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 can see everything. Or, if not everything, at least more than the peons who are at ground level. It’s meant to convey authority, and it is also a plea for trust: I can see more than you—trust me, do as I say.
This is not the Romantic ideal of the cloud’s-eye view, as imagined in the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley in the nineteenth century.1 And neither is it the carceral viewpoint of the Panopticon, as articulated by Bentham and later famously drawn out by Foucault.2 No, the 30,000-foot view is an especially contemporary formulation.
These days we might be tempted to associate the aerial view more with drones or satellite views. Surveillance, global information systems, and even death administered from above—all in the form of data delivered to our smartphones or to government war rooms. Of course satellites are way higher than 30,000 feet and operate on an entirely different modality of seeing. And drones, for all their increasing ubiquity, are more likely to be experienced in the home (as remote-control toys), or above the workplace, recreational zone, or private property while capturing digital imagery (e.g., for an ad spot, social-media feed, or real-estate listing).
But the 30,000-foot view comes from a more ordinary perspective: it is a byproduct of the cruising vantage point of the commercial airliner that is constantly traveling at this height, everywhere and always. Go outside and look up, and within five minutes you’re likely to see a set of contrails come into view. Right there is the 30,000-foot perspective—and it’s moving fast. Some of those glints in the sky might be military planes, but for the most part they are the Boeings and Airbuses making their innumerable daily schlepps across the globe.
To see things from 30,000 feet is a more palatable metaphor, then, because it’s a view that so many business travelers and vacationers have seen, if only in a passing and disinterested fashion. It’s the bland view from above, demilitarized, anaesthetized—even verging on boring. Who hasn’t sat in a cramped window seat and gazed out at unfurling agricultural grids below, or undulating snowcapped peaks, or endless ocean waters . . . and merely sighed? But the rhetorical trick in this expression is that the 30,000-foot view is imbued with something greater for those who can read it, for those who can control it. And by control, I don’t mean to pilot.
The 30,000-foot view is meant to achieve multiple effects: it is supposed to connote a particular scale (of planning, oversight) and wonder—a sense of awe in the total work of whatever is ostensibly being viewed. These multiple effects are bundled together in the expression and mutually reinforce each other. As Caren Kaplan puts it in her book Aerial Aftermaths, “Aerial imagery is popularly believed to provide the ultimate objective representation.”3 This view stands for the knowledge of someone (or some higher entity) who can see more. And this view is never neutral. It immediately produces power over the people over whom such a position is wielded. The 30,000-foot view is rarely evoked outside of an economic structure wherein workers are struggling to sustain a system or implement a new strategy, while a boss or outside consultant urges them on—often on the precipice of financial ruin.
For example, in a recent book called The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility, Waqas Ahmed quotes Tim Ferriss (self-help guru and author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich) employing this expression: “Taking the 30-thousand foot view helps you to look at the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of different fields as opposed to viewing them as purely separate disciplines.” This is no mere description of how a certain pulled-back perspective functions philosophically and transdisciplinarily. Rather, it serves for Ahmed as part of an assessment of “highly successful entrepreneurs and investors.”4 In other words, the 30,000-foot view is not about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but about calculation and speculation. It’s about maximizing profit.
The 30,000-foot view summons a graspable, ordinary vantage point (at least in contemporary consumer society) in order to immediately rarify it. The people who know what to do with this view are to be listened to and obeyed. Sure, everyone in an airplane gets a 30,000-foot view. But those in first class are the ones who can use this expression tactically, in the right moments, to make organizational decisions—investments or cuts, mergers or downsizing, promotions or layoffs.
While everyone is (in theory) invited to see things from 30,000 feet, not everyone is invited to stay there, or to make decisions from such an elevated position. The expression is then a sinister double maneuver, a promise of sharing knowledge while also an act of restricting power. 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 this. There is no room for negotiation, because I have shown you how things look, so you must understand.” The totalizing picture is captured and conveyed in the spirit of transparency, but always with the ulterior motive of exerting and protecting a reified point of authority.
Even if we hesitate before such an outright critique of the economic structure underlying this expression, there are more fundamental problems with the 30,000-foot view: Its specific scalar shift makes no sense, and the perspective is utterly askew.
The scale intended to be communicated by the 30,000-foot view is more accurately understood by the architectural plan or the exploded view of how a machine’s parts fit together. By looking at the components of a complicated organism or organization, decisions can be made about individual segments or that will affect the whole. But this is clearly not attained by a 30,000-foot view in any literal sense. In fact, what one gets from looking out an airplane window is more often a sense of bewildering vastness, of the ongoingness of terrain below. Viewing an urban center from so high is no less dizzying; even if one can orient on the grid and identify familiar landmarks or buildings, such a view does not necessarily synthesize a total picture so much as reveal just how elaborate and intricate such a cityscape is.
And often at 30,000 feet, it’s just clouds.
Then there is the matter of perspective. Looking out an airplane window rarely affords a top-down view. More often than not, the angle of perception is oblique and fragmented, resulting in an indistinct tableau. Seeing things from 30,000 feet hardly translates to an intact, discrete picture of a place or region, because commercial air travel is not oriented in this way—glass-bottomed airliners are still a fantasy, at least for now.5 Interestingly, seatback screens with “flight tracker” technology offer a version of this visualization, whereby passengers can zoom in and out as they fly over land and sea. But even then, this view is not about assessing the whole in order to make strategic determinations; rather, it’s a form of in-flight entertainment, and it is largely passive.
Given the illogical nature of the expression, why do we still proffer advice from the 30,000-foot view? Perhaps it has something to do with our collective, cultural investment in air travel as a sort of pinnacle of modernity—and a belief in perpetual flight. Even though commercial airliners offer no such view on things below, the promise of achieving a certain class status coincident with frequent flight retains a strong allure. To be able 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.
What presents itself as having the sheen of objectivity turns out to mask the inescapably subjective nature of leadership and decision making. Subjective, and jealously individualistic. The view from 30,000 feet is precisely the one that I am going to explain to you, in order to situate and justify my actions—actions that will impact those over whom I am in a position of power. Strangely, it’s not about flight at all; rather, this vertical metaphor works to reinforce horizontal power dynamics between individuals.
Or if it is about flight, it’s not so much about seeing what’s out the window as it is about keeping the very concept of “first class” coveted, even sacred. Our god’s-eye view may be more modest in some ways than the ancient depictions of such a perspective—set only at 30,000 feet—but in other ways the quantities of wealth and power that get consolidated under this view are more than even the most fantastical Xanadu could have ever contained.