November 6, 2020 · 12 min read
Suppose you were to reach into the mirror universe, where everything is inverted, and pull out a book that is the exact opposite of Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth.
Instead of being written by a scholarly economic historian steeped in the study of the past, it would be written by an engineer who has spent his career on futuristic technology. Instead of coming from a prestigious academic press, it would be self-published, with misformatted tables and a cover featuring garish three-dimensional lettering. Instead of sticking to extremely conservative predictions about future technologies, it would speculate audaciously about the limits of the possible, from nanotech to cold fusion. Instead of a sober survey of economic history in one country and time period, it would range widely through engineering, physics and philosophy, exploring the power-to-weight ratio of jet turbines in one chapter, and describing the rise of the counterculture in the next. And instead of proclaiming the death of innovation and the end of growth, it would paint a bold vision of an ambitious technological future.
That book has leapt out of the mirror universe and into an Amazon Kindle edition (priced at 𝜋 dollars): Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall.
Hall sets out to tackle the title question: why don’t we have flying cars yet? And indeed, several chapters in the book are devoted to deep dives on the history, engineering, and economics of flying cars. But to fully answer the question, Hall must go much broader and deeper, because he quickly concludes that the barriers to flying cars are not technological or economic—they are cultural and political. To explain the flying car gap is to explain the Great Stagnation itself.
The most valuable thing I took away from the book was an awareness of some powerful technological possibilities.
Before reading the book, I had assumed that the flying car was one of those ideas that sounds good on its face, but turns out not to work or be interesting in practice. Maybe they’re inherently too hard to fly, too dangerous, or just not all that valuable. This book changed my mind, by pointing out a simple analogy: today’s system of flight has all of the inconveniences of railroads, over a century ago. Airplanes are large, mass-transit vehicles that travel only defined, scheduled routes between a small number of stations. This creates two problems for travelers. First is the “three vehicles” problem: you have to get from your origin to the nearest station, and then from your arrival station to your actual destination, changing vehicles each time (and hauling your luggage). Second is the inconvenience of schedule: having to be on time to catch the train or plane, compared to the personal vehicle that is ready immediately whenever you want it. This is driven home when you remember that a 90-minute flight from, say, San Francisco to Los Angeles actually takes you half a day, after travel to and from the airport plus delays at ticketing, security and boarding.
The book points out that the major value in a flying car (as with supersonic) would not be in taking the same trips you do now, only a bit faster. Instead, it would be in taking the trips you don’t take now, because they’re too inconvenient. A flying car would shrink your world, expanding the radius of what you would consider for a commute, a shopping trip, a visit to friends, a business meeting, or a weekend vacation. Indeed, Hall cites literature from travel studies finding that people in all societies travel on average about an hour a day, whether walking barefoot or driving on the highway. And he points out that increasing the effective radius for each of those trips increases the effective area open to you quadratically (doubling your travel radius means four times as many destinations).
Hall did extensive research and analysis for the book, even learning to fly a private aircraft himself. He recounts the history of flying car research and development, which began much earlier and has had many more credible attempts than I realized. He catalogs design approaches, including convertibles (vehicles that convert between flying and driving) and VTOL (vertical take-off and landing). He models engineering tradeoffs and travel times. And he concludes that there is no technological or economic reason why we can’t have flying cars with existing technology—indeed, why we couldn’t have had them already, if sustained work on them had continued past the 1970s.
Hall’s degrees are in computer science, but much of his career has been in nanotech, which was surprisingly prominent in the book. He makes clear that he’s not talking about mere nanoscale materials, but rather true nanotech, as envisioned by Feynman in the ’60s and advanced by Eric Drexler in the ’90s: atomically precise manufacturing, placing each atom one at a time exactly where you want it, giving you complete control over the structure of matter. In Hall’s telling, while this technology is obviously a ways off, the physics is sound and many of the basic principles have been worked out.
