Written 24 June 2022
I heard about this book recently and thought it had a catchy title so read it this week. The book is written by a nanotechnologist and is really a stock take of how human progress and development appear in many ways to have substantially halted over the last half a century and to put forward reasons for why that’s happened. It does this through the story of the flying car. Or rather, it uses the stalling of the development of flying cars to illustrate why we haven’t got the “future we were promised”.
It’s a pretty easy read: it goes into some technical detail on how flight works (a bit too much detail for me in some places), how flying cars were being developed but then how that development stopped. There are lots of interesting insights into how travel works and is constrained, what it is really for, how speed and time interact and how despite understanding many things we are stuck with basically minor improvements on the internal combustion and the jet and live in cities set out for horses and carts.
From there we delve into what the real impediments to developing flying cars are. And they are really quite small in number, specific and general, technical and non-technical. Here they are (I don’t have the book in front of me but I think this is pretty accurate)
- The failure to continue developing nuclear sources of energy. In common with a lot of my reading this year, he is clear that progress and energy use go hand in hand. If we use less energy we will not only not make progress, we will actually regress. Our focus has been on using less fossil fuels: fossil fuels are indeed a dead end, not just because of climate change, but because they simply don’t offer anything like the scope for advance that nuclear does.
- We have failed to make advances in nanotechnology. Here the reference is to Richard Feynman and how it is possible to build ever smaller machines that themselves can make ever smaller versions of themselves.
- We have failed to make advances in artificial intelligence.
- We have turned from progress to regulation and administration. Our best talent is turned to writing grant applications for research that will please committees rather than making advances that will break the mould. Regulation is a barrier to innovation but provides a largely risk free route to prestige and security for those on the inside. It is a tax on progress. There are plenty of examples from academia and a case study on NASA’s decline.
- A failure of our collective imagination to set out a vision for a technologically advancing future that can deliver happier and more prosperous societies.
There is all sorts of detail on these as well as discussions on the Machiavelli Effect and Bootleg and Baptist situations (me neither!) and I find the overall thesis pretty compelling. The author’s vision is to progress on the technical fronts, tackle the non-technical obstacles and deliver a future where we will have our own spaceships built by nano-robots and powered by nano-nuclear reactors. We’ll live in homes and settlements that don’t look anything like the messes we have these days, with food grown and farmed by machines that replicate themselves. In fact we will have so many machines that can replicate themselves that we will have to burn fossil fuels to put more carbon into the atmosphere to be captured and turned into useful things. He talks of nanotechnology that can learn and double the entire capital stock of the US in a matter of weeks and per capita energy consumption going up many thousand fold. We will have colonised the seas, the solar system and space, control the weather and a hundred other things. It is anti-Malthusianism on steroids. He is clear that the human condition is to progress: he foresees year on year 10% economic growth taking us to the stars but is frustrated we have opted for stagnation with all that means: depression, poverty, mental illness and failure to reach our potential. He likens us to HG Wells’ Eloi: we have decided to stagnate in what appears to us as comfort.
I really liked the book and it’s well worth a read. I don’t particularly fancy the world ultimately portrayed; progress without a spiritual dimension isn’t my cup of tea and the author doesn’t really touch on this. The human condition is never to stand still, but we also need a sense of rootedness. Having said that there is nothing irreligious about progress and technological advance. His diagnosis of the last fifty years as the great stagnation is basically right: as Peter Thiel quote says, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. We have more self-styled progressives than ever in our politics, but they don’t really seem to want to make progress let alone the technological leaps that are possible. I’ve come to the conclusion that we in the West really excel as a society in producing social scientists that turn into administrators. Well, social scientists might explain where we are and why it makes sense but they don’t have the ability to deliver sustained rises in prosperity. This is reflected in the poverty of our political debate. The author is not an economist but on the non-technical obstacles to progress his diagnosis is simple: we are under the thumb of rent-seeking technocratic elites that haven’t, can’t and won’t deliver. How we get them out of the way, well that’s politics. We live in interesting times; everything is changing but staying the same and there is a strong whiff that things can’t carry on as they are so perhaps our flying cars may be closer than they appear!