Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Of Back to the Future and the promise of flying cars

Things went slightly mad a couple of days ago:
Back to the Future Day October 21, 2015 live: Is your day turning out like the film predicted? - Telegraph
Back to the Future day - live, part one | Film | The Guardian
Happy “Back to the Future” Day - The New Yorker
Back to the Future Day

Back to the Future Day refers to the date October 21st, 2015, which the characters Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown travel to in the second installment of the Back to the Future trilogy.

Back to the Future Day | Know Your Meme
Latest Back to the Future™ News & Upcoming Events

How much of what was predicted actually happened?
14 Things from Back to the Future II That Actually Came True, and 5 That Haven't... Yet
'Back to the Future' Release Update: Futuristic Projections Becoming True with Nike Self-Lacing Shoe; Hoverboards Possible? : News : Realty Today

The UK thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs is particularly positive:

Back to the Future: The 2015 we have created is much better than the movie version

Today is ‘Back to the Future Day’—the date Marty McFly and Dr Emmett Brown visit when they travel 30 years into the future via a DeLorean-turned-time machine in the 1989 film Back to the Future II.
You are probably aware of this because nearly every news organisation has a piece today exploring which predictions about 2015 the film got right and which it got wrong.  But though the film accurately predicted that print newspaper would still exist, I doubt print is where you first learned of Back to the Future Day.  You might have seen it on Facebook or Twitter, neither of which could have been foreseen in 1989.  You very likely saw it somewhere on the internet and perhaps via your mobile phone, both fledgling, unwieldy and prohibitively expensive technologies in 1989.
Or perhaps you did not need someone else to remind you of Back to the Future Day because you are a big fan of the films.  Maybe you watched the trilogy by streaming video on Netflix or Amazon, which could not have been foretold in 1989 either.
Still don’t know what I’m talking about?  I’ll pause for a moment while you google it (‘to google’ – not a verb that would mean much to a time traveller who has just arrived from 1989.)
My point is not that screenwriters are bad at predicting the future.  In fact, given the impossibility of that task, it is remarkable how much they get right.  My point is that all things considered, 2015 is much, much better than they—or anyone—could have predicted 30 years ago thanks to the engine of free enterprise and the power of human ingenuity.
Today’s televisions are far superior to the ones shown in the film.  Video calling is cheaper and easier than predicted, with apps like Skype and FaceTime.  Virtual reality is not yet mainstream, but it may soon be, and we already have plenty of wearable tech such as Google Glass.  We don’t have fax machines in every room because we have a far cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly alternative in email.
We have not abolished lawyers and in fact they are more prolific than ever—you can thank your legislators and regulators for that—but they are easier than ever to bypass thanks to an ever-expanding number of online legal services.  Robot waiters aren’t really a thing but a few restaurants have electronic ordering from your table, and you can use your phone or tablet to have nearly any food delivered nearly anywhere.  Speaking of phones, the movie thought we’d still have functioning phone booths in 2015!  Instead London tourists use their smartphones to take selfies with these historical relics.
Hoverboards aren’t commercially available at children’s stores, but hovercrafts do exist, as do maglev trains and innovative modes of personal transport like Segways.  We don’t drive around in flying cars, but we know how to make them.  When a product is technologically feasible yet not on the market, it is either because no one has sorted out how to make money from it (in other words, there is probably not that much demand for it), or because there are regulations standing in the way.  The barrier to flying cars is not the technology, it is air traffic control.
Back to the Future II is a sci-fi comedy, so naturally it focused on spoofing tech and fashion and didn’t touch on more serious issues.  But here too we’re far better off than in 1989.  Halving the number of people living in extreme poverty makes my short list, as does the collapse of communist regimes around the globe.
Nobody can predict the future, not even sci-fi screenwriters who are paid lots of money to try.  Free enterprise is a dynamic process of discovery and it often leads to outcomes impossible to predetermine.  Entrepreneurs respond to our wants and needs today, but they also tap into our latent demands—creating amazing new stuff we didn’t even know we wanted.  Envisaging the future based on how markets are today is a comic endeavour and therefore perfect for entertainment.  Policymakers, however, should avoid specific bets on the future and instead ensure our framework encourages innovation via free enterprise.
Time travel may never be possible, but we have travelled much farther than Marty and Doc Brown and we didn’t need to outfit a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and Mr Fusion to do so.  We needed the power of human imagination and the freedom to use it.  So let’s heed Doc Brown’s advice: “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.” I'd like to think that Doc Brown would be quite pleased with the 2015 we have created.
Chad Wilcox is the IEA’s Chief Operating Officer.

