When Boeing introduced its flagship 707 jet airliner in 1958, the power to cruise at 977 kilometers per hour did more than enable routine transcontinental commercial flights. It fed the optimistic self-understanding of a society proud to have entered the Jet Age. More than sixty years later, we are not moving any faster. Boeing’s latest plane, the 737 MAX, has a cruising speed of just 839 kilometers per hour—to say nothing of its more catastrophic limitations.
The since-retired 707 was a success. The new MAX looks like a failure. As for the 747 jumbo jets that we are still flying today fifty years after their 1969 debut, they are a sign of what Ross Douthat calls decadence. By “decadence” he does not mean delicious sensuality or over-the-top indulgence (think Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate dancing mid-flight in the upper-deck cocktail bar of a 747 in last year’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood) but stagnation and complacency, a dissipation of creative energy, a jaded will merely to muddle through.
Douthat’s book is well-timed. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Quentin Tarantino’s painstaking recreation of the year 1969 summon the same nagging question: How far have we come since then? Few men in the street would be able to evaluate the progress of, say, physics as instantiated in string theory. But everyone should be able to tell whether or not the streets around us, and the expectations of life, have been transformed for the better.