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Where Is My Flying Car?

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In Where Is My Flying Car?, engineer and futurist J. Storrs Hall sets out to answer the deceptively simple question posed in the book’s title. What starts as an exploration of the technical limitations of building flying cars evolves into an examination of the global economic stagnation that started in the 1970s. From the failure to adopt nuclear energy and the suppression of cold fusion and nanotechnology to the rise of a counterculture hostile to progress, Hall recounts how our collective ambitions for the future were derailed, with devastating consequences for global wealth creation and distribution. Hall then outlines a framework for a future powered by exponential progress—one in which we build as much in the world of atoms as we do in the world of bits, one rich in abundance and wonder.

325 pages, Hardcover

Published November 30, 2021

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J. Storrs Hall

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62 reviews57 followers
October 14, 2018
If you only read the first 3 chapters, you might imagine that this is the history of just one industry (or the mysterious lack of an industry).

But this book attributes the absence of that industry to a broad set of problems that are keeping us poor. J. Storrs Hall (aka Josh) looks at the post-1970 slowdown in innovation that Cowen describes in The Great Stagnation[1]. The two books agree on many symptoms, but describe the causes differently: where Cowen says we ate the low hanging fruit, Josh says it's due to someone "spraying paraquat on the low-hanging fruit".

The book is full of mostly good insights. It significantly changed my opinion of the Great Stagnation.

The book jumps back and forth between polemics about the Great Strangulation (with a bit too much outrage porn), and nerdy descriptions of engineering and piloting problems. I found those large shifts in tone to be somewhat disorienting - it's like the author can't decide whether he's an autistic youth who is eagerly describing his latest obsession, or an angry old man complaining about how the world is going to hell (I've met the author at Foresight conferences, and got similar but milder impressions there).

Josh's main explanation for the Great Strangulation is the rise of Green fundamentalism[2], but he also describes other cultural / political factors that seem related. But before looking at those, I'll look in some depth at three industries that exemplify the Great Strangulation.

The good old days of Science Fiction
The leading SF writers of the mid 20th century made predictions for today that looked somewhat close to what we got in many areas, with a big set of exceptions in the areas around transportation and space exploration.

The absence of flying cars is used as an argument against futurists' ability to predict technology. This can't be dismissed as just a minor error of some obscure forecasters. It was a widespread vision of leading technologists.

Josh provides a decent argument that we should treat that absence as a clue to why U.S. economic growth slowed in the 1970s, and why growth is still disappointing.

Were those SF writers clueless optimists, making mostly random forecasting errors? No! Josh shows that for the least energy intensive technologies, their optimism was about right, and the more energy intensive the technology was, the more reality let them down.

Is it just a coincidence that people started worshiping energy conservation around the start of the Great Stagnation? Josh says no, we developed ergophobia - no, not the standard meaning of ergophobia: Josh has redefined it to mean fear of using energy.

Did flying cars prove to be technically harder than expected?
The simple answer is: mostly no. The people who predicted flying cars knew a fair amount about the difficulty, and we may have forgotten more than we've learned since then.

Josh describes, in more detail than I wanted, a wide variety of plausible approaches to building flying cars. None of them clearly qualify as low-hanging fruit, but they also don't look farther from our grasp than did flying machines in 1900.

How serious were the technical obstacles?
Air traffic control
Before reading this book, I assumed that there were serious technical problems here. In hindsight, that looks dumb.

Josh calculates that there's room for a million non-pressurized aircraft at one time, under current rules about distance between planes (assuming they're spread out evenly; it doesn't say all Tesla employees can land near their office at 9am). And he points out that seagull tornadoes (see this video) provide hints that current rules are many orders of magnitude away from any hard limits.

Regulators' fear of problems looks like an obstacle, but it's unclear whether anyone put much thought into solving them, and it doesn't look like the industry got far enough for this issue to be very important.

It seems unlikely that anywhere near as many people would learn to fly competently as have learned to drive. So this looks like a large obstacle for the average family, given 20th century technology.

But we didn't get close the point where that was a large obstacle to further adoption. And 21st century technology is making progress toward convenient ways of connecting competent pilots with people who want to fly, except where it's actively discouraged.

