Black Mirror or Through the Looking Glass?
Where is My Flying Car and Thinking in Systems
I’m an optimist – and that puts me at odds with the majority of folks.  In advanced economies, a significant majority (64%) believe their kids will be worse off financially than their parents. This is not a reflection of the pandemic and a difficult few years; that figure has been constant for almost a decade. The dominant view of the future is negative. And that’s because, for most people, things haven’t gotten better in a long time.
This disaffection has reached even the VCs in their bastions of Silicon Valley optimism. Peter Thiel famously complained about wanting flying cars and getting 140 characters. J. Storrs Hall addresses Thiel directly in his 2018 book, Where Is My Flying Car? Hall uses the flying car as a focusing device to critique the slowdown in innovation and energy usage (measured in kilowatt usage per capita). The energy usage chart is striking – usage used to grow at an exponential rate, but since the 1970s, it’s flat lined.
We could build flying cars today with current technology, but power and design constraints inhibit their broad availability and usefulness. To unlock mass adoption, nuclear power and nanotechnology are two key enabling technologies Hall spends a significant portion of the book exploring.
Nuclear power, and its stifled growth in the 1970s, is the most shocking what-if in the book. Perhaps the most lasting impact of dropping nuclear weapons on Japan was not the hundreds of thousands killed in 1945, but the hundreds of thousands by fossil fuel’s air pollution. We saw the destructive potential of nuclear technology before we experienced its powerful benefits.
Stewart Brand believes the mushroom cloud was the dominant symbol of humanity’s technological achievements before the Apollo program produced the first images of our planet from space. These images were crucial to fostering a global spirit of environmentalism and conservation. The irony is that splitting the atom might be our best chance of achieving that goal. We already know, because it’s been tested, that we could build safe nuclear reactors with no risk of catastrophic meltdowns. If we had continued to pursue nuclear power at the same rate we did until the 1970s, innovation and increased adoption would have seen CO2 emissions peak in 1990, averting most of the dire climate change scenarios we face today.
Even more important — yes, it’s true! — we could all benefit from an Industrial Revolution-level expansion in personal energy usage, substantially reducing global poverty. Overpopulation arguments frequently rely on the assumption that we are running out of our energy-generating natural resources. Yet there is enough uranium in the sea and on the seafloor to power much more energy usage per person for a much bigger population for thousands of years. Small nuclear batteries should power your flying car and a huge host of other applications today. We could have flying cities. We could live like Gungans under the sea. We could build rockets which take us around the solar system. I got most angry about what our lives could be like today when reading these portions of the book. You should be angry too.
Hall traces how, under different circumstances, we could be far along the path to precision nano-machines which will make manipulating atoms as easy as we program bits today. He believes when nano-machines are widely available, they could replace the entire capital stock of the US — every road, building, factory — within a week. Other capabilities will include lifesaving advances in medical technology, eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere, and creating synthetic materials required by flying cars and mile-high towers in cities.
So if it’s not a problem of science or capability… where are all the flying cars?
Introducing Systems Thinking
Hall argues it’s a problem of our collective societal paradigms – our collective goals and assumptions. Our paradigms create rules and the institutions to enforce them. Hall, borrowing from Arthur C. Clarke, calls it a “Failure of Nerve” and “Failure of Imagination”. Put plainly, we are afraid of what could go wrong with these technologies, and have created institutional barriers to protect ourselves, slowing the rate of progress in the process. But before we examine his argument, it’s worth building a framework for defining and understanding paradigms, systems, and how they change. Donella Meadows’s seminal book Thinking in Systems, published posthumously in 2008, provides a framework for understanding Hall’s work and intentions. My understanding of Hall’s argument changed with this perspective – it’s exactly what I look for in a book pairing.
It’s hard to overstate how good Thinking in Systems is. It’s concise, at 185 pages, and accessible – my guess is that a bright fifth grader could understand all the book’s key concepts. Even for that, it’s so information-dense that I’ll be re-reading it several times in the future.
