SHIFT – A work in progress.

23 Dec

I’m working on a draft of an article for Shift, from the OCAD Student Press

This is going to be an epic deja vu for my thesis, and redemption. I finally get a chance to put together a cogent interpretation of all the research and thinking that went into my thesis project. The draft is below, and it’s still very early alpha stage.


Man’s principle gift, and the only thing that distinguishes it from
other animals, is his ability to tell stories. The first words created
the world. Ancient stories gave meaning to the stars.

The following is a work of fiction. Any similarity to any person, or to any actual events, or institutions is intentional and
anything but coincidential.

In 1937 the future of airships came crashing to the ground in a fiery, smoking ruin, amid the famous cries of “oh, the humanity!”.

Since the Hindeburgh crash in Lakehurst Naval Station, New Jersey, only the ghosts of these once important vehicles are seen: floating vestiges of the past above the Super Bowl, or largely ignored, hawking electronics above Queens and Manhattan. A few are still ferrying tourists on harbour tours and over vineyards for wine tastings, but they are largely seen as curiousities, if seen at all. In most of my conversations with people with airships, the first reaction is perplexity, then incredulity.

But everyone I have met agrees with me eventually, that airships are needed in this world again.

What I am calling for is not a resurrection of past technology. What is needed is a re-conception of an old dream with new purposes and new techniques.

The world is in a precarious state. Scientists, governments and NGO’s predict that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced due to environmental factors/ disasters. Flooding, droughts, earthquakes, famine and disease will drive the world’s poorest from their homes, continuing the current desperate trend of rural to urban migration.

There will be a need for a way of efficiently transporting resources to the stricken areas of the globe.

The context is changing and it is starting to make sense to use airships again.

Up until now, airships were a writer’s device, a conveniently outlandish device that was yet believable enough to act as an embellishment, or deus ex machina to further the plot. Examples of the former can be found in Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson, in which several events take place on airships spun out of nanomaterials, while the latter can be found in All Tomorrow’s Parties, by William Gibson, in which the protagonist is saved from immolation on the San Francisco Bay Bridge by airship water tankers.



Roads cut off, boats banned. Victims marooned on the roofs of their drowned homes.

This is the image of diluvial hell that we have seen many times and know them by name: Andrew, Katrina, Ketsana, etc.

Samy huddles under an awning with his older sister, trying to stay out of the lashing rain. The wind whips garbage past them and all the windows and shutters are rattling from its rage. Those brave enough trudge their way through the rapidly rising water, guarding their faces from the stinging drops and flying debris.

Samy wades through the lake that has has formed on the road, his sister in tow. His shoes threaten to come off with every step.

Around him, people are walking, or standing, knee deep in the water. Some are hurrying home, many are standing and watching, discussing the rain. A boy, younger than Samy, is splashing and playing in the water between parked cars, two pieces of white styrofoam in his hands.

The residual effects of a natural disaster are the most dangerous.

The greatest obstacles to realizing an airship industry.
Engineering – The scale of the vehicle makes construction difficult. The delicacy of the structure requires a hangar. The largest hangar in the world is in Germany, engineered by Arup.

Market need – shipping and rail are still the most economical ways of shipping, with road trucking a close second.  Intermodal (using more than one type of transport) is increasing.

Public acceptance – The Hindenburg is still burned into the public’s mind. No one thinks that airships are safe. And also, everyone thinks they are slow.

Government Regulation

Airships are lighter than air vehicles kept aloft by a lifting gas such as helium, hydrogen, or heated air.

A Brief History of Airships.
Chinese strategist Zhu Guo Liang uses paper latern “hot air balloons” to signal allies and frighten enemies.

Alberto Santos Dumont, an aviation pioneer. Brazilian expatriate living Paris. In the early 1900’s he designed and constructed a series of dirigibles. As the story goes, he would fly his little dirigible across Paris to a dinner party, where he would moor it to a lamp post and alight for dinner. Afterwards he would climb up a rope ladder into his airship and fly home.

Tsiolkovsky on the fate of humanity. “The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot eternally live in a cradle”.

Slavoj Zizek on groundlessness. Observation: North American buildings start at the 1st floor, there generally isn’t a “ground” floor, whereas in Europe there generally is a ground floor, with the first floor where a North American building would have their second floor. This groundlessness is important, because it is a quality which arises, I think, through our disconnection or disregard for history and tradition. This is symptomatic of freedom, according to Zizek, a true conceptual freedom in which one is able conceive and percieve outside of the normal realms of conception and perception. It is a freedom, true freedom that is epitomized by insanity. However, this mental freedom should allow us to conceieve of an existence in which we are literally disconnected to the ground.
The appeal.
Pop culture. Why airships are so prevalent, in movies and books.