If the economic growth of 1945-1970 had continued, we'd be approaching wealth levels where people on a UBI ... oops, I mean on a national basic income could hope to afford an occasional ride in a flying Uber that comes to their door. At least if there were no political problems that drove up costs.

Weather will make flying cars a less predictable means than ground cars to get to a given destination. That seems to explain a modest fraction of people's reluctance to buy flying cars, but that explains at most a modest part of the puzzle.

"The leading cause of death among active pilots is ... motorcycle accidents."
I wasn't able to verify that, and other sources say that general aviation is roughly as dangerous as motorcycles. Motorcycles are dangerous enough that they'd likely be illegal if they hadn't been around before the Great Strangulation, so whether either of those are considered safe enough seems to depend on accidents of history.

People have irrational fears of risk, but there has also been a rational trend of people demanding more safety because we can now afford more safety. I expect this is a moderate part of why early SF writers overestimated demand for flying cars.

The liability crisis seems to have hit general aviation harder than it hit most other industries. I'm still unclear why.

"One of the more ironic regulatory pathologies that has shaped the world of general aviation is that most of the planes we fly are either 40 years old or homemade - and that we were forced into that position in the name of safety."

If the small aircraft industry hadn't mostly shut down, it's likely that new planes would have more safety features (airbags? whole-airplane parachutes?).

The flying car industry hit a number of speedbumps, such as WWII diverting talent and resources to other types of aviation, then a key entrepreneur being distracted by a patent dispute, and then was largely shut down by liability lawsuits. It seems like progress should have been a bit faster around 1950-1970 - I'm confused as to whether the industry did well then.

At any rate, it looks like liability lawsuits were the industry's biggest problem, and they combined with a more hostile culture and expensive energy to stop progress around 1980.

The book shifted my opinion from "those SF writers were confused" to "flying cars should be roughly as widespread as motorcycles". We should be close to having autopilots which eliminate the need for human pilots (and the same for motorcycles?), and then I'd consider it somewhat reasonable for the average family to have a flying car.

Nuclear Power
Josh emphasizes the importance of cheap energy for things such as flying cars, space travel, eradicating poverty, etc., and identifies nuclear power as the main technology that should have made energy increasingly affordable. So it seems important to check his claims about what went wrong with nuclear power.

He cites a study by Peter Lang, with this strange learning curve:

It shows a trend of costs declining with experience, just like a normal industry where there's some competition and where consumers seem to care about price. Then that trend was replaced by a clear example of cost disease[3]. I've previously blogged about the value of learning curves (aka experience curve effects) in forecasting.

This is pretty inconsistent with running out of low-hanging fruit, and is consistent with a broad class of political problems, including the hypothesis of hostile regulation, and also the hypothesis that nuclear markets were once competitive, then switched to having a good deal of monopoly power.

This is a pretty strong case that something avoidable went wrong, but leaves a good deal of uncertainty about what went wrong, and Josh seemed a little too quick to jump to the obvious conclusion here, so I investigated further[4]. I couldn't find anyone arguing that nuclear power hit technical problems around 1970, but then it's hard to find many people who try to explain nuclear cost trends at all.

This book chapter suggests there was a shift from engineering decisions being mostly made by the companies that were doing the construction, to mostly being determined by regulators. Since regulators have little incentive to care about cost, the effect seems fairly similar to the industry becoming a monopoly. Cost disease seems fairly normal for monopolies.

That chapter also points out the effects of regulatory delays on costs: "The increase in total construction time ... from 7 years in 1971 to 12 years in 1980 roughly doubled the final cost of plants."[5]

In sum, something went wrong with nuclear power. The problems look more political than technical. The resulting high cost of energy slowed economic progress by making some new technologies too expensive, and by diverting talent to energy conservation. And by protecting the fossil fuel industries, it caused millions of deaths, and maybe 174 Gt of unnecessary CO2 emissions (about 31% of all man-made CO2 emissions).

This book convinced me that I'd underestimated how important nuclear power could have been.

"So the technology of the Second Atomic Age will be a confluence of two strongly synergistic atomic technologies: nanotech and nuclear."

