Whenever I land at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I play a little game with myself. I look around until I find the out-of-service supersonic Concorde that once flew between Paris and New York in a little over three hours with a top speed of 1,350 miles per hour. This Concorde is not a model but an actual plane positioned on three stanchions with its nose pointed up and its wings tilted slightly to the right. It looks like an aircraft just moments after its initial take off.
In 2003, the Concorde stopped service after 27 years. There was a fatal crash in 2000 that had nothing to do with the Concorde's operation or maintenance but was related to debris from another plane that had remained on the runway and caused a rupture and fire in one of the Concorde's fuel tanks. The plane was costly, used enormous amounts of fuel, and probably harmed the environment as well. But what a triumph of engineering, design, innovation, and imagination! I wonder if other readers might feel the same way I do: that our civilization took a few steps backward when this splendid plane stopped flying. It represented grace, speed, and advanced technology that brought the world closer together. Why has there been no successor to the Concorde? Surely we have the engineers and the designers.
Fifty years ago this summer, my parents drove me to New York to visit the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. It was my first visit to New York City. I was 13 and was transfixed by the exhibits, the architecture, and the visions of the future that were on display at this remarkable gathering. If you go by Flushing Meadows today, you will see mostly abandoned structures and rusting buildings. The only real monument that remains intact is the huge Unisphere--a 12-story metal globe--that, like the Concorde, sits slightly tilted and conveys a world in motion and a sense of dynamism and progress. This globe doesn't spin, but it nonetheless captures the imagination and inspires dreams about the future.
Today's world, with all of its technological advances designed to bring us closer together, has, in fact, done the opposite. We have become niche-focused, selfie-obsessed individuals whose world revolves around our own websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, LinkedIn connections, earbuds, and Beats. Our leaders show similar limitations. They are small-minded and boring.
We used to have presidents who gave us bold ideas, dared to dream, and challenged us as a nation. Franklin Roosevelt led the country to defeat tyranny. Harry Truman launched the Marshall Plan and signed the G.I. Bill. Dwight Eisenhower connected the country through a mass-transit highway system, and John Kennedy inspired a generation of public servants at home and abroad while challenging us to go to the moon, which we did within six years of his death. Lyndon Johnson made technology investments that led to today's Internet.
But since Johnson--with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who had a vision about the collapse of communism and a renewed America--our leaders have been more or less pedestrian. There have been few, if any, inspirational initiatives, and we have squandered countless trillions of dollars and human lives on foreign wars which began and concluded with less than a clear idea of what their purpose and goals were.
We have never been as connected a society as we are now. Through the Internet we have instant communications among individuals, companies, and the media. Anyone who has a cellphone can connect with just about anyone else in the world. Yet, when I walk down the street, ride the subway, or watch people in a bus or an elevator, they are constantly looking down into the little screen held just inches below their nose. We have become a nation of downlookers, a fact which narrows our perspective, shortens our horizons, and limits our imagination.
I have no objections whatsoever to what modern technology has brought us. It is, indeed, miraculous in so many ways. Yet, at the same time, I worry that we risk becoming so fixated on the narrow focus that we forget to look up to see what is above us, around us, and what could be in our future. That is why that globe in Flushing Meadows and the Concorde just outside Paris are reminders that our future is often brighter and better when we look up instead of down.
Charles Kolb, a Lumina Foundation Fellow, is President of the French-American Foundation--United States in New York City. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990 - 1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and at the U.S. Department of Education from 1986 - 1990. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.