by Rob Callahan
It’s the 50th anniversary of The Jetsons, and that means everyone’s about to go off about the serious lack of flying cars in the world today. Gizmodo, check. Wired, check. io9, Marketplace, and even the Smithsonian. All check. Everywhere you turn, tech and news outlets are reviving the meme that was already stale when Friendster was still fresh and new. One shudders to think about what’s going on in the comments sections of online news sites and Youtube.
There are a few good reasons why we don’t have flying cars. First, we’re already dangerous enough while Facebooking behind the wheel of a traditional car. More on that later.
Second, people won’t buy them. While consumers generally love the idea of the future being now, they tend to care less for the actualization of it. Case in point, not everyone has a Roomba.1 The Honda Insight is another such case. Twelve years ago it came onto the market boasting 70mpg and a price comparable to a mid-level sedan. It sold unremarkably and was eventually discontinued. Only when the car was redesigned to emulate the slower, boxier and less efficient Prius did it finally catch on. Consumers’ reluctance to drive an original Insight stemmed from a number of factors, most of which were based on the fact that people were afraid it was too advanced for them. It was too futuristic. Too Jetsons.2 If mainstream motorists were afraid of the car from Syndicate, a car from The Fifth Element will never stand a chance.
Third, and this may be the most important reason we don’t have flying cars, is that they are completely useless. There’s no good reason to want a flying car. Not unless self-indulgence and a sense of superiority over all those dumb luddite proles clogging up the roads below are good reasons. (They might be, but let’s assume for the moment that they’re not. Or at least not good enough.) There were a lot of better, brighter tomorrows promised during the Golden Age of Science Fiction that had infinitely more merit than flying cars. So, while everybody and their robot maids are lamenting their miserable road-bogged lives, let’s examine some other classic sci-fi standards that have (or at least really should have) come to pass.
In a post-scarcity world, everyone has equal access to goods, services, education and information. Let’s say you can get anything you want from a replicator, so there’s no real reason to fight someone for it. Of course, a science fiction story where nobody fights anybody else would be about as realistic as a small office where nobody cuts their coworkers down in pursuit of their own advancement. It would be boring and mundane, a naive work of fantasy at best. So post-scarcity science fiction stories often track the exploits of the ambitious and morally-challenged as they scheme and betray their ways to glory, or attempt to hoard some intangible virtual currency in lieu of real possessions. Which, come to think of it, is a lot like a day at the office… so maybe the post-scarcity scenarios were right about one thing.
Still, writers from Asimov to to Zalazny have optimistically envisioned post-scarcity while we in the real world haven’t even come close. Even as technology improves and we find new ways to grow more food and get further on a gallon of gas, we find ways to create more hungry mouths and commute further in our personal urban assault vehicles. When houses get cheaper to build, we don’t build cheaper houses. We spend the same to build bigger houses. In essence, the more efficient our technology becomes, the more we overtax it. Economists call this the Rebound Effect, and it diminishes the returns of just about every advancement we make in agriculture, transportation, energy, housing, education and medicine, to name but a few.
Our collective history is laden with scarcity and the awful things people have done to each other as a result. By all reckoning, this has been going on since prehistoric times and it isn’t likely to end any time soon. We’ve learned as a species that it is better to hoard or diminish as much as we can before someone else gets the chance. As individuals, we tend to outgrow things like conservation and sharing around the same age that we outgrow Elmo.3 So, humanity runs around using up everything it can as fast as it can because that’s how we’ve survived this long. Whenever the ratio of cost-to-benefit changes, we raise the cost whether or not it yields more actual benefit. That’s just how humanity rolls. For as long as we view a cheaper, faster means as justification for a bigger, more bloated end, post-scarcity will continue to elude us.
4. Space Travel
When Carl Sagan proposed that interstellar space travel was already possible in the eighties, the idea wasn’t his. It wasn’t even new. Stanislaw Ulam first proposed the idea before the start of the Cold War, combing what then-modern science could accomplish with what would be likely in his own lifetime. In the 1970s, a team of scientists went to work on framing Ulam’s theory in terms of practical and attainable technology. The result was Project Deadelus, an interstellar probe design which, “despite [its] difficulties… is within the realms of credible science, since no new physics is required.” We could build this ship today. We could even build its human transport equivalent, albeit not cheaply. We won’t, though, because it would be expensive 4 and anyone rich enough to help has already got better things to buy. Things like scarce resources, media empires or congressmen.
One day, a stray asteroid is probably going to make the Earth as uncomfortable as the back of a Volkswagen. No one can say when. All anyone can say is that it’s statistically unlikely to be this week, but something that’s unlikely this week, or even in the next 100 years, may be inevitable in 65 million. That said, we’re just about due any time now. Yes, space is a hostile and expensive place to go, but it’s probably better than extinction. If the dinosaurs had had that kind of foresight, we’d all be little better than Raptorchow by now. Personally, I like the idea that there will be no hyper-evolved roaches or rats sitting around 65 million years from now and saying the same of us.
