Why were we obsessed with flying cars?

by on June 7, 2012 at 1:59 am in Education, History, Science | Permalink

David Graeber has a fascinating albeit uneven essay about our changing visions of the future, here is one excerpt:

Why, these analysts wonder, did both the United States and the Soviet Union become so obsessed with the idea of manned space travel? It was never an efficient way to engage in scientific research. And it encouraged unrealistic ideas of what the human future would be like.

Could the answer be that both the United States and the Soviet Union had been, in the century before, societies of pioneers, one expanding across the Western frontier, the other across Siberia? Didn’t they share a commitment to the myth of a limitless, expansive future, of human colonization of vast empty spaces, that helped convince the leaders of both superpowers they had entered into a “space age” in which they were battling over control of the future itself? All sorts of myths were at play here, no doubt, but that proves nothing about the feasibility of the project.

And this bit:

The growth of administrative work [in universities] has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years.

Interesting throughout, as they say.  For pointers I thank Umung Varma and Kevan Huston.

rr June 7, 2012 at 4:39 am

“My own knowledge comes from universities”. Maybe that’s the problem.

JWatts June 7, 2012 at 11:00 am

+1, the author lives in a bubble

dearieme June 7, 2012 at 5:53 am

“societies of pioneers”… “vast empty spaces”: or ruthless Imperialists, depending on your point of view.

allen June 7, 2012 at 5:59 am

Sorry Tyler but the growth of administration in higher education is a result of all the money pouring into higher education. Something’s got to be done with that money – God knows the universities aren’t going to *cut* prices – so they hire bags of unnecessary administrative personnel. The same thing’s happened in K-12.

In fact, the irony is that it’s in the private arena that a growth of administrative underbrush is viewed as a sign of poor and lazy managmenet that quite often accompanies large profits. Better to hiire bags of “assistants to” then to raise the dividend. Fortunately, the free enterprise system has the antidote to that poison although it sometimes kills the patient and against the predictions made by the doom-and-gloom crowd, so does, as the 2010 mid-term election shows, so does the public sector.

Andrew' June 7, 2012 at 7:06 am

Anecdotally, when I worked for a corporation evaluations were a rare joke. In academia the constant evaluation is like water torture and a joke. Neither actually did anything at the end of the day, but the business seemed to realize that the main point was lip service and otherwise to be minimized.

John Thacker June 7, 2012 at 10:38 am

That’s because in corporations where people are working at will, everything really is just up to management, and evaluation is always lip service implementing what the manager wants. And yet the system generally works because of the power of exit and competition.

v June 7, 2012 at 6:29 am

“No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years.”

How about Ostrom?

david June 7, 2012 at 6:42 am

I think he means pathbreaking works in anthropology, since he’s an anthropologist, not an economist.

Anthony June 7, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Since economics isn’t social, according to anthropologists?

GW June 7, 2012 at 8:16 am

I believe that Ostrom’s work is quite complementary to Graeber’s project, particularly in recognizing optimal actors that are neither states nor corporations, but wasn’t the bulk of it established more than thirty years ago?

Guy Fulton June 7, 2012 at 7:04 am

Interesting that modern sci-fi is so often set in a world intentionally removed from reality such as steam-punk, diesel-punk, post apocalyptic world or zombie outbreak scenario. Will our children grow up relieved that a colossal disaster didn’t happen instead of disappointed about unfulfilled futuristic dreams? Is this a good thing? I’m in my 20s and I find that most people my age have a very dark view of the future which may mean that we have less motivation to attempt to create great wonders of technology.

By the way – can anyone thing of any sci-fi novels/movies/magazine articles which actually came near the mark? I was going to say Neuromancer but on reflection I take it back.

Finch June 7, 2012 at 9:52 am

It’s particularly curious at a time when the space age, after a 50 year interruption by socialism and rent-seeking, seems about to actually occur…

Lots of people have theories explaining the popularity of zombie fiction. Guilt-free violence for passive nerds seems a common explanation. I think there’s an element of plague-fear contributing – a reaction to urbanization and crowding in general.

doctorpat June 8, 2012 at 4:46 am

“Movie monsters are the nightmares of our collective subconscious.”
Which is a fancy way of saying that a movie monster only becomes popular if it triggers some deep underlying fear that is shared by a large section of the population.

