When Bell introduced its prototype Air Taxi at CES this month, it reignited the age-old dream of ‘flying cars.’ Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger argues that understanding the appeal of something as insanely dangerous as ‘flying cars’ requires a shift in perspective. Hint: it’s not actually about the cars.
As the old joke goes, ‘I’ve had it up to here [jumps straight up, hand extended] with flying cars.’ I’m not the only one either. Matt Novak, curator of the exceptional web series Paleofuture is just as fed up the ‘flying car’ hype. A few weeks ago, he noticed an announcement at CES 2019 about Bell’s new ‘Nexus’ hybrid electric air taxi prototype and scoffed. In his opinion piece, Novak said:
‘I’ve written many times about how the flying car is always just two years away. It was two years away in 2008, two years away in 2009, two years away in 2010 … you get the idea. … We’ve been writing about past visions of the future for 11 years now (I can’t believe it either), and in that time flying cars have always been two years away—a form of perpetual vaporware.’
I agree. The ‘soon, we’ll all be flying our cars’ idea has a fixture of overly-optimistic popular culture for decades now. Along those lines, one of my favourite Novak articles was a piece on a 1958 Mechanix Illustrated magazine story about how military research into primitive vertical lift technology was going to bleed over into the private sector real soon now and facilitate all sorts of magnificent new devices – with associated social evolution as technology fundamentally changed how Americans would live their lives.
That, I think, is where the ‘flying cars’ trope took root in the American zeitgeist and became evergreen. That said, I suspect that the allure of the technology wasn’t really about the cars themselves, so much as it was about how society would evolve to allow such a technology to go mainstream and thus spur social change. This matters quite a bit more than you’d except, and it impacts how we think of business today.
… and partially explains why we haven’t really evolved ‘office life’ much beyond what our grandparents experienced in the 1950s. It’s still crowded communal spaces where everyone is always shouting and no one can focus.
I submit that the seemingly boundless optimism of the early Atomic Age wasn’t so much a by-product of having harnessed nuclear power as it was a logical projection of social expectations based on America’s recent involvement of World War II. As Brad Smithfield wrote this time last year in Vintage News:
‘Advances in the field of nuclear physics massively changed the way people lived. While some people thought of nuclear power as a terrifying threat, many others shared a great nuclear optimism, celebrating the fact that everything will be “nuclear” in the future. From cheap electricity to water for the thirsty and food for the hungry, nuclear optimism of the Atomic Age seemed to have no limits.’
Smithfield’s synopsis seems to support the notion that people in the 1940s and 50s naively overestimated the potential of science and technology. I argue that it wasn’t the technology in and of itself that inspired people back then; rather, it was the earnest belief that modern society could plan and execute massive logistical operations – like managing a hugely complex, global, nuclear society – that resonated with war-weary and change-saturated people.
Consider that the global population had just finished WW II. The world had seen the allies raise massive militaries that fought and sustained extended operations nearly everywhere on earth. The staggering complexity of coordinating thousands of aircraft for a single bombing raid, or of synchronizing hundreds of warships and planes for a far-off naval engagement, or the challenge of conducting the Normandy invasion … These weren’t just examples of military might; they were testimony to how a society could – if sufficiently motivated – band together to create great works and engage in synchronized activities on a scale undreamed of in human history. As the 1950s rolled into the 60s, the world’s powers made massive strides in space travel, medicine, telecommunications, supersonic aviation, advanced materials, power … All activities that required huge industrial and scientific effort to achieve.
To say nothing of the catastrophic cost in human pain and suffering.
So, how did all the ‘flying car’ talk fit in to this? I maintain that it was never about the cars themselves. Regular cars were dangerous enough during the second half of the twentieth century. Adding the inability to stop or pull over to an already challenging rush hour commute doesn’t sound particularly appealing even now.
No, I suspect it was the vision of living in a society so advanced that such marvels were possible that appealed. Imagine how difficult it would be to develop personal flying machines that anyone could use without special aviator training, that were common and inexpensive enough that any kid with a paper route could afford one, and that operated on a skyway system that was as safe and as boring as the existing highway network. Our society would have to advance by leaps and bounds to create a world where such achievements were not only possible but were mundane. Shoot, that vision still sounds magnificent today, and we’ve only just started to figure out self-driving ground cars.
I said in the beginning that this ideal future had a business tie-in. I meant it. A lot of the reading I’ve done in business and organisational theory from that period seems to feature that same level of exuberant optimism. In the near future, many writers seemed to believe, workers will ‘grow out of’ their inefficient, unmotivated, self-destructive, selfish habits and mature into selfless, purely-rational, dependable, and self-motivated team players. With everyone pulling together at peak efficiency, there would be no limit to the things that businesses can achieve. We’d build Moon bases! We’d commute across oceans! We’d all have infinite free nuclear energy! A flying car in every garage!