Back to the Future: The 2015 we have created is much better than the movie version | Institute of Economic Affairs
The Future Is Unimaginably Better than Expected | Foundation for Economic Education

But David Graeber, writing in the Baffler, a couple of years ago doesn't see it in quite the same way:

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

FROM The Baffler No. 19 2012


A secret question hovers over us, a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like. I am referring not to the standard false promises that children are always given (about how the world is fair, or how those who work hard shall be rewarded), but to a particular generational promise—given to those who were children in the fifties, sixties, seventies, or eighties—one that was never quite articulated as a promise but rather as a set of assumptions about what our adult world would be like. And since it was never quite promised, now that it has failed to come true, we’re left confused: indignant, but at the same time, embarrassed at our own indignation, ashamed we were ever so silly to believe our elders to begin with.

Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them? ...

The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the “hyper-real,” the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. ...

What happened, instead, is that the spread of information technologies and new ways of organizing transport—the containerization of shipping, for example—allowed those same industrial jobs to be outsourced to East Asia, Latin America, and other countries where the availability of cheap labor allowed manufacturers to employ much lesstechnologically sophisticated production-line techniques than they would have been obliged to employ at home.

From the perspective of those living in Europe, North America, and Japan, the results did seem to be much as predicted. Smokestack industries did disappear; jobs came to be divided between a lower stratum of service workers and an upper stratum sitting in antiseptic bubbles playing with computers. But below it all lay an uneasy awareness that the post-work civilization was a giant fraud. Our carefully engineered high-tech sneakers were not being produced by intelligent cyborgs or self-replicating molecular nanotechnology; they were being made on the equivalent of old-fashioned Singer sewing machines, by the daughters of Mexican and Indonesian farmers who, as the result of WTO or NAFTA–sponsored trade deals, had been ousted from their ancestral lands. It was a guilty awareness that lay beneath the postmodern sensibility and its celebration of the endless play of images and surfaces. 

Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to happen? There are two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic (in which case, we need to know why so many intelligent people believed they were not) or our expectations were not unrealistic (in which case, we need to know what happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects). ...

Some of those science fiction fantasies (at this point we can’t know which ones) could have been brought into being. For earlier generations, many science fiction fantasies had been brought into being. Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?

In fact, even as those dreams were being outlined, the material base for their achievement was beginning to be whittled away. There is reason to believe that even by the fifties and sixties, the pace of technological innovation was slowing down from the heady pace of the first half of the century. There was a last spate in the fifties when microwave ovens (1954), the Pill (1957), and lasers (1958) all appeared in rapid succession. But since then, technological advances have taken the form of clever new ways of combining existing technologies (as in the space race) and new ways of putting existing technologies to consumer use (the most famous example is television, invented in 1926, but mass produced only after the war.) Yet, in part because the space race gave everyone the impression that remarkable advances were happening, the popular impression during the sixties was that the pace of technological change was speeding up in terrifying, uncontrollable ways. ...

Industrial capitalism has fostered an extremely rapid rate of scientific advance and technological innovation—one with no parallel in previous human history. Even capitalism’s greatest detractors, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, celebrated its unleashing of the “productive forces.” Marx and Engels also believed that capitalism’s continual need to revolutionize the means of industrial production would be its undoing. Marx argued that, for certain technical reasons, value—and therefore profits—can be extracted only from human labor. Competition forces factory owners to mechanize production, to reduce labor costs, but while this is to the short-term advantage of the firm, mechanization’s effect is to drive down the general rate of profit.

For 150 years, economists have debated whether all this is true. But if it is true, then the decision by industrialists not to pour research funds into the invention of the robot factories that everyone was anticipating in the sixties, and instead to relocate their factories to labor-intensive, low-tech facilities in China or the Global South makes a great deal of sense. ... 

In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development [following the Apollo space program]. Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns. To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program. Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities. One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills. ...

For the technologies that did emerge proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we’re constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect. They have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone. ...