Meadows starts by defining a system, its constituent parts, and how they work. Information flows and feedback loops serve as crucial components. A simple example is your thermostat: it senses when it’s too hot or cool in your house (information flow), and heats or cools to stabilize temperature at a given setting as long as it’s more powerful than the outside environment (feedback loop). Meadows uses simple systems diagrams to model a system. Of course, the real world is messy, complex systems often especially so, and so most models fail. Meadows acknowledges this and uses failures as jumping off points to rework the model and better understand the system.
Part 2 addresses higher level topics; why systems work, their ability to consistently surprise us, and ways to fix broken systems. The best and most confounding systems are self-organizing — they can adapt and change their structure to the environment. These can be as small as a virus or amoeba, or as grand as a social movement, stock market, or civilization.
From Meadows’s perspective, the most powerful way to transform a system is to change its paradigms – the goals and rules. If you put five high school basketball players in a professional NBA game, they’d lose, but you’d recognize the sport. If you kept the NBA players but removed fouls and changed the point value of each shot, the game would look significantly different even though the court and players look exactly the same. Of course, changing paradigms in the real world is harder than changing the rules of basketball; paradigms are often unstated assumptions that undergird our worldview. Figuring out what the paradigms are in the first place is often a struggle.
Wrestling with the “Failures”
Where is My Flying Car? is written to change paradigms. Hall opens and closes the book with a discussion of science fiction, which until the 1960s tended to be optimistic about the future, before turning primarily dystopian. Science fiction is a powerful coordination tool at the societal level — what we believe about the future is one of the greatest influences on how we behave today. Hall repeatedly highlights the possibility that we could have had nuclear power and nano-machines in some form today, and that, if we have the courage, we can have them in mature forms within the next century. “It is a possibility” is the single most frequent sentence in the book, frequently appearing italicized at the end of a paragraph or chapter.
Hall’s Failures of Nerve and Imagination are real at both the micro and macro levels. I struggled with Hall’s ideas personally: my wife and I argued over whether flying cars would ruin the sky. My sister’s boyfriend, who worked on flying cars and is an aerospace engineer, said that we are still decades away from a viable flying car, with safe autopilots and liability/failure modes both unsolved and crucial to commercial viability. Car crashes are the deadliest common accident today; it doesn’t require much imagination to imagine drunk flying would be worse.
Hall’s nuclear rockets could be built today — there are experiments which show you could make massive rockets and get them to space by detonating a series of contained nuclear explosions. But if they go wrong, is it worth the risk of irradiating the planet? Hall may call it a Failure of Nerve, but do we really want to take that risk? Manipulating reality with nano-machines could be incredible, but I can’t help thinking about Robert Ludlum’s Lazarus Vendetta, where terrorists used nano-machines to melt people, or Snowpiercer, where attempts to fix the climate send the earth into a permanent deep freeze.
Writ large, these fears and failures create regulatory barriers to progress. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t approved a single new commercial application for a nuclear plant since it started operating in 1975. When your goal is to reduce nuclear accidents, a great strategy is to just not have nuclear power at all. Thinking in Systems would call this “seeking the wrong goal,” a common systems trap when the indicators of satisfaction of the rules create a result which was never really intended or wanted. Meadows writes that “systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce.”
I’m willing to admit Hall could be right and we are throwing away a future filled with prosperity barely imaginable today. Frankly, I don’t have enough expertise to critique what Hall claims is possible, because I didn’t understand or care to puzzle out the frameworks and proofs he spends a significant portion of the book on. But despite the last three paragraphs, ultimately I do hope someone else tries. Ultimately, the book worked on me — it changed my paradigm.
Finding the right balance between regulation and innovation is far easier to say on a blog than it is to implement in practice. Changing our mindset about the future isn’t easy either; hope can be cruel and shouldn’t be inspired lightly. But these are the key social technologies needed if we want a revolution in atoms to reflect the last half century of progress in bits.
Where is My Flying Car?
Read Part 1: Profiles of the Past. It provides an overview of Hall’s thesis and how we’ve lost our way regarding the rate of energy use/capita and innovation. It also serves as a history of and introduction to the three key technologies Hall focuses on: Flying cars, nuclear power, and nanotechnology.
