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Where we go to let new ideas take flight

In the wake of the attacks on the Brussels airport, a look at what aviation has meant for people’s creative lives.

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The airplane with President Barack Obama onboard, accompanied by first lady Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia, lands in Bariloche, Argentina.

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One aspect of the terrorist attacks in Brussels last month was so obvious as to go largely unremarked: They struck the city’s airport. Air travel is such an essential part of modern life that the classic list of terrorists’ “soft targets” naturally includes airports. 

The attacks have brought renewed relevance to a recent essay by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker called “Air Head: How aviation made the modern mind.”

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The piece riffs on a new book by Christopher Schaberg, “The End of Airports.” Its main idea seems to be that digital technology obviates much need for travel. Mr. Heller quotes Mr. Schaberg: “In a world where social networking can facilitate revolutions, and where connections happen as easily online as off, it seems inevitable that moving hundreds of bodies around in large vessels will go out of fashion.”

It may seem inevitable, but it also seems not to be happening: Heller says that the number of people flying increased from 100 million people in 1960 to 2 billion in 2006, despite the “advent of the mobile Web and the intensification of terror-inspired travel constraints.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization predicts 3.8 billion passengers for 2016.

Aviation is a modern industry – it’s just not modern the way your phone is modern. “The airplane seems to hail from the same era as your old dishwasher, which conked out last year,” Heller writes, imagining a typical trip.

Yet that old plane can provide some new insights. “The battle between jet planes and smartphones isn’t about speed or glamour,” Heller writes. “It’s about ways of knowing.”

In a 2013 piece in The Atlantic on “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel,” James Fallows – a pilot himself, by the way – noted that the airplane “made possible an entirely new form of human movement – and, perhaps as important, an unprecedented way of seeing and understanding the Earth.”

Heller, however, seems to be interested in more on-the-ground kinds of knowing. There is no substitute for “encounter thought,” his term for the “way of processing the world which grew from easy geographic leaps and happenstantial connections,” which aviation facilitates. The Internet, meanwhile, he dismisses as “a vast, interactive museum engineered by curators.”

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Along with insights on “encounter thought,” Heller has some observations on what often results from such encounters: pieces of writing. Describing himself as a fearful but addicted flier, he writes, “A part of me is sure I’ll die at every takeoff, yet I need to feel that panic and lift or I’m hopeless. Flight is the best metaphor for writing that I know.”

I know that lift. Those of us who think our problems through with a pen in hand know the moment of clarity that comes when a solution emerges from the scribbles. And the false starts fall out of our thought the way the earth seems to fall away beneath a departing aircraft as it soars up to the clouds.