Monthly Archives: May 2011

Flying cars and locking in the future

One problem with progressive thought is that it seeks to lock in the future. I remember as a young child being enthralled by the depiction of flying cars on a cereal box. There is a particular progression by which flying cars appear as but the natural next step. Automobiles give individuals a particular terrestrial freedom of mobility previously unattainable during a period of horses, wagons, trains, and trolleys. Flying cars would expand the freedom of personal mobility in encompassing too the skies, combining terrestrial and aerial modes of transport. With a flying car an individual could travel nearly anywhere they wanted. There was an image on the cereal box of flying cars streaming through the air space over a city.

Thirty years later flying cars are neither any closer to becoming a common reality nor are they still appearing on the sides of cereal boxes. Whatever progress has been made in the modes of personal transport it has not led to flying cars. Certainly, my fascination with representations of flying cars as a young child arose in part because they served as fodder for imagining the world differently. However, in following this particular futurology I was mostly learning what was valued at the moment. People drape the future in the values they hold dearest. I must have learned the lesson well for I remember designing on paper an individual spaceship a few years later that I took great pleasure in reproducing over and over again. An individual spaceship that could be used to go wherever one desired throughout the galaxy was, of course, what I imagined as a self-evident progression in the development of mechanized means of personal locomotion.

In reality, however, there is no necessary progression from the trolley, to the bus, to the automobile. The tendency we attribute to this history, for example that of increasing individual mobility, is artificial and arbitrary. The automobile, as it turns out, limits individual mobility as much as it enables it. I was reminded of this fact just the other day when I directed someone to drive down a one-way street the wrong way only because I am used to walking along that street in that direction. The philosopher Ivan Illich has already more fully developed this argument. There are towns in Europe that used to be close, people would walk easily from one to the other. Now that people walk less, however, are habituated to traveling by car or bus, they are limited by where a road will take them. A town that used to be accessible by walking can now be relatively inaccessible because there is not a road that travels directly to it.

If someone were to do the research, I suspect that the flying cars that I saw depicted on cereal boxes as a child could be related to the publicity campaigns produced by the automobile industry to encourage the adoption of and the use of cars. It is certainly no surprise that I encountered these images on cereal boxes in Southern California. Long before the automobile industry had successfully lobbied politicians and the public to build the largest network of roads, intersections, and highways in the world. To this day it is still the Mecca for a cult to the car, as can be seen not only in the number of car clubs and shows but also the chronic problem with traffic. Looking back, the image of flying cars was but traces of an earlier ecstatic celebration to the automobile as fetishized object. The honeymoon, however, was already over, brought to an end by the energy crisis and the rising concern over pollution.

Somebody will point out to me that flying cars tie into dreams of terrestrial and aerial mobility that can be traced back hundreds if not thousands of years. While this is certainly true, it does not detract from my point that flying cars are principally a tribute to cars themselves, the terrestrial machines that many people fell in love with in Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s. Flying cars, in this sense, were not really about the future at all. Imagining a future populated by these machines was a way of rationalizing the use of the automobile in the present, celebrating the values that led to privileging that mode of transportation over and against others. Can you imagine what it would really be like to have a congested stream of cars hanging over your backyard during a weekend barbecue blocking out the sun and poisoning the air with emissions and noise? No, equipping cars with wings was more in the spirit of depicting the gods or celestial beings with wings, an act of veneration.

Imagining the future populated by flying cars was one way of imagining a future WITH cars. If cars were part of the future, then the place of importance given to them in the present had meaning. Projecting a future technology based on the automobile was not an exercise in creatively opening up the future to technological developments, but a way of locking in that future around a particular technology. If the car was going to be such an important part of life in the future, then there was no basis upon which to question the decisions and investments that had led to extensive dependence on this technology. Seen in this light, through the depictions on the cereal box my own childhood fantasies of travel were parasitized by the automobile.

Obviously this story is not a tragic one. I am not trying to give it more importance than it should have. Today I am quite happy living in a place where I do not need a car to get to work or shop, where I can get most places I need by walking, a bicycle, or public transportation. Southern California, however, continues to be a place where living without a car is nearly impossible. My real point is not about cars at all, but about progress. Progress as the unfolding of a historical tendency always exhibits this characteristic: By locating the present in-between a past and a future that is understood in terms of a particular development, leading from one technology or institution to another, the present is immobilized, and thinking about the future is impoverished. History is in reality discontinuous and contingent. We tell ourselves stories, like the one about cars, to give ourselves importance by imagining that we build on past accomplishments and contribute to a future that stands on our values, institutions, and technologies. In as much as we use these stories to rationalize our decisions, we use them to lock them in, closing off the type of thought and imagination that would key into alternative possibilities in the present and better tune into developments that may lead to values and technologies that don’t fit the self-congratulatory stories we tell ourselves.