whatever happened to flying cars? -- 9/27/19

Today's selection -- from The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber. Whatever happened to flying cars?:

"There is a secret shame hovering over all us in the twenty-first century. No one seems to want to acknowledge it. ... I am referring, of course, to the conspicuous absence, in 2015, of flying cars.

"Well, All right, not just flying cars. I don't really care about flying cars -- especially because I don't even drive. What I have in mind are all the technological wonders that any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century simply assumed would exist by 2015. We all know the list: Force fields. Teleportation. Antigravity fields. Tricorders. Tractor beams. Immortality drugs. Suspended animation. Androids. Colonies on Mars. What happened to them? Every now and then it's widely trumpeted that one is about to materialize -- clones, for instance, or cryogenics, or anti-aging medications, or invisibility cloaks -- but when these don't prove to be false promises, which they usually are, they emerge hopelessly flawed. Point any of this out, and the usual response is a ritual invocation of the wonders of computers -- why would you want an antigravity sled when you can have a second life? -- as if this is some sort of unanticipated compensation. But, even here, we're not nearly where people in the fifties imagined we'd have been by now. We still don't have computers you can have an interesting conversation with, or robots that can walk the dog or fold your laundry.

"Speaking as someone who was eight years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I have very clear memories of calculating that I would be thirty-nine years of age in the magic year 2000, and wondering what the world around me would be like. Did I honestly expect I would be living in a world of such wonder? Of course. Certainly, I didn't think I'd see all the things we read about in science fiction realized in my lifetime (even assuming my lifetime was not extended by centuries by some newly discovered longevity drug.) If you asked me at the time, I'd have guessed about half. But it never occurred to me that I wouldn't see any of them.

"I have long been puzzled and fascinated by the near silence surrounding this issue in public discourse. One does occasion­ally see griping about flying cars on the Internet, but it's muted, or very marginal. For the most part, the topic is treated almost as taboo. At the turn of the millennium, for instance, I was expect­ing an outpouring of reflections by forty-somethings in the popular media on what we had expected the world of 2000 to be like, and why we had all gotten it so wrong. I couldn't find a single one. Instead, just about all the authoritative voices -- both Left and Right -- began their reflections from the assumption that a world of technological wonders had, in fact, arrived.

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"To a very large extent, the silence is due to fear of being ridiculed as foolishly naive. Certainly if one does raise the issue, one is likely to hear responses like 'Oh, you mean all that Jet­son stuff?' As if to say, but that was just for children! Surely, as grown-ups, we're supposed to understand that the Jetsons future was about as realistic as the Flintstones past. But of course it wasn't just the Jetsons. All serious science shows designed for children in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and even the eight­ies -- the Scientific Americans, the educational TV programs, the planetarium shows in national museums -- all the authoritative voices who told us what the universe was like and why the sky was blue, who explained the periodic table of elements, also assured us that the future was indeed going to involve colonies on other planets, robots, matter transformation devices, and a world much closer to Star Trek than to our own.

"The fact that all these voices turned out to be wrong doesn't just create a deep feeling of largely inexpressible betrayal; it also points to some conceptual problems about how we should even talk about history, now that things haven't unfolded as we thought they would. There are contexts where we really can't just wave our hands and make the discrepancy between expectations and reality go away. One obvious one is science fiction. Back in the twentieth century, creators of science fic­tion movies used to come up with concrete dates in which to place their futuristic fantasies. Often these were no more than a generation in the future. Thus in 1968, Stanley Kubrick felt that a moviegoing audience would find it perfectly natural to assume that only thirty-three years later, in 2001, we would have commercial moon flights, city-like space stations, and comput­ers with humanlike personalities maintaining astronauts in sus­pended animation while traveling to Jupiter. In fact about the only new technology from 2001 that actually did appear were video telephones, but those were already technically possible in 1968 -- at the time, they were simply unmarketable because no one really wanted to have one. Similar problems crop up whenever a particular writer, or program, tries to create a grand mythos. According to the universe created by Larry Niven, which I got to know as a teenager, humans in this decade (2010s) are living under a one-world U.N. government and creating their first colony on the moon, while dealing with the social consequences of medical advances that have created a class of immortal rich people. In the Star Trek mythos developed around the same time, in contrast, humans would now be recovering from fighting off the rule of genetically engineered supermen in the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s -- a war which ended when we shot them all in suspension pods into outer space. Star Trek writers in the 1990s were thus forced to start playing around with alternate time lines and realities just as a way of keeping the whole premise from falling apart.

"By 1989, when the creators of Back to the Future II dutifully placed flying cars and antigravity hoverboards in the hands of ordinary teenagers in the year 2015, it wasn't clear if it was meant as a serious prediction, a bow to older traditions of imagined futures, or as a slightly bitter joke. At any rate, it marked one of the last instances of this sort of thing. Later science fiction futures were largely dystopian, moving from bleak technofas­cism into some kind of stone-age barbarism, as in Cloud Atlas, or else, studiously ambiguous: the writers remaining coy about the dates, which renders 'the future' a zone of pure fantasy, no different really than Middle Earth or Cimmeria. They might even, as with Star Wars, place the future in the past, 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.' This Future is, most often, not really a future at all, but more like an alternative dimension, a dream-time, some kind of technological Elsewhere, existing in days to come in the same sense that elves and dragon-slayers existed in the past; just another screen for the projection of moral dramas and mythic fantasies. Science fiction has now become just another set of costumes in which one can dress up a Western, a war movie, a horror flick, a spy thriller, or just a fairy tale."


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David Graeber


The Utopia of Rules


Melville House


Copyright 2015 by David Graeber


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