Last night I was reading an article about the birth of the DC-3, one of the world's classic airplanes. What caught my attention was the fact that the DC-3 was designed and built just 30 years after the Wright brothers made their first flight. The DC-3 was arguably the first modern airliner in form and function, completely recognizable to today's passengers.
I fly and my plane is, by almost any external measure, primitive. Even so, my 1978 Turbo Arrow is still state-of-the-art by most aviation industry standards and the envy of many private pilots. Except for where computers have affected the avionics, my plane is almost identical to any plane you would have found for sale in the 1940s and 1950s. A pilot from that era would feel perfectly at home in the cockpit of my plane (as long as you turned the GPS off so it didn't distract them).
So, why am I telling you about the sorry state of flying in a blog about technology? Because I think it holds a lesson for us.
The trajectory of progress represented by the drive from the Wright brothers to the DC-3 is a story that most techies to day would recognize as analogous to the progress that's been made in the first 50 years of the computer age. Most of us assume that that progress will continue unimpeded. We imagine, or try to imagine, what the world will be like in 5, 10 or 20 years given the pace with which computers have changed in our recent past.
Early aviation pioneers did the same thing--that's where those visions of flying cars come from. But I argue that if the designers of the DC-3 and their colleagues could be brought forward to the first decade of the 21st century, they'd be sorely disappointed by the state of aviation.
How did we get to this moribund, stagnant state of affairs? Simple: the government decided to make flying safe. When I moderated a talk by Rick Adam, CEO of Adam Aircraft, he said that they'd spent $80 million before they ever got the first product they could deliver. Much of that was a direct result of responding to government regulation.
Admittedly, there's a trade-off here. We like to be safe. Especially when the true cost is hidden. Efforts to use digital restrictions management tools like TPM (the trusted platform module--part of the Trusted Computing Platform) to reduce identity theft are a case in point. The hidden cost in this case is the potential loss of general purpose computing platforms as we know them. With TCP technology Microsoft, Apple, or even the MPAA could become the arbiters of what will and what won't run on your system. It would be possible to construct software whitelists and blacklists under the control of someone other than the person who owns the computer. TCP is essentially a rootkit you can't uninstall. That scares me.