The Jager Bomb:

  • One 8 oz. can of Red Bull
  • One shot of Jägermeister
  • Willingness to overpay for an overhyped experience

The shot of Jager is dropped into a glass of Red Bull and chugged until all evidence disappears down the throats of the youthful.

Felix Baumgartner jumps higher and faster than anyone ever before. Image c/o AP

As I (and a record 8 million other live Youtube viewers) witnessed Felix Baumgartner jump from a floating platform 128,000 feet in the air, I could not help but think about those little red bulls on his helmet. Red Bull, the ubiquitous energy drink and funder of all things Extreme™, had branded nothing less than a moment in human history. A monumental achievement brought to you by a peddler of a sugary drink that has fueled some of the worst decisions in the world [NSFW]. There was a day when the United States government was in the business of dazzling humanity with its feats of technological superiority and raw tenacity. For three years we were landing on the moon almost every six months. We made it look easy. Baumgartner’s jump is truly incredible, but it also makes me a little angry. I am tempted to bemoan the fall of civic life and the rise of corporate-sponsored spectacle, but ultimately I cannot find a moral handhold. Do I want an arms race or consumer capitalism to fund the greatest technological achievements of my lifetime?

As I tend to do with most of my nagging thoughts, I tweeted about Red Bull and the funding of technological progress:

Within an hour it became apparent I had struck a nerve with librarians, conservationistsengineers, urban plannersalternative energy researchers, and other scholars. (Full Storify here.) I am not saying this to be immodest. Rather, I think it is telling to see for whom this statement rings true. The professionals that have devoted their lives to solar energy, affordable high speed rail, and hundreds of other life-changing technologies must fight tooth and nail for a few thousand dollars of government grants while Red Bull pays for a quarter-million-dollar suit and $70,000-worth of helium. Why is a man jumping from the edge of space when we still rely on 18th century energy sources and can’t build a train network as advanced as the one we had a hundred years ago?

Would Red Bull sponsor a bullet train? They could put wings on it and everything!

My theory has something to do with the inherent contradictions in our progress narrative. The future we were promised is in the past, and today’s promises are no longer quite as grand. The anthropologist, Dr. David Graeber, considered a similar question last summer in an issue 19 of The Baffler. Graeber asks “Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now?” Greaber concludes that existing bureaucratic systems under corporate capitalism are not up to the job of creating immortality drugs or colonies on Mars because huge disparities in wealth and power make it too cheap and easy to clean our homes and build our iPhones with cheap labor instead of robots. He writes,

Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

I am very sympathetic to this explanation. Jumping from outer space is a spectacle: something entertaining and suspenseful for everyone to watch. It is a difficult procedure that requires all of the technique and precision of a moon landing, but almost none of the basic science and technological development that came with the Space Race. Red Bull will most likely never fund a trip to Mars or a high speed rail line. Both kinds of projects can take decades to develop (Stratos took about four years of planning) and can suffer catastrophic failures. Projects like Red Bull Stratos must serve primarily as marketing stunts and incidentally as technological achievements.

An old watercolor postcard of the Birmingham Terminal Train Station. C/o WikiCommons.

On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, ushering in a new era of human space flight. Just ten days later, while the front pages of most major newspapers still ran headlines about Apollo 11, the Birmingham, Alabama Public Services Commission approved the demolition of the Birmingham Terminal Train Station. For many, it seemed as though the past was so clearly defined, and the future was equally palpable. We were in modern times, which necessitated the appropriate technology. America needed rockets, not trains. Fast forward to the present, and we are faced with a different scenario. The Space Shuttle has seen its last flight, and high-speed rail projects are dying on the drawing board. Our trajectory of technological progress might have been ambitious, but today it looks like an unrealistic dream. Our only hope seems to come from the private sector and the likes of Space X and Virgin Galactic.

Private space flight is the obvious heir-apparent to large, government-funded space exploration. Private enterprise might have the cash, but it lacks the grandeur and shared social meaning of the Apollo program, or even the Space Shuttle. Then again, nostalgia has a funny way of making past achievements seem grand in comparison to today’s stunts. Both government programs were panned in their times as over-priced science projects (the opposition to the Apollo program in particular is quite interesting). But today we crowd the streets to catch a glimpse of the shuttle. Perhaps, a decade from now, we will look back on the Red Bull Stratos project and place it in the pantheon of major achievements in human history. It will be described as the first time we ignored our nationalistic tendencies, and just did something great with funds from around the world. We came together as a human family and achieved greatness. Or, perhaps we’ll just look at it this way:

via @nathanjurgenson