The book has a chapter on the feasibility of Feynman / Drexler style nanotech, which attempts to find a compromise between Drexler's excruciatingly technical Nanosystems and his science-fiction style Engines of Creation. That compromise will convince a few people who weren't convinced by Drexler, but most people will either find it insufficiently technical, or else hard to follow because it requires a good deal of technical knowledge.

Josh explains some key parts of why the government didn't fund research into the Feynman / Drexler vision of nanotech: centralization and bureaucratization of research funding, plus the Machiavelli Effect - the old order opposes change, and beneficiaries of change "do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them."

Josh describes the mainstream reaction to nanotech fairly well, but that's not the whole story.

Why didn't the military fund nanotech? Nanotech would likely exist today if we had credible fears of Al Qaeda researching it in 2001. But my fear of a nanotech arms race exceeds my desire to use nanotech.

Many VCs would get confused by top academics who dismissed (straw-man versions of) Drexler's vision. But there are a few VCs such as Steve Jurvetson who understand Drexler's ideas well enough to not be confused by that smoke. With those VCs, the explanation is no entrepreneurs tried a sufficiently incremental path

Most approaches to nanotech require a long enough series of development steps to achieve a marketable product that VCs won't fund them. That's not a foolish mistake on VCs part - they have sensible reasons to think that some other company will get most of the rewards (how much did Xerox get from PARC's UI innovations?). Josh promotes an approach to nanotech that seems more likely to produce intermediate products which will sell. As far as I know, no entrepreneurs attempted to follow that path (maybe because it looked too long and slow?).

The patent system has been marketed as a solution to this kind of problem, but it seems designed for a hedgehog-like model of innovation, when what we ought to be incentivizing is a more fox-like innovation process.

Mostly there isn't a good system of funding technologies that take more than 5 years to generate products.

If government funding got this right during the golden age of SF, the hard questions should be focused more on what went right then, than on what is wrong with funding now. But I'm guessing there was no golden age in which basic R&D got appropriate funding, except when we were lucky enough for popular opinion to support the technologies in question.

Problems with these three industries aren't enough to explain the stagnation, but Josh convinced me that the problems which affected these industries are more pervasive, affecting pretty much all energy-intensive technologies.

Culture and politics
"Of all the great improvements in know-how expected by the classic science-fiction writers, competent government was the one we got the least."

I'll focus now on the underlying causes of stagnation.

Green fundamentalism and ergophobia are arguably sufficient to explain the hostility to nuclear power and aviation, but it's less clear how they explain the liability crisis or the stagnation in nanotech.

Josh also mentions a variety of other cultural currents, each of which explain some of the problems. I expect these are strongly overlapping effects, but I won't be surprised if they sound as disjointed as they did in the book.

It matters whether we fear an all-seeing god. From the book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict:
In a civilization where a belief in a Big God is effectively universal, there is a major advantage in the kind of things you can do collectively. In today's America, you can't be trusted to ride on an airliner with a nail file. How could you be trusted driving your own 1000-horsepower flying car? ... The green religion, on the other hand, instead of enhancing people's innate conscience, tends to degrade it, in a phenomenon called "licensing." People who virtue-signal by buying organic products are more likely to cheat and steal

From Peter Turchin: when an empire becomes big enough to stop worrying about external threats to its existence, the cooperative "we're all in the same boat" spirit is replaced by a "winner take all" mentality.

"the evolutionary pressures to what we consider moral behavior arise only in non-zero-sum interactions. In a dynamic, growing society, people can interact cooperatively and both come out ahead. In a static no-growth society, pressures toward morality and cooperation vanish;"

Self deception is less valuable on a frontier where you're struggling with nature than it is when most struggles involve social interaction, where self-deception makes virtue signaling easier.

"If your neighbor is Saving the Planet, it seems somehow less valuable merely to keep clean water running".

"Technologies that provoke antipathy and promote discord, such as social networks, are the order of the day; technologies that empower everyone but require a background of mutual trust and cooperation, such as flying cars, are considered amusing anachronisms."

Those were Josh's points. I'll add these thoughts:

It's likely that cultural changes led competent engineers to lose interest in working for regulatory agencies. I don't think Josh said that explicitly, but it seems to follow fairly naturally from what he does say.

Josh refers to Robin Hanson a fair amount, but doesn't mention Robin's suggestion that increasing wealth lets us return to forager values. "Big god" values are clearly farmer values.

