The Lack of Flying Cars

David Graeber’s essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit opens with a complaint that should resonate with all science fiction fans:

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? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?

As someone who was eight years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I remember calculating that I would be thirty-nine in the magic year 2000 and wondering what the world would be like. Did I expect I would be living in such a world of wonders? Of course. Everyone did. Do I feel cheated now? It seemed unlikely that I’d live to see all the things I was reading about in science fiction, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.

Graeber’s polemic beautifully captures an uneasy feeling that substantial technical progress has largely ceased, with the notable exception of simulated reality, and that we are in denial about this fact. For example, what has happened since 1960?

There is reason to believe that even by the fifties and sixties, the pace of technological innovation was slowing down from the heady pace of the first half of the century. There was a last spate in the fifties when microwave ovens (1954), the Pill (1957), and lasers (1958) all appeared in rapid succession. But since then, technological advances have taken the form of clever new ways of combining existing technologies (as in the space race) and new ways of putting existing technologies to consumer use (the most famous example is television, invented in 1926, but mass produced only after the war.) Yet, in part because the space race gave everyone the impression that remarkable advances were happening, the popular impression during the sixties was that the pace of technological change was speeding up in terrifying, uncontrollable ways.

Traveling velocities rapidly increased to allow intercontinental flights and near-space exploration – and then simply stopped.

For most of human history, the top speed at which human beings could travel had been around 25 miles per hour. By 1900 it had increased to 100 miles per hour, and for the next seventy years it did seem to be increasing exponentially. By the time Toffler was writing, in 1970, the record for the fastest speed at which any human had traveled stood at roughly 25,000 mph, achieved by the crew of Apollo 10 in 1969, just one year before. At such an exponential rate, it must have seemed reasonable to assume that within a matter of decades, humanity would be exploring other solar systems.

Since 1970, no further increase has occurred. The record for the fastest a human has ever traveled remains with the crew of Apollo 10. True, the commercial airliner Concorde, which first flew in 1969, reached a maximum speed of 1,400 mph. And the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144, which flew first, reached an even faster speed of 1,553 mph. But those speeds not only have failed to increase; they have decreased since the Tupolev Tu-144 was cancelled and the Concorde was abandoned.

And what of that global network on which I’m posting this?

The Internet is a remarkable innovation, but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail-order catalogue. Had the Internet been described to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment. Fifty years and this is the best our scientists managed to come up with? We expected computers that would think!

Graeber blames capitalism (he’s an unreformed fan of the Soviet Union) and bureaucracy, but I fear the causes are much more fundamental. We do have “flying cars” – but they are helicopters, loud and dangerous and expensive and wasteful. The enormous energy required for human flight does not seem to allow substantial improvement. On the contrary, air travel is under attack for causing environmental damage and consuming irreplaceable resources. The technological miracles of industrialization were often based on clever but reckless burning of fossil fuels – first coal, then oil. Now we have our hands full retaining merely our current level of mobility with a sustainable level of waste.

Similarly, the celebrated early successes of modern medicine seem to have captured all the easy ways to aid the human body. Research has since exploded in volume and sophistication – only to enter a morass of unimagined complexity and unexpected side effects. Evolution may have so refined our bodies that their frailties are inevitable trade-offs, with little room for further improvement. If our major technologies are indeed close to their achievable optimum, then minor refinements (e.g. by nanotechnology) and a better virtual reality are all we can hope for. That would be a sad coda for humanity, though…

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