Meanwhile, despite unprecedented investment in research on medicine and life sciences, we await cures for cancer and the common cold, and the most dramatic medical breakthroughs we have seen have taken the form of drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Ritalin—tailor-made to ensure that the new work demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally crazy.

With results like these, what will the epitaph for neoliberalism look like? I think historians will conclude it was a form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones. Given a choice between a course of action that would make capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and one that would transform capitalism into a viable, long-term economic system, neoliberalism chooses the former every time. There is every reason to believe that destroying job security while increasing working hours does not create a more productive (let alone more innovative or loyal) workforce. Probably, in economic terms, the result is negative—an impression confirmed by lower growth rates in just about all parts of the world in the eighties and nineties.

But the neoliberal choice has been effective in depoliticizing labor and overdetermining the future. Economically, the growth of armies, police, and private security services amounts to dead weight. It’s possible, in fact, that the very dead weight of the apparatus created to ensure the ideological victory of capitalism will sink it. But it’s also easy to see how choking off any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that could be different from our world is a crucial part of the neoliberal project. ...

The Internet is a remarkable innovation, but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail-order catalogue. Had the Internet been described to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment. Fifty years and this is the best our scientists managed to come up with? We expected computers that would think! ...

“Basic,” “curiosity-driven,” or “blue skies” research—the kind that is not driven by the prospect of any immediate practical application, and that is most likely to lead to unexpected breakthroughs—occupies an ever smaller proportion of the total, though so much money is being thrown around nowadays that overall levels of basic research funding have increased.

Yet most observers agree that the results have been paltry. Certainly we no longer see anything like the continual stream of conceptual revolutions—genetic inheritance, relativity, psychoanalysis, quantum mechanics—that people had grown used to, and even expected, a hundred years before. Why?

Part of the answer has to do with the concentration of resources on a handful of gigantic projects: “big science,” as it has come to be called. The Human Genome Project is often held out as an example. After spending almost three billion dollars and employing thousands of scientists and staff in five different countries, it has mainly served to establish that there isn’t very much to be learned from sequencing genes that’s of much use to anyone else. Even more, the hype and political investment surrounding such projects demonstrate the degree to which even basic research now seems to be driven by political, administrative, and marketing imperatives that make it unlikely anything revolutionary will happen.

Here, our fascination with the mythic origins of Silicon Valley and the Internet has blinded us to what’s really going on. It has allowed us to imagine that research and development is now driven, primarily, by small teams of plucky entrepreneurs, or the sort of decentralized cooperation that creates open-source software. This is not so, even though such research teams are most likely to produce results. Research and development is still driven by giant bureaucratic projects.

What has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic. ...

Defenders of capitalism make three broad historical claims: first, that it has fostered rapid scientific and technological growth; second, that however much it may throw enormous wealth to a small minority, it does so in such a way as to increase overall prosperity; third, that in doing so, it creates a more secure and democratic world for everyone. It is clear that capitalism is not doing any of these things any longer. In fact, many of its defenders are retreating from claiming that it is a good system and instead falling back on the claim that it is the only possible system—or, at least, the only possible system for a complex, technologically sophisticated society such as our own. ...

First, there’s the problem of trying to convince the world you are leading the way in technological progress when you are holding it back. The United States, with its decaying infrastructure, paralysis in the face of global warming, and symbolically devastating abandonment of its manned space program just as China accelerates its own, is doing a particularly bad public relations job. Second, the pace of change can’t be held back forever. Breakthroughs will happen; inconvenient discoveries cannot be permanently suppressed. Other, less bureaucratized parts of the world—or at least, parts of the world with bureaucracies that are not so hostile to creative thinking—will slowly but inevitably attain the resources required to pick up where the United States and its allies have left off. The Internet does provide opportunities for collaboration and dissemination that may help break us through the wall as well. Where will the breakthrough come? We can’t know. Maybe 3D printing will do what the robot factories were supposed to. Or maybe it will be something else. But it will happen. ...

About one conclusion we can feel especially confident: it will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism—or any form of capitalism. To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit - The Baffler
Peter Thiel and David Graeber Debate Technology’s Future - The New York Times
From Arse To Elbow: On Novelty, Abundance and Destruction

See also:
Futures Forum: "Where are the flying cars?" or, "What happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects?"

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