Not that our space program isn’t without its progress. In the Sixties, we landed on the moon. In the Eighties, we sent shuttles to the edge of our atmosphere. Today we send out unmanned probes. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has observed, we’re making a lot of progress in space exploration, from the perspective of anyone experiencing time backwards.
3. The 9 Hour Work Week
One thing that all of this modern technology and automation can promises us is a greater ratio of output to effort. In essence, we can accomplish more by doing less and truly realize the bittersweet dream that was the Jetsons‘ 9-hour work week. A radio DJ can record an eight-hour day in about two hours and let the station run itself all night. A factory worker can let the robots assemble widgits ten times faster than his own feeble hands. A computerized call center can answer not only your query, but the queries of a hundred other callers simultaneously, freeing human workers from the thankless task of answering stupid questions all day.
With machines doing all of the work for us, we’re free to spend our ample free time doing more important things. Like looking for more work.
Because now you’re spending fewer hours earning the same hourly wage you used to, which translates into smaller wages at the end of the day. Particularly savvy employers still find enough busy work to keep you on the job for eight hours, but to them that means you don’t work as hard as you used to, so you don’t deserve a raise. Now the boss is only paying for eight hours what he used to pay for four or six hours of the same work. The result is that you take home about the same number of dollars that your parents did from the same job twenty years ago, but your modern pay is worth less than your parents’ Ninteen-Nineties pay. The cost of essential goods and services hasn’t followed this same trend, however, so you can’t quite afford the same luxuries the last generation enjoyed. Luxuries like nutritious food and warm clothing. Forget about flying cars. You’d be happy with a running car.
The answer to your lack of pay is to work overtime or find a few part time jobs. Then you can pay your bills and feed your family. As an added bonus, you have no free time to run around spending money on nonessential goods like the expensive brand name ramen. So at least you can avoid too much frivolous spending.
2. Life-Changing Technologies
Robot maids would be nice. So would transporters and universal translators. What we really need, though, is sci-fi medicine. Science fiction has promised us an era on the horizon in which we’ll live to be not just old, but Dr. McCoy old. In the future, we’ll look back and laugh at arthritis and the common cold the way modern men look back and laugh at polio and the plague.
Except for one small problem. The problem with an industry built around wiping out disease is that, one day, there’s no more disease left to wipe out. A big pharmaceutical company in a world without disease is like Paul Shaffer without the Blues Brothers. It’s just Murph and the Magictones. Fortunately, there’s a way around wiping out all disease, and it’s called making up new diseases. Its critics call the practice disease mongering.
While it’s true that some critics can be overly harsh and cynical about the practice, it’s also true that pharmaceutical companies are not above telling the occasional healthy person they’re sick to make a buck. Prospective customers are no longer classified under old-fashioned terms like sick or healthy. They are simply diagnosed and undiagnosed, or tapped and untapped populations. The future is a place where you’re not normal unless you’re abnormal and seeking a cure. Or, preferably, seeking suppression. There’s more money in suppression.
At first glance, you probably think hoverboards are as self indulgent as the flying cars referenced above, but look at the bigger picture. Hoverboards are compact and efficient. You can bring your transportation with you to the office and hang it in your cubicle. No more parking lots. Hoverboards presumably run on something cheap and nonpolluting. They probably cost much less than a car. Think of them as the netbooks of scooters.
Those who insist on operating their vehicles while facebooking are far less likely to end up killing pedestrians, bicyclists, bikers and busloads of kids when they’re hoverboarding. If you’re texting while hoverboarding, the only one likely to be hurt when you crash into that scyscraper is you. And, over time, Darwinism will thin that subsection of the population. Less reckless texters means less people overall, which means more resources for the rest of us, which means we’ll finally reach that end of scarcity we so desperately needed to get this whole bright utopia business started in the first place.
It’s cyclical. It begins and ends with hoverboards, the single most important piece of nonexistent technology we’ll ever need. Yes, there are many advantages to hoverboards, but among their many advantages, the best and brightest aspect of a world filled with hoverboards is that everyone might finally shut up about their stupid flying cars.
1. Disclaimer: I have a Roomba. 2. I actually heard a commentator on MPR say the Insight was “too Jetsons” once. I was driving my Insight at the time. It made me want to make that Jetsons car sound. 3. I was never that into Elmo to begin with. I was just a bit too old when he came along. My generation grew up aspiring to the unrestrained id of Cookie Monster. Which, in hindsight, could be a part of our problem. 4. And not just your run-of-the-mill expensive. The collective fortunes of Oprah, Bill Gates and Jon Bon Jovi would barely be enough to get the ball rolling on this one. 5. This is not an actual illustration from a physics textbook, but it’s funnier if I claim it is.
Rob Callahan hosts trivia and a sci-fi movie every Tuesday as part of JägerCon: Sci-Fi Tuesdays, presented by l’étoile magazine, at Clubhouse Jäger. Trivia begins at 8:30 pm, with the film showing at 10 pm and 2-4-1 drinks before 10 pm. Click HERE for the Sci-Fi Tuesdays Facebook page.