Travel Scenarios

and Julian are recent graduates, living just outside London.  They
found out a week ago that they have a few days off at the same time, a
rarity since they both started their new jobs.  There wasn’t enough
time to book a trip their usual way at an affordable rate.  Julian had
read about Logos Free Air on
BoingBoing and checked it out at work.

“Tonight after dinner Jen and I were discussing holiday plans when I suddenly remembered the Airbus skyship run by LFA that goes to Paris.”

mentioned this to me and it sounded interesting, but a bit dodgy as
well.  I was wary about some catch.”  After reading the reviews online,
and taking a virtual ride in Second Life, they decided to give it a
go.  They reserved a seat on the airship to Paris, booked a hostel and
made dinner and theatre reservations, all on the LFA portal.  They
download all the confirmation and reservation information onto their
smart phones via the LFA
SkyPass and prepared to head to Waterloo Station.

I used to stress about packing.

Jennifer and Julian get to the LFA SkyDock at Waterloo station, a gleaming, Meidesque tower along the River Thames.  They see the skyship as they come out of the Tube, and it takes their breath away.  It floats above Waterloo, sensuously joined to the SkyDock looking like something between a cumulous cloud, and an Olympic stadium.  It is, in short, like nothing they’ve seen before.

board with small bags…. Julian brought his own clothes, but Jennifer
opted for the Clothing Library service. When they arrive at their
hotel, there will be a box of clothes waiting for Jennifer.  Initially
hesitant, Jennifer finally decided to try the service for the
opportunity to try the latest clothes from her favourite brands.
Jennifer and Julian both filled out a passenger profile when they
purchased their tickets.  She chose the outfits, tried them out
virtually, and even got shoes to match.  Her friends will marvel at her
wardrobe when they see her travel snaps!

After they settled into their seats, they notice the difference in the interior of the skyship
to a regular airplane.  Gone were the narrow aisles, the uncomfortable
looking seats.  Even the usual First Class, Business Class and Economy
sections seemed to have disappeared.  Instead, the
Skyship is Service Separated by passenger profile.  Passengers are seated by preference (e.g. quiet or social), and charged by service.

experience reminds them of being in a restaurant, albeit a very cool,
spacious restaurant with a climbing wall and jungle gym.  The entire
space is filled with light, and surrounded by an observation deck;
basically a promenade like you would find on a cruise ship.  There is a
bar and cafe in the centre, selling a wide selection of French
products.  The seating is arranged for a spectrum of situations, from
large family settings to work/seclusion.

and Julian chose to have a quiet space by the windows, and medium
stimulation.  Julian aims to finish some work ahead of time, and Jen
wants to finally start that book.  Around them are all people who have
opted for a similar experience; minimal interruption, push button
service, and
connectivity.  At the other end of the space, parents of young children
enjoy their coffees whilst their little ones clamber on the jungle
gym.  The announcement for departure is given.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard LFA flight 276 with non stop service to Paris Gare
Du Nord.  Flight time is an estimated 2 hours 56 minutes.  Feel free to
move about the cabin, and enjoy our bar service.  Please remember that
for your comfort and safety, smoking is only allowed in the designated
smoking area at the rear of the observation deck.  If you have any
questions, do not hesitate to ask one of our staff, and we will assist
you however we can.  Once again ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of
Logos Free Air and our entire crew, we would like to wish you a safe
and pleasant journey.”

I wrote this none of this existed.  Now, the Virtual Luggage concept
exists as Zero Baggage, and the passenger seating preference exists in
a way as Virgin Red.


One Response to “SHIFT – A work in progress.”

  1. December 23, 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    Intriguing. Hope you will continue. Very happy to see you mention Alberto. The French word for ground floor is literally the level where you put your feet, going back to ancient times when by-ways were packed so you could walk out of the mud – the European word is literally to be more grounded than the American “first floor” – an interesting difference in psychology. I would like to make a gentle observation about man being the only creature to tell stories. Bees tell each other stories all the time – where the best flowers are. Monkeys communicate all kinds of different information as do whales. Every time mankind tries to distinguish himself from animals, we find out we’re wrong. We used to say we were the only animals that laughed (Baudelaire), and then discovered that wasn’t true. We then said we were the only animals that showed empathy and then discovered that wasn’t true. Now that I’m getting old, I think the secrets are more in how everything is related, rather than in how things are different; although, obviously, we need both approaches to seeing the world. Best Wishes and Happy New Year. May it bring peace in the air and on the ground.

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