Skim Part 2: Profiles of The Present, especially if you, like me, are not an engineer. Hall spends most of these chapters explaining/arguing about the feasibility of the three core technologies with the human and technological capital we have today. This part can best be summed up by the sentence which shows up most frequently in the book: “It is a possibility.” For other transportation/urbanist nerds like me though, I’d point out the section “Travel Theory” from pg. 143-150. It’s pretty fascinating to see how stable the distribution of trip lengths by time is for humans across technological eras – we just can go farther for the “long tail” of trips now than we could in the past.
Read Part 3: Profiles of the Future. This is where Hall gets really out there with his predictions of what the implications of widespread flying cars/nuclear power/nanotechnology. Synthetic Organs! Robots! Colonies throughout the solar system! World Weather Machines! Dyson Spheres! It’s all there. Some of this stuff is uncomfortable to read/think about and might make you want to shake Hall and make him think about some of the risks more. But Hall wants to challenge our tendencies towards failure of nerve — there are enough popular predictions of dystopia — and open up the possibility for a much brighter future.
Thinking in Systems:
Read it all. It’s an entire mental model/framework through which to view the world in 185 pages. This is not a two-page essay hiding as a 300-page book. I think the real question is how many times one needs to re-read this book to fully internalize it.
There is a real tension between Thinking in Systems and Where is My Flying Car very similar to that between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich in The Bet, which we covered in More Gardening, Less Arguing. Meadows actually shows up in The Bet as an author of an early computer simulation which forecast imminent human population collapse/environmental destruction due to overpopulation and resource use; the failed prophesy of doom underscores the difficulty of modeling complex systems. Hall quotes each of Simon and Ehrlich in his book, and it’s clear he’d don Simon’s devil horns if he got the chance. Meadows, like Ehrlich, is clearly cautious about overpopulation, and seeds her views in several examples throughout the book. Hall, like Simon, believes we can use technology to significantly increase energy usage per capita and reshape the planet to an ever-greater degree.
Thanks to my Canis Crew - Harry, Josh, Kate, Emily, Manish, and Arun - for feedback and edits on this post.
 It’s hard to think of a mirror with a positive connotation in popular culture – go ahead, try it. The mirrors in Snow White and The Picture of Dorian Gray aren’t up to any good, even if they tell the truth. Narcissus pined after his own reflection, and eventually killed himself with madness. The mirror of Erised did Harry Potter a solid, but might have wasted his life had Dumbledore not stepped in. At least Lewis Carroll’s mirror inspired a true spirit of adventure!
 Flying cars have merits which stand on their own too. There’s a remarkable chart on pg. 145 which shows the distribution of trips we take stays constant across all forms of technology – we tend to spend roughly an hour a day commuting/traveling no matter whether we are walking, on a bike, or driving a car, with the occasional long-distance trip making up 5%-10% of our journeys. Using flying cars unlocks a vastly greater distance for us to travel – a commute could comfortably traverse 100 miles, each way. Day trips between San Francisco and LA, or London and Berlin would be almost trivial. To use a computing analogy, flying cars add more connections to the network of available destinations and people and experiences, and the greater number of possible connections makes everyone in the network better off at an exponential rate.
 Hall calls this the Henry Adams Curve. He goes more in-depth on this point in this blog post, if you’re interested in more: http://wimflyc.blogspot.com/2021/01/the-henry-adams-curve-closer-look.html
 Texas in February 2021 is an example of the outside environment overwhelming the stabilizing system of a thermostat.
 Terrifyingly, I was reading Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick, a scientific history of chaos theory/complexity theory. He casually mentioned that climate scientists have known for decades of a stable equilibrium for Earth which they call the White Earth/Snowball earth equilibrium – every land surface covered in snow, seas covered in ice. It’s stable because all the sunlight gets reflected off the earth’s surface, and the composition of the atmosphere changes and becomes much thinner, trapping less heat. Earth’s systems would need a large kick of energy to shift to that equilibrium… but maybe we can make that mistake. Gulp!
 Pg. 138. Also worth pointing out that in the pages directly before this section, Meadows highlights another systems trap, called “rule beating” where the system adheres only to the letter, not the spirit of the law, which seems it could produce the opposite of the problem in “seeking the wrong goal.” The upshot is that systems analysis is hard.