The future is here, not exactly what you expected, huh?

So I read this post over at the Speculist that talks about the failed dreams of futurists–namely flying cars, jet packs, airships and so on. At first I decided to reply directly to the post but the post grew so long that I decided to put it here.

Basically it’s all about economics. That’s why we don’t have air cars, jet packs, supersonic passenger planes, huge superbuildings, space colonies, underwater cities and other futurist fantasies.

Flying cars

It seems to me that flying cars already exist in the form of small aircraft aviation. Just think of the small planes, helicopters and small airfields that hobbyists, government officials and large companies have for their VIPs, that’s were air cars stand today. Right now only the rich or large organizations can afford a fleet of helicopters to land and take off from office buildings. For the rest of us cars, buses, semitrucks, commercial airlines and trains are sufficient and cheap enough for our needs. There really isn’t any market or reason for the masses to own ultralights or autogyros. Until there’s a real need, there will never be air cars (Read that as “small aircraft”) that we all own and fly. Air cars already exist. Most of us just don’t need them.

Jet packs

The jet pack question really is just another form of the air car question. Is there a need for it? Cars cheaply commute, haul stuff, pick up friends and family already. Why do we need a jet pack that only flies for 20 minutes with almost no cargo capacity? The idea that’s often put forward is that we could use jet packs for short jaunts to avoid traffic jams. This is ridiculous. Imagine if everyone did that–that’s right–more traffic jams. Much better and cheaper to ride a bike instead.

From a military (or police) standpoint, jet packs make more sense. They’d allow infantry or cops to hop over obstacles or to drop surprise attacks from above, but isn’t this what paratroops do already and more cheaply? Don’t SWAT teams already rope-repel off the sides of buildings, like they did in the Blues Brothers? The scenes in Minority Report with cops jetting around still seem pretty far away, unlike those disturbing smart roads that went everywhere.

Airships and supersonic airliners

Airships have staged a comeback and have found application in some areas, which brings us back to the economic argument. Until airships can meet the needs already answered by ordinary jet airliners more efficiently, passenger airships will never return. This brings up supersonic passenger flight, the Concord hung on as long as it did because of government subsidy. The widebodies of Boeing and Airbus were cheaper and met the transoceanic markets well enough to never allow Concord to become profitable.

It seems to me for high speed, long distance travel to make sense again we have to think in very radical terms. Not that scram jet idea that Reagan proposed to the public back in the Eighties–no–how about a honeycombing the planet with evacuated maglev subways, where the cars approach spacecraft speeds? Such a system probably won’t be economically possible until nanotech make tunneling and maglev cheap enough to do it.

Space colonization

There really is only one reason for people to colonize space: to avoid having all our eggs in one basket. There never will be an economic reason for us to colonize space, ever. Asteroid mining, if it ever becomes economically necessary, can be done entirely by robots. The same applies to energy production. Overpopulation has never been solved by colonization, ever. But if we think in terms of increasing the odds of civilization to survive, asteroidal bombardment, war and terrorism involving superweapons or the death of the Sun, space colonization makes sense. So how do we make it cheap?

Simply stated, invent space elevators and re-engineer humans to survive in the harsh environments beyond earth. Doing this is far cheaper then terraforming or using rockets. Eventually the creatures that we engineer to colonize the solar system and the stars will relegate the creatures that look more or less as we do today to a minority, but by then the definition of “human” will have broadened so much as to make appearance and biology almost meaningless and our culture, which is what matters, will survive.

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