5.29.2009

The Government Killed My Jet Pack

An article on CNN.com seeks to address Why our 'amazing' science fiction future fizzled. After seeing a dazzling potential future at the '64 World's Fair,
Forty years later, we're still waiting for those congestion-free highways -- along with the jet pack, the paperless office and all those "Star Trek"-like gadgets that were supposed to make 21st-century life so easy.
The author, John Blake, makes some interesting observations, such as, well, some of those futuristic gadgets are already here. He mentions things like jet packs and flying cars that already exist but aren't commercially viable, but I contend that PCs and cell phones and the Internet would all qualify.

Still, he points to the fact that our highways are still jammed, and that people are becoming disillusioned with what technology can promise the future. He notes dystopian movies like Blade Runner where "technology creates more problems than it solves," and Battlestar Galactica where "human beings abandon their faith in technology's ability to improve the future. They destroy their fancy machines and start again as simple hunter-gatherers."

I don't think our culture's disillusionment is coming from a loss of "faith" in technology to "save us" but instead the wholesale abandonment of reason and the ever-increasing power of the state over our lives. The loss of reason and the increase of the state go hand in hand. We are losing our confidence in our individual ability to command our own lives, and instead are turning to government to "save us." Government, in turn, is crushing the productive output of what is left of capitalism.

Let's looks at traffic congestion. The article is right. It shouldn't be an issue. But rather than a technological problem, it is a problem of a lack of property rights and liberty. A traffic jam is a concrete example of a shortage. Demand for driving room outpaces supply. And why is this the case?

Traffic jams are a direct result of a government monopoly of the roadways. If capitalists (road builders, auto makers, etc.) were left free to find solutions to the problems, traffic jams would disappear. Technology alone wouldn't help. Imagine adding flying cars to the current mix... in our mixed economy, they'd have to be regulated of course--EVERYTHING has to be regulated, right? Or else we're left with soulless profiteers preying upon the weak-minded and everything goes to hell!---which means the FAA would get involved. There's already a shortage of air traffic controllers. Need I go on with this example? Same goes with jet packs. They would be personal transportation, but what would you want to bet that the government would rule that people would have to land and take off in special "jet pack ports?" Who will want to drive their jet pack to a government-approved launch pad, fly to their destination, and then be stuck at the landing pad with a jet pack and no way to get where they're going (without added expense)? Not to mention all the licensing, government mandated training, excise taxes, etc., all stifling the market before it even exists.

My point in all of this is that the reason we aren't witnessing amazing technological change in all areas of life is because of government interference. The computer world exploded and continues to (for now) because regulators haven't quite caught up with it yet. When they do, it will slow greatly.

Technology isn't the problem and it isn't the solution. It's not the cause, but the effect. Blake treats technology as some sort of disembodied phenomenon, apart from the humans who create it. But to do so ignores that technology doesn't just appear... it must be created by individual minds, left free to think and create.

The real cause of human progress -- whether embodied in technological advances or otherwise -- is freedom. Freedom to innovate, to produce, to solve problems and make astounding amounts of money doing it. When the country abandons its infatuation with state control and the government is confined to protecting individual rights, we'll see the kinds of mind-blowing changes the optimistic futurists of 100 years ago dreamed of.

5 comments:

Richard said...

Indeed. For a good example take the Segway. Upon its release the Segway was hailed for its potential, and simultaneously banned for use in many cities. Here's a site that refers to Segway as "the SUV of the Sidewalk"
http://www.walksf.org/segways/index.htm

Andrew Dalton said...

I saw that CNN article and was thinking the same thing.

Just think of the established technologies that wouldn't get off the ground if they had been invented today, due to regulation and litigation. Automobiles and household electricity are two that come immediately to mind.

C. August said...

I hadn't thought of the Segway, Richard, but it's a good example. I think the only reason it even reached the market was because of the extra-deep pockets of the inventor, Dean Kamen. It's an amazing technology, but because it can't actually enter a free market, it has to negotiate all the byzantine regulations...

Andrew, that's a good point about what might not even exist if it was introduced today. Though because the regulations that are stifling the auto and energy industries now were created with those industries in mind (often with the willful involvement of the industrialist themselves... sigh....) I'd guess they could still make it. It's when a new innovation tries to enter, even peripherally, an already heavily regulated market, that it encounters a deadly barrier to entry. Here, I think the example of personal jet transport works. Because the FAA already exists, the bureaucrats would peg jet packs under its purview, and that would kill it before it (ahem) got off the ground.

Perhaps it's when a new technology/industry is developed that is truly new and groundbreaking that it still has time to flourish before being killed by regulation. Here, the computer industry is a good example.

In regards to energy, even if it was necessary to integrate "green" technologies with the electric grid (which it isn't), the myriad of anti-property rights regs already killing the energy producers just makes a rational, profitable integration of the "renewables" that much harder... without government force, that is.

david scott said...

Although, I personally am so far to the left, that even the even the democrats appear to me to be "right-wing," I consider myself to be a strict constitutionalist. It is my opinion that since its inception there has been an organized and systematic assault by the conservatives in the United States on the civil liberties written into the US Constitution. The “War on Drugs”; “War on Terror”; “War on Communism” and a host of other wars waged by the right wing are really nothing more than a War on People--an excuse to erode civil rights to the point of non-existence. I invite you to my website devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on freedom: http://freethegods.blogspot.com/

C. August said...

David, I'm assuming this is a troll because you didn't address the content of my post at all. However, you did get my curiosity up enough to check out your blog. There's not much "there" there, so I'll just go on what you wrote in your comment.

You mention civil rights and that you're a strict constitutionalist. I'm curious what specific rights you see as under "systematic assault", and where they are in the Constitution. Not that I don't hold that the individual rights to life, liberty and property are under assault, but you singled out "civil rights." What do you mean by that?

If you are as far left as you say, do you mean the "positive right" to a job, to health care, to a full belly? If so, provided by whom?

Do you recognize as one of your civil rights the right to property, or do you reject that (as I would expect). Do you object to the religiosity of the far-right, or to their supposed defense of the free market as well?

Before I call shenanigans on you, I'd be interested to hear what you have to say, if only because you chose an Objectivist's blog to post your advert/troll, and it made me chuckle.