Bad Metaphors The 30,000-Foot View

The short-sighted idea that objectivity comes with distance

BAD METAPHORS is an ongoing series that takes a critical look at the figures of speech that shuttle between technology and everyday life. Read the rest here.

Here’s how things look from 30,000 feet …

How many meetings have I been in where an administrator, manager, or executive holds forth on what things look like “from 30,000 feet”? It’s an expression that is meant to suggest a zoomed-out assessment, the perspective of a supervisor who, because they have crunched the data (or been given an ultimatum), claims to be able to see everything — or at least more than the ground-level peons. The phrase is meant to convey authority, but it is also a plea for trust. Believe me, I can see more than you — so do as I say. It’s rarely evoked outside of situations in which workers are struggling to sustain a system or implement a new strategy while a boss or consultant is urging them on.

This view from above is not the Romantic ideal of the cloud’s eye-view, as imagined in the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley in the 19th century. Whereas those poets sought something like a sublime togetherness with nature, the 30,000-foot view is more narrowly about the human sphere. Neither is it the carceral viewpoint of the Panopticon, as articulated by Bentham and later famously adopted by Foucault. The Panopticon is an architecture of scrutiny that gets internalized in people’s minds; the 30,000-foot view is about a distinctly privileged perspective. And nor is this view drawn from military drones, delivering death from above, or satellites, despite their centrality to global information systems.

The Panopticon is an architecture of scrutiny that gets internalized in people’s minds; the 30,000-foot view is about a distinctly privileged perspective

Rather, the “30,000-foot view” comes from a more ordinary perspective: It refers roughly to the cruising altitude of commercial airliners, the Boeings and Airbuses making their innumerable daily schlepps across the globe. If you look up in the sky, chances are that a set of contrails will soon come into view. There is the 30,000-foot perspective — and it’s moving fast.

It’s a soaring vantage point that all business travelers and vacationers have seen, gazing out at unfurling agricultural grids, or undulating snowcapped peaks, or endless ocean waters. In the immortal words of David Byrne, “I see the shapes, / I remember from maps.” For anyone who is not an astronaut, this is the most exalted view any of us will ever have of the earth, yet it’s become familiar enough to verge on boring. While these sights may amaze the neophyte air traveler, the window-seat view soon becomes routine — and yet it still manages to conserve its power in metaphor.

When “30,000-foot view” is deployed as a figure of speech, it achieves multiple effects: It evokes a massive scale of planning and oversight, as well as a sense of awe at how many different kinds of work have been knitted together so as to appear seamlessly integrated from the right distance. These effects are bundled together in the expression to mutually reinforce each other: What can be seen from above can also be more thoroughly understood, and that complete understanding requires an aerial overview. As Caren Kaplan notes in Aerial Aftermaths, “Aerial imagery is popularly believed to provide the ultimate objective representation.” This view from above stands in for the knowledge of someone (or some higher entity) who can see more. We see this in ordinary apps that simulate an aerial view — to get us to our Uber pickup points, for instance. The perspective both confirms the user as a little “god,” and the information represented in the view as quasi-divine — temporary omniscience at the flick of a thumb.

While everyone is invited to see things from 30,000 feet, not everyone is invited to stay there or make decisions from such an elevated position. Access to the “God view” doesn’t automatically convey Godhead; in fact, the rhetorical trick in the “30,000-foot view” is in how it allows for a differentiation between those who are merely impressed if not overawed with the all-encompassing aerial perspective and those who can read it and control it. The 30,000-foot view summons a graspable, ordinary vantage point — at least in contemporary consumer society — to immediately rarify it. It’s only the people who know what to do with this view who are to be listened to and obeyed.

For example, in The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility, Waqas Ahmed quotes self-help guru Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek: “Taking the 30,000-foot view helps you to look at the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of different fields as opposed to viewing them as purely separate disciplines.” Yet in Ferriss’s usage, the 30,000-foot view is not about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but about calculation and speculation — about maximizing profit. This capability, for Ahmed, defines “highly successful entrepreneurs and investors.” Everyone in an airplane gets a 30,000-foot view. But those in first class are the ones who use this expression tactically, in the right moments, to make organizational decisions — investments or cuts, mergers or downsizing, promotions or layoffs.

A more appropriate metaphor for this would be an architectural plan, or a schematic drawing. By looking at the components of a complicated organism or organization, decisions can be made about individual segments or that will affect the whole. This is not attained in any sense by taking a literal 30,000-foot view, however. In fact, what one gets from looking out an airplane window is more often a sense of bewildering vastness, the ongoingness of the terrain below. At 30,000 feet, it’s often just clouds.

Those in first class are the ones who use this expression tactically to make organizational decisions — investments or cuts, mergers or downsizing, promotions or layoffs

The perspective, too, is skewed, offering not a top-down view (glass-bottomed airliners are still a fantasy, at least for now) but an oblique and fragmented angle of perception, resulting in an indistinct tableau. Indeed, the “30,000-foot view” metaphor has more to do with what’s displayed by the “flight tracker” technology on seatback screens: a data visualization marking the plane’s position on a map, which passengers can zoom in and out as they fly over land and sea. This view, though, is not about assessing the whole to authorize strategic determinations; rather, it’s a form of entertainment that offers information without any agency over it. You are still not the pilot.

Given the illogical nature of the expression, why is “the view from 30,000 feet” still extolled? In part it reflects the collective, cultural investment in air travel as a pinnacle of modernity and as a class marker, most explicitly expressed in the “status” of frequent flyers. To claim the view from 30,000 feet is not about making an objective assessment so much as it is about proclaiming (however vaguely) one’s net worth — and thus one’s ability to make respected (and final) decisions. It’s not so much about seeing what’s out the window as it is about keeping the concept of “first class” coveted, even sacred — a true god’s-eye view.

The expression enfolds a double maneuver: It shares a seemingly data-rich, totalizing perspective in an apparent spirit of transparency only to justify the restriction of power, the protection of a reified point of authority. It works this way: “Here’s how things look from 30,000 feet. Can you see? Good, now I am going to make a unilateral decision based on it. There is no room for negotiation, because I have shown you how things look, so you must understand.” Such a rhetorical move reinforces the unquestionable interpretation of a pulled-back view — usually always more complex the closer one zooms in — by a single person (or committee) with decision-making power.

What presents itself as having the sheen of objectivity turns out to mask the inescapably subjective, individualistic nature of leadership and assessment. The view from 30,000 feet is precisely the one that I am going to explain to you, to situate and justify my actions — actions that will impact those over whom I am in a position of power. It’s not about flight at all: It is a vertical metaphor to negate horizontalism.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and the author of The Textual Life of Airports (2011), The End of Airports (2015), Airportness (2017), and The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (2018).