Mancur Olson's The Rise and Decline of Nations (listed in the bibliography, without explanation), predicted in 1982 that special interests would be an increasing drag on growth in stable nations. His reasoning differs a fair amount from Josh's, but their conclusions sound fairly similar.

Josh often focuses on Greens as if they're a large part of the problem, but I'm inclined to focus more on the erosion of trust and cooperation, and treat the Greens more as a symptom.

The most destructive aspects of Green fundamentalism can be explained by special interests, such as coal companies and demagogues, who manipulate long-standing prejudices for new purposes. How much of Great Strangulation was due to special interests such as coal companies? I don't know, but it looks like the coal industry would have died by 2000 (according to Peter Lang) if the pre-1970 trends in nuclear power had continued.

Green religious ideas explain hostility to energy-intensive technologies, but I have doubts about whether that would be translated into effective action. Greens could have caused cultural changes that shifted the best and the brightest away from wealth creation and toward litigation.

That attempt to attribute the stagnation mainly to Greens seems a bit weaker than the special interests explanation. But I remain very uncertain about whether there's a single cause, or whether it took several independent errors to cause the stagnation.

What now? I don't see how we could just turn on a belief in a big god. The book says we'll likely prosper in spite of the problems discussed here, but leaves me a bit gloomy about achieving our full potential.

The book could use a better way of labeling environmentalists who aren't Green fundamentalists. Josh clearly understands that there are big differences between Green fundamentalists and people with pragmatic motives for reducing pollution or preserving parks. Even when people adopt Green values mostly for signaling purposes, there are important differences between safe rituals, such as recycling, and signals that protect the coal industry.

Yet standard political terminology makes it sound like attacks on the Greens signal hostility to all of those groups. I wish Josh took more care to signal a narrower focus of hostility.

Ironically for a book that complains about virtue signaling, a fair amount of the book looks like virtue signaling. Maybe that gave him a license to ignore mundane things like publicizing the book (I couldn't find a mention of the book on his flying car blog until 3 months after it was published).

Has the act of writing this review licensed me to forget about being effective? I'm a bit worried.
[continued on my blog.]
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews203 followers
October 29, 2020
A refreshingly idiosyncratic, indulgent book, expressive of its author's whole personality in a way that no anodyne pop-science or academic non-fiction could touch. That alone makes it a fun read, but it's also a bracing wake-up call to the imagination and a compelling-if-not-entirely-satisfying exploration of the dynamics of cultural evolution in technological progress (very much in the classic sense of that phrase).

Most of the book is framed around the titular flying car. There are tons of chapters here on the aviation history, design challenges, travel theory, infrastructure considerations, traffic management, etc, involved in getting from a world with no human flight to a world where flying cars are as accessible as high-end pickup trucks. The point of all of it is to answer, with as much careful consideration as possible, the question of why sci-fi writers of the early 20th century accurately predicted so much about current technology but overestimated the proximity of the flying car. Was there some unanticipated technical hurdle that made this intuitive technology out of reach? Or did something happen to knock us off course from achieving what was within our grasp?

Hall is decisively in the latter camp. He has a hypothesis about what happened and he's got a chip on his shoulder about it. There's no real secret of that. But that doesn't mean he doesn't take the challenges seriously. It feels open-minded and even-handed when it comes to the tradeoffs and logistical obstacles on the flying car question. He points out that helicopters are, in essence, flying cars, but that there are good reasons they were not able to fill the role. Good reasons, as opposed to regulation. One of the major points in the flying car-specific material is that private aircraft ownership and private pilot's licensing were growing rapidly until regulations hit in the 80's that basically killed the industry. If that hadn't happened, perhaps innovation in the intervening years would have finessed the tradeoffs in a viable way. But the overall conclusion is that that's not especially likely. More planes would just mean more planes, because the flying car challenge requires something special: a revolution in energy density and materials science.

