Which have you done more—flown a kite or flown on an airplane? The amazing fact is, if you’re like I am, the answer is the second. Even though buying a kite is cheaper than most plane tickets and much less stressful, we still would prefer the airplane. For all its pleasure, kite-flying is in second-place—a quaint, nostalgic, but otherwise useless activity.
For its part, flying on a plane is hardly quaint and rarely useless, but it can indeed be nostalgic. I don’t fly more than once or twice a year. But when I do, the experience, that unique sideways gravity of take-off, the topography out the window of land and cloud, the phone-less isolation and the hiss of forced air—the experience evokes all the previous flights that felt much the same, even going back to some of my earliest memories. Flying can indeed be nostalgic, but it is also nearly always useful.
I started thinking about this after seeing a YouTube video of a man flying three identical kites—three. To fly two of them, he used his hands, and for the third, he tied a the line to his waist. The man, at 90 years old, must’ve had hips that would make Shakira look like an amateur: He could steer that third kite as well as he steered the others with his hands—to say nothing of the dexterity and hand-eye coordination the other two required. His expertise couldn’t be ignored.
But more than the man’s expertise was his facile way with the kites. They were under such precise control that they might as well have been his hands, not kites on 50 yards of line and fluttering against the wind. They were precise enough to be his own limbs. His body had synchronized all these external components, and he coordinated them instinctively. They were indeed “second nature.”
The synchronicity of the kites reminded me of the Blue Angels. Similar to the kites, the Blue Angels have a coordinated system built on expert precision that evokes awe. But unlike the kites, this system is completely structured upon technical expertise. The coordinating components—radio communication, altimeters, radar, and more—have completely replaced human involvement. For the pilots involved, the jets are indeed extensions of themselves, but the pilots are deeply embedded within and are in no way distinct from the system. Even as experts, they are completely subject to and identified with their tools in a way that that the kite-flyer is not. The kite-flyer remains an individual apart from the kites in a way that the pilots do not.
The kite-flyer is also subject to the physics of wind and air in a way that the pilots are not. Their jets have essentially harnessed the physics for their own ends. The kite-flyer however cooperates with it in a sort of dance.
Albert Borgmann has two terms to distinguish the kite from the jet: commanding reality and disposable reality. The kites are a commanding reality, while the Blue Angels are a disposable one. Michael Sacasas explains Borgmann’s terminology: We engage with commanding realities, but we use disposable ones (link). A commanding reality is one that we must honor it on its own terms apart from us—we must respect it and accommodate it. We cannot control it; we can only engage with it. A disposable reality, on the other hand, is made to accommodate us. We need not respect its capabilities or limitations but can control it for our own purposes.
This practice of control exposes another facet of the airplane as a disposable reality: It must be useful. It is nearly always a means to an end. The thing has no inherent dignity except as it serves our purposes. Flight delays and cancellations expose this very assumption. We expect an airplane to meet our needs. When we are prevented from using it and forced to engage with it instead, we come face to face with airplanes as a disposable reality and weather as a commanding reality.
By contrast, flying a kite remains always a commanding reality. We engage with it as it is. We have no ulterior motives, except perhaps pleasure, but always submitted to the physics that sustains it. Rare cases like Ben Franklin’s famous kite-flying experiment are the exception. Yet even old Ben engaged with the inclement weather, not using it. The kite does not allow you to divide it into means and ends—it is a whole thing, taken on its own terms.
The technologized airplane divorces these two things—the means and the ends—and such a divorce is technology’s imperative. This mandate make commanding realities into disposable ones—physics like drag and lift are turned into resources. Technology, like the kind Ben Franklin sought, looks to transform even inclement weather into something useful. The airplane demands that physics be useful, makes physics a means to an end, and divorces physics from its own essential character. But the kite, in all its fragility, rebels against the forces of technology by accepting physics in its essence.
In Sacasas’ reflections on Borgmann’s terminology, he points out that the animating drive toward disposable reality is restlessness. This is a keen and helpful insight. It is often restlessness that puts me on an airplane. Two years ago, I sat, in my office at my computer one Spring afternoon. I needed to leave and soon. So I impulsively bought a plane ticket for just two weeks later. The airplane was my means to that end. It was some other place, anywhere else, that I wanted to be. When I got there, though, I still felt restless. This is the hollow promise of technology and the disposable reality it engenders—to satisfy the restlessness. But technology does not satisfy anxiety with rest, on with distraction or delay or movement.
The very act of flying a kite is far different. It is rooted, anchored. The self is fact is the anchor. The practice is engaged and attentive. Instead of divorcing the means and ends, all is unified. The self, too, by engaging, is unified. Even activity and rest are brought together in a compatible way.
Yet, I fly on airplanes more than I fly kites. It points to a restlessness in me. It points to a belief in technology’s promise. The disposable reality only cultivates more restlessness. It’s self-sustaining. The desire to “get away” to somewhere else is only reinforced as long as we feed ourselves on a diet of disposable reality.
The kite video was aptly titled, “Romancing the Wind,” and its music was a song called “The Flower Duet” from Leo Delibes’ 19th century opera, Lakme. Later, when I searched for YouTube videos of the Blue Angels, I found them all to have rock-and-roll soundtracks. The most popular video originally featured the Van Halen song, “Dreams.” These two songs themselves seem to embody the ethos of commanding and disposable realities. Delibes’ “The Flower Duet” recognizes a rootlessness and resolves it with, “Come, let us drift down together.” But in “Dreams,” Van Halen abandons any hope for this, with the chorus repeating “We’ll get higher and higher/Leave it all behind.”
Leaving it all behind is a sentiment cultivated in us by technology: moving us toward a disposable reality that prizes innovation and obsolescence—in the same breath. We get higher and higher in levels of abstraction—whether its money that abstracts our work, or Facebook that abstracts our friendships. Higher and higher until we can no longer “drift down” like Lakme, but instead must plunge down like Icarus.