The Future that Never Came
We were promised a world of flying cars, gleaming cities, and abundant energy. In the 2020s, can we finally build it?
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
If you’re reading this and you haven’t yet subscribed, then join 17,000+ curious souls on a mission to build a better shared future 🚀🔮
🎧 If you’d prefer to listen to this week’s instalment, go here for the audio version of The Future that Never Came. 🎧
This week saw the announcement of a new supersonic passenger jet, set to start commercial flights before the end of the decade.
That inspired these reflections, on flying cars, the future we were promised, and the chance we now have to realise it.
In the search for news of the next transformative innovation, few would look to United Airlines. But the company made waves this week: United will launch supersonic passenger flights by 2029, allowing customers to zip between London and New York in just three-and-a-half hours.
The airline is set to buy 15 supersonic passenger jets from aviation startup Boom Technologies. Founded in 2016, and funded via the iconic Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, the company says its Overture jet will reach speeds of Mach 1.7. Overture will run entirely on Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF); most likely a special form of biodiesel made from high-energy crops.
Exciting news, for sure. But if you’re at least old enough to remember the 1990s, this announcement triggers a strange kind of temporal jolt. The original supersonic passenger jet, Concorde, made its first flight way back in 1969, and its first commercial journey in 1976. Concorde didn’t run on sustainable fuel. But it was faster than Overture, reaching top speeds of Mach 2.04.
It’s not hard, then, to see why the Overture announcement feels strange. A Y Combinator-backed startup, a slick YouTube video, and headlines in TechCrunch, all in service of an invention that first entered the world over 50 years ago. It’s as though you were to read reports from this year’s CES only to discover that the headlines were on a flashy new startup and its promise to build a pocket calculator.
All this taps into a broader set of ideas that run close to the heart of NWSH. Ideas about the future we were once promised by a generation of technologists and thinkers. About why that future didn’t arrive. And if, in the 2020s, we can build it after all.
At the centre of all this is a simple observation.
The last 40 years have seen a revolution for the information technologies. But when it comes to the world around us – the world of atoms rather than bits – we’ve seen no comparable advance. We’ve gone from the typewriter to the iPhone. But the houses we live in, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and the cities we move through remain much as they were. We talk endlessly about a world changing faster than ever. But the reality is that IRL innovation has stalled.
Look at the economic data across the same period, and that story is consolidated. Growth rates and productivity have been in a slump for decades. In the 1960s the average US GDP growth rate was above four per cent; for the last ten years it’s been stuck below two per cent. Sure, we have Google now. But so far – at least according to this data – the internet has produced no real bump in economic output, or growth. Materially, the internet hasn’t changed the world.
Put all this together, and you get a phenomenon economists call the Great Stagnation. It’s the story of a future promised but not delivered. A strange lack at the heart of contemporary life. Rewind back to the 1960s, and people confidently expected the age we live in to look like this:
But that future never arrived.
The billionaire VC Peter Thiel captured the resulting sense of loss with a phrase that’s since become synonymous with the Great Stagnation: ‘we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.’
So what happened? And where does this leave us in 2021?
On the first question, there are two schools of thought. In 2011’s The Great Stagnation, the libertarian economist and New York Times writer Tyler Cowan floated his ‘low-hanging fruit’ theory. Cowan argued that key 19th-century advances – oil, electricity, and mass education – set the stage for an unprecedented wave of innovation that occurred at a speed and scale we’ll never see again. That low-hanging fruit, says Cowan, is now gone, and it will get ever-harder to generate new innovations that change the world the way, for example, the combustion engine did.
Meanwhile in 2018 the futurist and independent researcher J. Storrs Hall published Where Is My Flying Car?, in which he argues that regulation – specifically regulation against nuclear power and nanotechnologies – stole away the new world that was promised. These days, flying cars are widely seen as a symbol of futurist overreach: ha, people seriously expected the future to look like that! But back in the 1970s, says Hall, flying cars really were emerging as a practical reality, and that future could have materialised had abundant nuclear energy made mass production economically viable, and regulators not stepped in to banish the dream.
Is that, then, where the story ends? Do we have to accept that we missed out on the future that might have been?
Not necessarily. In 2021, the pandemic has converged with a series of technological indicators to signal that the Great Stagnation may be coming to an end. There are signs that that we’re on the verge, now, of another transformative wave of IRL innovation.
That idea hinges on another, which is that the internet will in the end cause a meaningful boost in production and economic growth. Historians of innovation point out that it took decades for electricity to impact the real economy. It shouldn’t surprise us if the impact of the internet – no less a transformative technology – also takes decades to manifest.
And now, that moment could at last be emerging. Just look at the rise of powerful new language models such as GPT-3, or DeepMind’s announcement that its AlphaFold AI had solved the iconic protein-folding problem. Both are powerful signals that AI is reaching its electricity moment, which will see it run through, reorder, and supercharge multiple industries in the years ahead, often by exponentially speeding up the research that can lead to breakthrough innovations.
And that moment is converging with others.
Advances in computer modelling, materials science and more are bringing about new leaps in industrial design; the Overture is made possible in part by software that allows Boom Technologies to simulate air flow over the fuselage and so find the most fuel-efficient design. Back in the 1960s, the engineers who built Concorde did around a dozen air flow tests, using highly expensive physical models in a wind tunnel. Boom Technologies can conduct thousands of computer simulations. No wonder the Overture is fuel efficient, and so economically viable, in a way Concorde never managed to be.
And finally, the pandemic has forced the world’s biggest companies to put the internet at the heart of the way they work. At last, we’re reordering legacy industries around a connected world.
Put it all together, and the idea that we’re about the transcend the Great Stagnation seems very real. Tyler Cowan certainly thinks it’s plausible.
In 1920, the human collective was emerging out of the double-convulsion that was WWI and the Spanish Flu. The decade that followed saw an economic boom and stunning technological advance. One hundred years on, can we imitate that turnaround?
It’s an exciting prospect. But one final thought.
As we consider that possibility, we should remember that periods of great advance come with costs as well as benefits.
The upheavals of the 1920s and 30s – rapid urbanisation, the railways, the arrival of mass media – paved the way to 1939. If we’re to about to reignite IRL innovation, and seize our chance to reconfigure the world around us, then we must seek not only new cars, clothes, and cities, but new frameworks for living together, and a new way to tell the shared human story.
We can build the future we were promised. But if we tether that new world to outdated ideas and dysfunctional politics, it may yet prove to be another nightmare.
Time to build
Thanks for reading this week.
If those who believe the Great Stagnation is coming to an end are right, we’re about to witness a transformative decade.
New World Same Humans will be watching every step of the way, and striving to make sense of what it all means for our shared future.
And there’s something you can do to help with that mission.
If this week’s instalment resonated with you, why not forward the email to someone who’d also enjoy it? Or share it across one of your social networks, with a note on why you found it valuable. Remember: the larger and more diverse the NWSH community becomes, the better for all of us.
I’ll be back on Wednesday with New Week Same Humans. Until then, be well,