.” Realising that my companion had a professional interest in such things, I began pumping him. It transpired he was a cockpit fascia designer heading home from the Boeing plant in Seattle.

Over the next hour or so he patiently explained to me a great deal about how commercial airliners are designed and built. I remember that at one point – in response to my pathetic whine, “But they’re so heavy. How can they stay in the air?” – he said: “On the contrary, given the laws of physics it’s impossible for them not to stay in the air – and you believe in the laws of physics, don’t you?”

Whether or not I believed in the laws of physics, I believed in him, and had been pretty much oblivious to the humping, bumping and shuddering as we surfed the jet stream. As we made our approach in to Newark, I thanked my airborne life coach and firmly resolved never to succumb to such irrational idiocy ever again.

That was almost 20 years ago, and by and large I’ve managed it; from time to time I’ll have a little babbling relapse, but mostly I behave myself, sitting there motionless in deep-vein-thrombosis-inducing thought as the big titanium tube thunders through the sky. In the days when I was seriously scared of flying I’d look around at my fellow passengers and marvel at their detachment. How could they go on reading Jeffrey Archer or scanning spreadsheets while we were hurtling towards our destruction? But after the St Louis blues I began to understand: flying itself may require no magic, but fearless flying relies on a collective delusion of occult proportions. For to sit calmly with only a bit of carpet and some tinplate underlay between you and the void, you must not only be a believer in the laws of physics, but a believer in progress, a believer in growth, a believer in connectivity, a believer in tourism, a believer – in the final analysis – in the whole crazy carnival of so-called globalisation.

That is my fundamental problem. Not having a proper job of my own, I labour under a different delusion – that I’m free; and when I find myself strapped into a chair and being sold plastic sandwiches at €7 a pop, the delusion is punctured and I start brooding on the utter weirdness of my predicament. After all, mass jet travel is only a very recent phenomenon and people have been plummeting out of the sky since Icarus Airlines operated the low-cost route from Minos.

Only contact with people whose work consists of flying can act as a prophylactic against this inability of mine to suspend disbelief in the raw mechanics of late capitalism. The only flights on which I’ve ever felt at complete ease are the ones where I’ve been in the cockpit with the pilot; and since the 9/11 attacks that’s difficult to organise on commercial flights.

A fortnight ago when the Malaysian Airlines flight went missing over the South China Sea all my feelings about the madness of international air travellers came screaming back to me. Consider this: had the plane crashed in a comprehensible way – due to mechanical or human error, or even terrorism – people might have been upset for a few seconds or hours, but soon enough they’d have got on with it (whatever “it” is). However, the mystery of the plane’s disappearance sent a shiver through the collective psyche, because, I’d argue, it darkly shaded the enigma of all our lives: why, in the final analysis, do we get out of bed in the morning at all, let alone get on a plane?

 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital