The last 100 years has seen incredible advances in industrial engineering and production. The advances in output quantity, flexibility of production, and technological prowess has enabled global corporations to make more of what we need (perhaps more than we need) at a better cost. Societal advances in production are such that we always crave more. We strive to wring the extra dime out of every process and make it better and smaller.
However, at numerous points in history following technological and process breakthroughs, society and its leading iconic figures seem to leave the golden path of improving productivity and seek out the cultural equivalent of immortality. These iconic figures and cultures create an icon to their progress and prowess. The icon of immortality is always large and sweeping in its vision and grandeur, and, dare I say, god-like in its aspirations to leave a stamp on the world.
So it was in the biblical valley of Shinar when the early humans gathered to "make for themselves a name" following years of technology progress in building processes and materials. The Tower of Babel ended in exile as God descended to see this project of hubris that was counter to human beings' natural trajectory of miniaturization and humility. This grand attempt at iconic immortality ended in great confusion and mutual exile.
Fast forward to the invention of the steam engine and massive advances in seafaring vessels. The Titanic was to be a lasting icon - "designed to be unsinkable" - of the technological progress of nautical engineering and advances in engines. It would catapult its architect and owner to competitive dominance of sea travel. Instead, it ran into mother nature and the icon of human hubris was reduced to an endless salvation project for intrepid explorers.
And so it is with the 787 Dreamliner. Boeing dreamed a bigger and more beautiful plane as a crowning achievement of avionic engineering advances. Never mind the fact that Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) was proving that smaller planes was a better business model, because this was about iconic immortality and not better business. As the nuts and bolts fall off the Dreamliner, I cannot help but think about Boeing as the modern day equivalent of the inventor of the Titanic and the builder of the Tower of Babel.
The great people of generations past left us with ideas, ideals, and written words - not iconic structures. Abraham left us monotheism, Moses left us the Bible. In a very different sphere, Aristotle and Plato left us philosophy, Pythagoras his theorem, and Einstein the theory of relativity. More recently, Gordon Moore has left us his grand law, ironically of miniaturization. Moses was the most humble of men and did not even leave an iconic tombstone with an epitaph, but he lives on. Einstein stood on the shoulders of giants who came before him, but his theory is perhaps the most important breakthrough of the last century.
Solving the world's real problems and challenges is best done with ideas and not icons. It is best done by people and organizations with humility and not hubris, and the best and most lasting things generally come in small packages.