That didn’t happen, obviously. It makes sense, though, that people might think it possible; consider what non-serving businessmen, academics, and visionaries had just witnessed over the course of World War II. From a sufficiently safe remove, it certainly looked like the whole world had stepped up its game, had come together with one unified voice to oppose fascism, and had (in the process) fabricated a huge leap forward in technological might and collective sophistication. I can forgive the idealists their starry-eyed admiration; a lot of our post-war revisionist propaganda claimed that’s what had happened. No wonder contemporary business writers thought that we could engineer a world where flying cars were an everyday thing … we’d done something just as astounding recently, so we could surely do it again.
To be fair, we did accomplish some astounding feats of engineering while we waited for the flying cars.
Except … that first ‘great leap forward’ hadn’t been quite all it was advertised to be. We certainly did evolve from biplanes to jet fighters over the course of WW2. Technology leap? Check. We certainly did evolve from building static fortifications on our national borders to coordinating massive invasions across oceans. Organizational complexity? Check. What we didn’t do was to fundamentally change human nature. Sure, humanity accomplished some unmatched ‘firsts’ for large-scale activities. On the other hand, when you hurl a million people at a problem, it’s probably going to get solved, even if only by accident. Further, if you only look at the final result of a massive million-player effort, it can be easy to overlook all of the inefficiencies, errors, embarrassing failures, and needless waste that occurred as the problem somehow got sorted.
What I’m saying is that I think the idealists drew an incorrect lesson from the ‘greatest hits’ version of the war, and then applied those as assumptions as to how things might turn out in the future. I’d go so far as to argue that these were good faith mistakes rather than cynical lies. If you hadn’t actually participated in the war, and if you’d only read about it in glossy news magazines, then you too might have come away with a skewed, sanitized, and possibly inaccurate understanding of how things worked.
Note that post-war fiction written by combat veterans tended to be quite nuanced and grim. Veterans who had seen the insanity, confusion, and absurdity of global war close up tended to be much more reserved in their visions of what our future might look like. As much as I enjoyed the original Johnny Quest’s can-do super-science futurism, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 resonate more for me since they reflect the perspectives of storytellers who drew conclusions from directly-observed history. Their more modest and pragmatic vision turned out to be more accurate than that of the high-spirited futurists who projected flawed assumptions from other people’s sanitized synopsis of recent history.
The same thing stands out to me in contemporary non-fiction writing. Browsing through the business section at an airport gift shop recently, I saw title after title showcasing how brilliant, visionary, and even revolutionary various Dot Com companies and company founders were. Did those glorious heroes ignore conventional wisdom? Pursue their ineffable vision in the face of all rational criticism? Run their company like a commune, a day care, or a dictatorship? How bold! Such genius! Every leader at every company must run their own business like these incredible men ran theirs!
It’s such a seductive pitch. If only you do X the way that mythologized hero did X, then you too will create a trillion dollar business out of nothing overnight. It’s alchemy. Lead into gold, if only you learn the secret incantation.
The book jackets certainly sounded motivating. Encouraging, even. Except … it was all hype and mischaracterization. I’ve been part of start-ups and Dot Coms. I’ve seen what how the sausage is made up-close and can say with confidence that there’s a lot more inefficiency, unforced errors, embarrassing failures, and needless waste than there is cosmic brilliance. That’s why industry veterans’ books like Day Lyons’ Disrupted and Emily Chang’s Brotopia resonate for me. The survivors’ tales speak to the industry as it really was, not through a nuance-erasing remove.
It’s all ‘flying car’ visions. Always has been, too. Back in September 1997, WIRED magazine published an exuberantly optimistic article by Kevin Kelly that I’ve never forgotten titled ‘New Rules for the New Economy.’ It was passionate to the point of being fervent. The new Dot Com world, Kelly argued, had fundamentally changed everything, and everything we knew about business was obsolete, never to return. Except that’s not how it turned out, was it? The Dot Com Bubble collapsed in 2000, proving that the fundamentals hadn’t actually been swept aside at all. It only looked that was from far enough away that you couldn’t perceive the fraud, rot, and empty hype that so many Dot Com enterprises had been built upon.
Despite 20:20 hindsight, Kelly’s insights and projected trends weren’t necessarily wrong, just … exaggerated. He accurately explained a lot of important ideas that we now take for granted like the ‘network effect.’ I argue that he wasn’t foolish; I think he was just caught up in the excitement, eager to see us achieve a world much better than the one he’d grown up in. One where everyone matured a bit, set aside their personal pettiness to support the common good, and helped society evolve into something better. Describe it as the ‘new economy’ or as ‘flying cars’ and it’s still the same: a step towards the utopia we’d all like to live in … if only we could all agree to become just a little bit better than we are and always have been.
Title Allusions: None this week
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.