The potential capabilities of mature nanotech are mind-blowing. The incredible speed alone would dramatically lower the price of literally every physical product. Hall estimates that the entire capital stock of the US—“every single building, factory, highway, railroad, bridge, airplane, train, automobile, truck, and ship”—could be rebuilt in a week. And nanotech would allow materials with extreme properties, such as the strength of diamond, to be used for everyday manufacturing and construction.
The possibilities are straight out of science fiction. The “space pier”, a set of towers a hundred kilometers tall with a magnetic accelerator to shoot payloads into orbit, saving the fuel required to escape Earth’s gravity well and bringing down launch costs by three orders of magnitude. Or the “Weather Machine”, a fleet of quintillions of centimeter-sized balloons floating in the stratosphere, made of nanometer-thick diamond, with remote-controlled mirrors that can reflect light or allow it to pass through, forming a “programmable greenhouse gas” that can regulate temperature and direct solar energy. And of course, affordable flying cars.
One of the clearest indications of stagnation is the flatlining of energy usage. Because the growth in this metric was mentioned in the autobiography of Henry Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams), Hall calls the long-term trend of about 7% annual growth in energy usage per capita the “Henry Adams Curve”. In the late 20th century, we fell off of it:
Some techno-optimists, such as Andy McAfee, celebrate the flatlining and even peaking of resource usage curves, saying that we are getting “more from less”. Hall reminds us that more is more. All else being equal, energy efficiency is great. But there’s no reason to believe that flatlining or declining resource usage is optimal for progress. A large part of progress is harnessing ever-more resources and putting them to productive use. And indeed, we’re going to need lots more energy if we’re ever going to get nanotech manufacturing, regular space travel, and of course flying cars. In fact, a good explanation for technological stagnation is that the only technological revolution of the last 50 years, computing, was the only one that didn’t need more power than could be provided by the technology of the 1970s.
Where will all this energy come from? It could come from solar: the amount of power reaching the Earth from the Sun is some 10,000 times greater than the current power requirements of humanity. Of course, it’s hard to harness in practice, owing to cloud cover and pesky inconveniences such as nighttime, but that’s nothing a well-placed fleet of a quintillion remote-controlled aerostats in the stratosphere couldn’t handle.
But the majority of the energy discussion in the book focuses on the amazing potential of nuclear. The upshot is that we ought to have nuclear-powered everything. Nuclear homes with local, compact reactors—they don’t need to be on the grid. Nuclear cars, whether flying or ground. Even nuclear batteries—I was shocked to learn that certain designs of nuclear batteries were actually manufactured decades ago and used safely in implantable pacemakers.
The main benefit, of course, is the insane energy density of nuclear fuel: just over a pound of enriched uranium has as much energy as 10,000 gallons of gasoline or over 100,000 pounds of anthracite coal. With nuclear batteries, no device would ever need to be recharged; with nuclear engines and generators, “your ground car and your home’s power unit will be refueled upon annual maintenance.” This fuel efficiency makes the economics of nuclear look almost identical to that of renewables: the fuel is practically free, compared to the fixed cost of infrastructure: “A wind turbine uses up more lubricating oil than a nuclear plant uses uranium, per kilowatt-hour generated.”
The book describes several potential engineering approaches for nuclear power, not just the established fission plants based on uranium-235 that are in operation today, but everything up through speculative possibilities such as “chainless reactors” that bombard fissionable materials with high-energy neutrons, avoiding any nuclear chain reaction. Hall says that even cold fusion—er, sorry, I mean “low-energy nuclear reactions” (LENR)—deserves more research: although it might still turn out to be an unexploitable phenomenon or even an experimental artifact, there’s something going on that we don’t yet understand. Three chapters are dedicated to nuclear power; my main takeaway is that the variety of possibilities, and the scope and magnitude of the potential here, is breathtaking and underappreciated.
The need for energy is fundamental to the economy, and yet a remarkable feature of our culture is the opposition to almost any form of energy—a pathology that Hall dubs “ergophobia”. (More on this below.)