Vampires are easy: Slim to thin, pale, rich, seductive, associated with blood and sex and dark third world rites… vampires are AIDS.

Zombies are not so obvious… unless they are too obvious. The fear of mobs. The fear of being outnumbered when normal people sudden turn to violence.

We look at TV and every day see riots. We see Londoners going on smashing looting sprees. Not the denizens of some far off exotic land, with a different culture and impossible to relate to social structure, but people in London. A generation ago it was the Rodney King riots in LA, where we saw people getting ripped out of vehicles and killed for being the wrong colour.

This is terrifying at some level, and so the movie zombie sparks a huge response in our brains.

Anonymous coward June 7, 2012 at 7:29 am

Comte concluded that we needed to develop a new science, which he dubbed “sociology,” and said that sociologists should play the role of priests in a new Religion of Society that would inspire everyone with a love of order, community, work discipline, and family values. Toffler was less ambitious; his futurologists were not supposed to play the role of priests.

But of course. Somehow Graeber fails to mention that Comte’s vision has succeeded beautifully, with the single difference that the objects of love inspired by the priests of the new (not really new now) Religion of Society turned out to be radicalism, diversity, anti-elitism and single motherhood — typical leftist oversight. And praising Politburo as bureaucrats who dared to dream astounding dreams! And this — but the moment we stop imagining bureaucracy as a phenomenon limited to government offices, it becomes obvious that this is precisely what we have become [i.e. a nation of bureaucrats] — forsooth! It is obvious without even beginning to consider non-government bureaucracy, obvious to all but the most purblind (or the most well-versed in the art of double-think) of whom the author presents such a fine example. Overall, the essay contains little that would be of interest to an informed observer, except as an object of a literary post-mortem.

mulp June 7, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Single motherhood didn’t exist before Comte proposed sociology?? Or are you suggesting that leftist created single motherhood?? Given Texas has high single motherhood, is Texas more leftist than Massachusetts??

Andrew' June 7, 2012 at 8:35 am

“Why were we obsessed with flying cars?”

The obvious reasons. There is a ton of free sky. The government has to create traffic up there. If we have driverless cars, why on earth would we do it on the ground where it is likely much harder than doing it in the air, where the bottleneck is pilot skill. It’s just practicality to me. I like how he makes a counterpoint to the meme that we need NASA to inspire. The flip side of inspiration can be misleading.

John Schilling June 7, 2012 at 10:43 am

We drive cars on the ground because all the places we want to go to are on the ground, and making the ground/air transition is not a trivial matter. Specifically, a “flying car” the size and weight of a typical compact car might require only 100 horsepower or so for cruise flight, but close to 2,000 for takeoff and landing. Even if that much power were readily available, there are serious noise and safety implications in channeling it through a small area. More power-efficient aircraft are possible, but they require correspondingly more space for takeoff and landing; you’re not going to have an airstrip or even helipad at every corner.

So possibly we need to link this with the “best walking cities” thread: What are the best walking cities with lots of small airports? I actually do fairly well in Los Angeles with an airplane and a folding bicycle, but that’s largely due to fortuitous coincidence – my office and most of my friends are uncharacteristically close to airports; most of the places most people want to go (e.g. downtown) are very much not.

So, yes, the obsession is not hard to understand. The implementation suffers from a last-mile problem that is hard for most people to overcome given the existing infrastructure, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Floccina June 8, 2012 at 11:17 am

but close to 2,000 for takeoff and landing

I agree with you but I think that takeoff energy can be greatly reduced perhaps the air craft land on high platforms or some other creative solution.

Ryan June 7, 2012 at 10:15 am

Flying cars are a terrible idea. We kill off a lot of people just driving in two dimensions. Can you imagine the sheer abattoir-level horror show we’d get if people were driving in three dimensions?

Yancey Ward June 7, 2012 at 11:32 am

But it would be wonderful entertainment.

Andrew' June 7, 2012 at 11:40 am

I’ll take this seriously. People die in cars because they hit stuff. The flip-side of that is when you can’t die because you are going so slow because of all the traffic. 3-dimensions fixes all of that. All you really have to worry about is hitting the ground. That’s what the computers are for, possibly combined with some robust VTOL technology. The vague concept of air travel is a no-brainer as superior to surface travel. More degrees of freedom. You can easily impose lanes on air travel but you can’t easily provide avoidance routes on roads (thus stop lights). The technical, technological, and logistical hurdles at the tipping point are high. Once you land you have to walk, although the air car or a Segway help that.

