Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In the 21st Century We Will All Have Flying Cars

I love the idea of becoming a futurist. Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others all got to leave an indelible mark on the way their times imagined the coming decades.  I love the idea of painting a picture with nothing but Utopian optimism as if resources would be dedicated to building a future for the betterment of mankind with no tawdry commercialism marring the perfection of cloud piercing skyscrapers with ads for light beer.  I love the idea that we'd all drive around in flying cars powered by itty bitty fission reactors on the way to our office jobs where we'd use slide rules to plot our business class flight to the moon.

I love the way 20th century futurists would imagine 20 lane elevated freeways filled with aerodynamic bubble cars traveling at 200 mph under a flawless blue sky.  I turned the pages of Popular Mechanics and OMNI magazines, jaw dropping at each fabulous new supersonic passenger jet, or Single Stage To Orbit reusable rocket.  I love the way those landscapes never feature so much as a gas station, or a road crew, or traffic jam, or smog.

I love the optimism, the vision of cooperation, the sense that 20th century progress would free us from the perils of communism, and the specter of hunger, greed and want.

But there are still futurists working today.  Ray Kurzweil has made a career of predicting the coming 'singularity' where computing is ubiquitous, inexpensive, and possessed of superhuman intelligence; leading inexorably to a fusion of of biological and machine intelligence which will empower us all and free us from the petty limitations of biological incarnation and inevitable death.

My experience of the 21st century has been a bit of a letdown by those standards.

Because, as it turns out there are no flying cars.  There are technological curiosities that manage to be both airworthy and street legal, but they only prove to demonstrate that the conflicting requirements of air and ground travel, basically preclude the existence of a practical and cheap flying car.

Nuclear power, is still limited to aging and dangerous fission reactors that threaten to poison us all with their all but eternally dangerous waste products.  Fusion is a sideshow, perennially 20 years from commercial power generation.  Forty years have passed since the energy crisis and gas guzzling muscle cars blanket the highways like they never left.  Oil companies and coal companies still dictate our nation's energy policy.

The computer revolution's early promise has been squandered.  The efficiency gains in finance and manufacturing that could have given us full employment and 20 hour work weeks have only served to enrich the already wealthy, and convince the rest of us to work twice as hard or our job will be the next to move across the Rio Grande or the Pacific.  The power to deliver the sum of human experience cheaply to our desks, and our pockets, has been prostituted to sell us boner pills.  Internet service providers and social media have colluded with the darkest parts of the national security apparatus to create a series of interlocking panopticons where our commercial transactions, our medical records, our browsing habits, and even our movements are stored away for the perusal of paranoid authoritarians and their favorite commercial catspaws... I mean contractors.

But the situation isn't hopeless, just less hopeful. We probably won't finish out the 21st century with thriving cities on the moon, but with a little luck, we might have some here on earth.

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