Putting together all this and more, Hall summarizes his vision for the future as a “Second Atomic Age” based on nuclear, nanotech, and artificial intelligence. It’s a vision of continued exponential or even super-exponential progress, a world in which we see improvement in the world of atoms as fast as we’ve recently seen improvement only in the world of bits.
Hall cites the global development advocate Hans Rosling, who classified the world population into four levels of income, on a logarithmic scale from $1/day (extreme poverty) to $64/day (which gets you electricity, a car, a washing machine, etc.). Using this scale, he says (emphasis added):
The miracle of the Industrial Revolution is now easily stated: In 1800, 85% of the world’s population was at Level 1. Today, only 9% is. Over the past half century, the bulk of humanity moved up out of Level 1 to erase the rich-poor gap and make the world wealth distribution roughly bell-shaped.
The average American moved from Level 2 in 1800, to level 3 in 1900, to Level 4 in 2000.
We can state the Great Stagnation story nearly as simply: There is no level 5.
Where Is My Flying Car? paints a vivid picture of what Level 5 would look like, and why we should keep working to get there.
So, why aren’t we on Level 5 yet? What caused the Great Stagnation? What flatlined the Henry Adams Curve? Why don’t we have nanotech manufacturing and nuclear-powered everything? And where is my flying car?
Hall blames a number of political and cultural factors:
He starts with a case study on nanotech. True nanotech, he says, was killed by federal funding. Well, not by federal funding directly, but by a storm of academic politics that followed predictably from the $500 million National Nanotech Initiative kicked off under President Clinton. With a new pot of money on the table, and with academic funding being largely a zero-sum game, researchers in adjacent fields responded in two ways. First, they rebranded whatever they were doing “nanotech”, even projects such as nanoscale materials science that are unrelated to the original vision of atomically precise manufacturing. Second, they aggressively attacked that original vision. The result was that all the funding and credibility for true nanotech evaporated.
Hall cites a passage from Machiavelli written in the 1500s that describes how politically dangerous it is to attempt to introduce an innovation: all of those who will be the losers if you succeed are galvanized against you, whereas those who would be the winners are much less motivated, given how speculative and uncertain the new innovation is. Seeing sixteenth-century social theory perfectly describe modern academic politics, Hall dubs this “The Machiavelli Effect.” And he cites other instances: cold fusion research, he says, was killed by a similar process.
He concludes that “the increasing centralization and bureaucratization of science and research funding” is a major culprit:
Centralized funding of an intellectual elite makes it easier for cadres, cliques, and the politically skilled to gain control of a field, and they by their nature are resistant to new, outside, non-Ptolemaic ideas. The ivory tower has a moat full of crocodiles.
It is at the least suspicious, one must admit, that the major runup in civilian federal funding for research pretty nearly coincides with the recent period of technological slowdown.
Hall quotes a post on a message board suggesting that even if you had built a flying car and were ready to take to the air, you’d be shot down by the FAA, the mayor, the news media, the insurance company, and your neighbors. An even greater regulatory burden applies to nuclear power, which Hall blames for the skyrocketing cost of power plants in the US:
In addition to the direct friction this burden places on innovation, it’s also a drain on human capital:
How much of a drain?
According to a study conducted by Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, the cost of the U.S. tort system consumes about two percent of GDP, on average. If we assume this mostly started around 1980 when lawyers skyrocketed and the airplane industry was destroyed, the long-run compound-interest effect on the economy as a whole is startling: without it our economy today would be twice the size it actually is. This is the closest we can come to measuring the effect of taking more than a million of the country’s most talented and motivated people and put them to work making arguments and filing briefs against each other so their efforts mostly cancel out, instead of inventing, developing, and manufacturing things which could have made life better.
Through maybe the 1950s, visions of the future, although varied, were optimistic. People believed in progress and saw technology as taking us forward to a better world. In the span of a generation, that changed, with the shift becoming prominent by the late 1960s. A “counterculture” arose which did not believe in technology or progress: indeed, a major element of the counterculture was the environmentalist movement, much of which saw technology and industry as actively destroying the Earth.
