Thursday, March 17, 2005

Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network

"Always a Dull Moment" by John Galvin. I know it's 2 years not-new this month, this news, but doesn't it still fascinate? Doesn't it still take the cake?

The article describes Vatsim, the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network. A 45,000 member-strong network of air traffic controllers, spread all over the world. They have official training. Some have uniforms. They land planes. Tediously. In real-plane-landing-time. We've all, most of us, been on planes. We know how long they take to land, to take off. Vatsim members have day jobs which in most cases have nothing to with air traffic control. The planes they land are not real planes. They don't exist the way real, metal passenger planes do. Except that everything Vatsim does confounds every attempt to talk about it in terms of real/virtual, professional/amateur. There's hardly a virtual aspect to it. They're utterly fascinating.

This is Harv Stein, the Principal founder of Vatsim, speaking with John Galvin: '"We banned emergencies," says Stein, when I ask if it ever gets more interesting than this. "It was ridiculous. O'Hare was having four emergencies a night, and they don't get four a month in the real world. They'd call the tower and say, 'Emergency! Engines out.' I know what people are doing: Maybe they need to go eat dinner, so they call in an emergency so they don't have to wait in a holding pattern to land."' That just makes me want to throw my hands in the air the way some good rock shows do (i.e. like I just don't care). Doesn't it you? Well, maybe I'm the kook.

But I really believe that we don't have the conceptual firepower to talk about what these people do. Galvin's article is very good (how could it miss?), but ultimately calls Vatsim a game. "Game" is pretty expansive territory, and changing fast. Maybe it could work, with some elaboration. Better than "amateur," although the article relies on that notion a bit as well.

And so, while it's been said before (even by me, and I think 2 year-old news is still news), sometimes along comes a case that asserts not just the rightness of a particular thought, but its righteousness. "Amateur" or "hobbyist" or "nutter" don't quite capture it for me. Do they for you? Dont' they seem so impoverished in this context? Likewise: "amateur" doesn't help me think about photobloggers or flickr either. The extreme case gives us insight into the ones that *appear* less extreme, more quotidian.
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