a duck flying

Here is one of my favourite writings - a small section of technology changes,1984, in which I was comparing our stiff ways of organising life in large numbers with, of all things, the flight of a duck!

'Yesterday, walking on the Heath, I got enthralled by rapid movements of the wings of a duck flying away from me. So fast, so fast. About five wing-beats a second I should think. And, within each beat, too fast to see or even to think about, each wing changing its shape progressively, passing through many 'aerofoil sections' as we crudely call them, many configurations akin to but much more quick and subtle than those astonishing motions of flap and slot, airbrake, spoiler, etc., that one sees appearing out of the wingsurfaces when a jetplane transforms itself into a kind of lumbering biplane/triplane so that it can fly slowly enough to land. Marvellous as that is, in itself. But in the case of the duck how much more so? Not only must something like all that be happening many times a second as each wing bends from downward curve to upward, the wingtips almost meeting above and below, but, on the upward stroke, as when one swims, the shape of the whole structure must be entirely reshaped from that of controlled thruster to streamlined shape that can return to the top without pushing the air with it and thus defeating the effort to support and propel the duck's quite heavy body.

But that's not all. What got me thinking all this, in that flash with which the brain lets one realise such things, was the thought that, inside all this incredibly complex and rapid motion of the wing as a whole is another process, an order of magnitude faster and more complicated: the separate motions of each feather, no doubt anticipating the wing-motions I've tried to guess at, so that each successive wing-shape is smoothly arrived at...

...Which leads me to a favourite thought, to the entity or process which I like most: the nervous system.

Having attempted to think and describe motions and sub-motions of the duck's wing ... one can think, with ever-growing respect, of the seemingly unbounded capacity of the system of nerves-and-gaps-between-nerves (the synapses), firing intermittently, and operating as much decentrally as centrally, by which all this beautiful complexity is able to appear in time and space in each and every creature. Plants too, though with somewhat different systems of awareness and control and letting-be. The same system, in the main, in every living thing.

There, in this process, in its varieties, its adaptability, its speed, faster than the action it regulates, and in its invisibility, its unconsciousness, is the model, or metaphor at least, for what we seek to do, but fail to do, so far, in our ways of organising human life, beyond the given, the natural. How stiff, in comparison, are our rules, our laws, our plans, our designs, our modes of management-in-the-large, of government, of organising radio and tv, and even our methods of programming computers. All such processes, as we do them now, seem to me to be tied to notions of simplicity, conscious control, centralism, cheapness, and total disrespect for what we are, for what the duck is too, and thus to have no chance of working right. None at all......'

(c) john chris jones and princelet editions 1984, from technology changes, 1984, princelet editions, 25 Princelet Street, London E1 6QH, pages 17 to 18.

5 October 2001: As I typed that out I was intrigued to see how close it is in form/content to entries in my digital diary, begun seventeen years later. It seems I am unchanged!

26 june 2005 Slightly corrected.