In H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the “Eloi” were a weak, dissolute race of useless people who contribute nothing to society (a parody of the idle rich of 19th-century England). Hall calls the activists of the counterculture the “Eloi Agonistes”, and blames them for “ergophobia” and for excessive regulation:
Unlike a century ago, today for everyone who is working on advancing technological progress, there is someone else who fervently believes that they are saving the planet by stopping them.
Just as much as legal compliance and litigation, social activism is a drain on human capital:
… simply the diversion of so many of the most talented and motivated members of the last several generations from productive pursuits to expensive virtue signaling is one of the main causes of the technological slowdown and the Great Stagnation. If your neighbor is Saving the Planet, it seems somehow less valuable merely to keep clean water running in the mains, or fill potholes, or build bridges. Eloi Agonistes have stolen the respect and gratitude that the people who are actually doing valuable work should be getting.
The shift in values was reflected in, and reinforced by, a shift in science fiction towards the dystopian:
Science fiction has a long and valuable history of providing us with visions of a better world. Verne, Wells, Burroughs, Gernsback—even Bellamy—much less Campbell, Doc Smith, van Vogt, Heinlein, Asimov, Garrett, Piper, Niven, and Pournelle, provided people with places and lives they could imagine and aspire to create. Science fiction since the Sixties has signally failed in that regard; we have been fed, by and large, a diet of Chicken Little soup in a pot of message, ladled out over leg of Frankenstein.
Where did the Eloi Agonistes come from, and why did they rise when they did? Hall suggests a couple of related factors. One, the success of industrial civilization at meeting everyone’s basic needs for food, clothing and shelter pushed people up Maslow’s Hierarchy to seek self-actualization, which they did in the form of social activism. Two, the closing of the frontier meant the loss of a world in which people had to contend directly with nature and reality:
After a long period of sustained social interaction, many forms of self-deception will become baked into the culture, and major social institutions will become in large part vehicles for virtue signalling…. But on the frontier, where a majority of one’s efforts are not in competition with others but directly against nature, self-deception is considerably less valuable. A culture with a substantial frontier is one with at least a countervailing force against the cancerous overgrowth of largely virtue-signalling, cost-diseased institutions.
Personally, I don’t think these explanations tell the whole story. If people needed self-actualization, why choose anti-technology crusades? Why not self-actualize through invention, or art? I think we need to find an explanation not only for the form of people’s behavior, but for the content. Deirdre McCloskey suggests that the intellectual class had turned against capitalism and industry as early as 1848 (and Ayn Rand traces the intellectual roots to the late 1700s, blaming Immanuel Kant for killing the Enlightenment). This remains an open question for me.
There are many writers with optimistic visions of the future. However, the goals I most often hear are all the negation of negatives: cure cancer, eliminate poverty, stop climate change.
This is good, but it is not enough. We should not only cure disease and let everyone live to what is now considered old age—we should cure aging itself and extend human lifespan indefinitely. We should not seek to merely sustain current per-capita energy usage—we should get back on the Henry Adams Curve and increase it. We should not only seek to avoid worsening the climate—we should seek to actively control and optimize it for human ends. We should not merely get the whole world up to Level 4—we should be striving for Level 5.
Aiming only for the former, as some so-called techno-optimists do, is a poor sort of optimism. It is actually calling for very limited progress, followed by stagnation. It is complacency with the status quo, content with bringing the whole world up to the current best standard of living, but not increasing it. In this context, I found Where Is My Flying Car? refreshing. Hall unabashedly calls for unlimited progress in every dimension.
My only significant criticism (well, other than the malformatted data tables) is that the content isn’t tightly organized; the chapters jump around a lot. And there are a number of very deep dives and long digressions on detailed technical topics; I mostly enjoyed these, but if you’re not into them, feel free to skim.
Overall, though, I found the book captivating and it has become one of my favorite books on stagnation and progress. Recommended for all my readers.
« Monday: Interview with Lisa Wehden at Reboot 2020 The 300-year journey to the covid vaccine »