Flying cars and the “world of tomorrow” that never was
Posted by Matt Cardin
You know all of those excellent articles and essays that have appeared in recent months to explore the rosy science fiction-esque visions of our real-world future that characterized American culture during most of the 20th century? (Recall that we noted one of the best of them, David Graeber’s “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” in a past installment of Recommended Reading.) Now CBS News has gotten in on the act by producing a really nice little video piece on the very same topic, just under seven minutes long, together with an accompanying article. They’re well worth watching and reading in order to help get your bearings on the lost myth of a Jetsons-like future and the hard practical reality of a 21st century in which we aren’t all flying to work in hovercars and living in colonies on the moon. Both pieces also provide some interesting fodder for reflection about the ways we still tend to envision our future, and not only that, but our present (see below).
The world of tomorrow: Trains zooming from coast to coast via vacuum tubes . . . gleaming cities in the sky . . . and, of course, flying cars. That was what the future was supposed to hold for us. “I grew up expecting to live on the Moon, to be able to travel in rockets,” said writer and illustrator Ron Miller. “When ‘2001’ came out, there was a future that looked really possible. So in 30 odd years we could probably have space stations, and passenger liners going to and from space stations, run by Pan Am!”
But Pan Am doesn’t even exist anymore. “I feel, in a way, I was promised this future, and it’s never paid off,” Miller laughed. “I’m not on the Moon. I’ve never ridden in a rocket. I haven’t been to a space station. I don’t have a flying car.”
. . . It seems as if visions of the future tend to be more dystopian than utopian — decidedly downbeat, like George Orwell’s “1984,” Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451,” and a raft of apocalyptic blockbusters. “Most utopias are boring,” said Miller. “Dystopia’s got to be more interesting, because everything goes wrong, and there’s problems that are horrible, and you have to solve them, which doesn’t take place in utopia [where] everything’s already solved.”
“Looking back, does it seem that people were more optimistic about the future than they are now?” [CBS reporter Mo] Rocca asked.
“I think sometimes people were a little too optimistic in the past, and they’re too pessimistic today,” replied [architectural historian John] Kriskiewicz. “You know, we all walk around with the entire Internet in our pocket, in our phones. I mean it’s incredible. Life expectancies have gone up. Disease has fallen around the world dramatically. The cars we drive, the homes we live in, are so much more efficient and safer and capable. We tend to really romanticize the past and catastrophize the present.”
— “The future isn’t what it used to be,” CBS News, April 28, 2013
Of course, for a reality check on those final comments, one can do worse than to recall these insightful observations by Graeber in that other “flying cars” article mentioned above:
The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies — largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the “hyper-real,” the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche — all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would. Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this. The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.