Where are the flying cars?
It is now 2001, and for those of us who insist on technicalities, this is the real, official beginning of the 21st century. So I want to know: Where is the future predicted for us by science fiction writers — you know, the future of flying cars, robot servants and giant space stations?
It is true that some science-fiction-like technology is already with us, things like computers, cell phones and laser surgery. And I realize that many other science-fiction inventions — like teleportation — were based more on fantasy than reality; that’s the “fiction” component of “science fiction.”
But I think the predictions of flying cars were pretty reasonable. If you were a science fiction writer in 1951, you could look back and say: Fifty years ago, people rode horses, and now everyone has an automobile; fifty years ago, airplanes were considered impossible, and now we have jets that can fly faster than the speed of sound. And it would seem a straightforward projection to say: Fifty years from now, we will have flying cars. Well here we are, fifty years later, so where are the flying cars?
You might regard this complaint as too flippant. In that case, just think of this as a case study, a science fiction “what if” scenario about the fate of new technology in today’s culture. Project the reaction that would greet any inventor who developed a practical, affordable flying automobile.
First, of course, he will have to talk to the Federal Aviation Administration. No matter what automatic guidance and safety systems our inventor designs, the FAA will declare that flying cars are too complicated to be operated by ordinary citizens. Owners of the cars must obtain a special, expensive, time-consuming pilot’s license if they want permission to fly the machines. And if the FAA is accused of obstructing the new technology, regulators will simply reply: The nation’s air traffic control system is already overloaded; we don’t want thousands of new aircraft to keep track of. Then the National Transportation Safety Board will have its say. The flying cars, it will declare, do not have enough safety precautions. What if one of them malfunctions? There must be a guarantee that owners of the new cars will encounter zero risk.
And then there’s the EPA. What kind of exhaust fumes do the cars produce? What effect will they have on the upper atmosphere? It must pose some kind of danger, somehow, to the ozone layer.
And that’s just the government. Our inventor would also have to deal with the Naderites, who will proclaim his car “unsafe at any altitude.” The Sierra Club will condemn it as a gas guzzler, and the newly formed Citizens for Clear Skies will denounce flying cars as a blight on the aesthetic purity of the skies. A more old-fashioned think tank will issue a study warning of an “aerial divide” that threatens to split society into two warring classes. Newspapers will carry multi-part stories on the dangers of this “untested” technology. And if anyone does crash one of his cars, for any reason, our inventor will face multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
It’s no wonder that this is a fictional scenario. Who would invest time, effort and money in the development of this new technology, when it faces so many regulatory barriers and so much public hostility?
But then again, none of this is really fiction. It is exactly the reaction we are now seeing against existing technology. The greatest new technology of the past century, nuclear power, has been nearly regulated out of existence. Cell phones, and even electricity itself, are claimed to cause cancer. Computers allegedly create a “digital divide.” And Luddites of all stripes — from religious fanatics to environmentalists — are working to expunge genetic engineering.
In short, our culture is turning against the future. You can see this most clearly in today’s science fiction. It is the particular function of science fiction to project the future, especially a future shaped by technology. Over the past few decades, however, these projections have consistently turned dark. The future still has flying cars, but only in a world with killer robots or grotesquely deformed mutants. If this is the future, people have begun to conclude, then we’re better off without it. This is the great irony, and tragedy, of the new century. As we move forward into the year 2001, the leaders of our culture are trying to drive us backward to the year 1001.