JWatts June 7, 2012 at 11:17 am

This author needs to get out more. His idea of how a modern factory works is ridiculous. Factories are continuously becoming more robotic, (usually just referred to as automated). And while foreign cheap labor has lead to shifting some goods production to places like China, even there factories are starting to employ more automation. Even zero wage labor can’t manually produce paper clips as cheaply as a machine. And this is an ever increasing phenomena for an ever increasing amount of complex goods. It’s just not a phenomena that’s instantaneous.

It literally takes better than a decade to pay off the capital costs for a heavily automated line. So corporations don’t go in an fire their entire staff and replace them with robots. Instead, as the market expands a new line comes in that is more automated than a previous line. And eventually every 3 to 4 cycles an older line is dismantled and replaced.

I.E. I did work about 10 years ago (circa 2000) on a production line (producing biscuits) that required 2 operators. It was adjacent to a line emplaced around the early 90′s that required 6 operators. And on the far side was a line built in the 80′s that required 14 operators. The line I worked in that required 2 operators had a higher output that either of the previous lines. (I believe that the older line that required 14 operators has since been replaced by a more modern line). And the cycle continues.

John Mansfield June 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Now I know that “fascinating albeit uneven” means laying out interesting and rational questions, then turning nutty in a search for explanations.

Silas Barta June 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm

No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years.

Oh, NO! The horrors, the horrors!

Seriously, Tyler_Cowen, what *exactly* did you find so insightful about the latest missive from David “Apple Computers was started by Republican laptop-wielder in 1980s garage communes” Graeber?

The Cranky Professor June 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Graeber admires those daring Soviets who wanted to remake the world. Funny, the BBC has a story on one of those just today…the railroad that was to drive the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. That’s a plan started AFTER World War II. Good one, Iosif.

Gulliver June 7, 2012 at 10:19 pm

No flying cars and no communism either.
How sad.
Even those futuristic East-German and Soviet cars have all but disappeared.
Oh, the failures of humanity and the future!
Where are the visionary politburos?
No more hope?
No more change?

Brett June 8, 2012 at 3:27 am

Graeber really should have just gone with the simpler idea, which is that intelligent people making predictions on limited knowledge can and often are quite wrong.

In the case of manned spaceflight, the mistake was under-estimating how capable and compact computers would be, robot helpers aside. The original rationales for the manned space program were that you needed humans in space to do all kinds of useful space activities, such as communications (Arthur C. Clarke’s space station that required human operators to change the vacuum tubes) or military space platforms. Both largely evaporated with the development of automated spacecraft. Once that happened, the only rationales left were science and prestige, and scientific research funding is difficult to mobilize and sustain if it’s not for something like cancer or disease. In the mean-time, manned space travel wasn’t getting much cheaper, in part because of fundamental engineering issues and the lack of mass commercial demand for manned spaceflight.

I think the Moon landings also unfairly color our perceptions of where we “ought” to be in terms of space travel. They were the product of a rare situation when the government was willing to pour a good chunk of money into a grand prestige mission, which was unlikely to be sustainable in a democracy. If we had had a steadier build-up of space capabilities (particularly in orbit), we might actually be able to do more in space – and we’d have a sense of steady progress instead of a sense of triumph and anti-climax.

More generally, some of the other “under-performances” are just a result of us not knowing how difficult the task or ignorant we were. Finding cures for cancer or trying to get fusion power to work is just really, strong hard.

Brett June 8, 2012 at 3:31 am

As for popular culture and manned spaceflight, I think it’s a matter of timing. The 1950s were a hugely productive period for science fiction, and particular space science fiction. Then suddenly along comes the Space Race, and it all seems like it actually might happen. America is going to the Moon, the Soviets are building space stations – the list goes on. It must have been terribly disappointing (you see some of this with Robert Zubrin, the big Mars manned mission advocate).

doctorpat June 8, 2012 at 4:55 am

And yet 1950s SF featured people on spaceships still using sliderules and abacuses to do math. So the didn’t REALLY all assume human level computers.

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