This is where the flying car bit becomes merely a case study for the book's overall point, which gets applied to practically everything Hall can think of--or perhaps, everything he read about in scifi books as a kid (every subsection of each chapter has multiple epigraphs, many of which are from Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and older scifi). The thesis of the book is essentially that the world was on an exponential growth curve in total energy output until around 1970, when it became linear. And if that energy growth had continued, the world today would be utterly transformed. So many things now challenging would become possible. The second point, which seems to get less direct exposition because it was the subject of Hall's previous book, is that nanotechnology, which can be used to create materials with properties vastly exceeding what we can do now, could have been much farther advanced had we taken a different approach to its development than we did. These two technologies combined, for Hall, enable not just another industrial revolution but a Second Atomic Age (since the power density he envisions is one way or another nuclear), something that would trivialize essentially every problem many people currently take to be intractable and catastrophic.

If I'd read this 10 years ago, I would have had no patience with its claim at all. It is *exactly* the sort of appeal-to-technology that anti-civ, degrowth, and deep ecology types are sworn enemies of. Fortunately I'm not in that camp anymore so I can consider Hall's case with an open mind. And not entirely coincidentally, it dovetails very nicely with the conclusions I've recently come to in my research on overpopulation. The emphasis environmentalists place on fossil fuels is, I now believe, vastly overstated. The cause of the Industrial Revolution was not fossil fuels but the accumulation of the cultural adaptive potential driving technological progress. Since coming to that realization, even moreso than from my interest in cultural evolution more broadly, has changed my feelings on technology. I feel a lot more interested not than I was 10 years ago in things like appliance design or manufacturing processes, because they make simple and accessible the process of ratcheting, iterative problem solving and design that occurs in evolution on a scale that is utterly incomprehensible. It's a window into the mind of the mindless designer.

The interesting thing revealed by the few glimpses I've taken through channels like Technology Connections and Stuff Made Here is that human technology is still extremely crude. Part of the appeal of a lot of TC videos in particular is that while appliances require some knowledge of physics or access to some rare, purified materials, their design is elegantly simple. And while the same can be said of many specific things in nature, in aggregate, living things are just a mess by contrast. When you think about it that way, Hall's argument starts to make a lot of sense. Once cultural evolution gains the ability to work on the same molecular scale as genetic evolution has done for the past 4 billion years, then we're in for some real changes.

The most interesting thing about this book for me was simply to sort of shake up the breadth of my imagination of the scope of cultural evolution. The path that brought us the capacities we have today was obviously not inevitable, but what we spend less time considering is that given the unconstrained pace and compounding, ratcheting nature of cultural evolution, the range of possibilities is much wider than we tend to appreciate. Things could, obviously, easily be much worse, in a dozen different ways. But they might very well also have been better. In the most obvious case, if nuclear power had continued to proliferate on its original exponential trajectory, it would be cheaper, safer, and more portable than ever, with a different set of social norms about radiation and a wide range of secondary products like batteries. We would have seen the same learning-by-doing there as we're seeing now in solar, but before the majority of greenhouse gasses were emitted, before the most egregious petroleum and coal extraction atrocities were committed, before fracking or tar sands exploitation were even invented. There's nothing speculative about it; it obviously could have happened and didn't for reasons that in retrospect seem deeply foolish.

So why did it, and similar cases of missed potential, turn out that way? In my mind this is by far the most important and interesting question Hall raises--kind of a negative inverse to Mokyr's Culture of Growth. And he's not really prepared to explore it. This really is just a book about flying cars and nanotech and the conceivable pathways to golden age scifi tech like floating cities and jetpacks and stuff. There are answers; they're just not probed with any kind of scholarly caution or curiosity. They're thrown out with a bitter sense of factional animosity. Half of his answer is the "Machiavelli Effect," in which scholars with a favored approach are able to quash competing ideas utterly, through some combination of social sway and institutional control--this is why Hall believes nanotech went the wrong direction, for instance.

The other, more important half, is "ergophobia." Fear of wasting and overusing energy led a generation of effort to be wasted on efficient use of fossil fuels and not actually finding huge new energy sources (which just leads to Jevons paradox results on one hand or regulatory caps on the other, both bad outcomes for Hall). The funny thing about this is that it's the diametric opposite of the degrowth ideology I just read in Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet--which of course doesn't do much to help Hall's credibility, even if I were otherwise inclined to agree with him. His case is that while recent turns to science have broken the habit a bit, people are fundamentally superstitious and we just have an unshakable, irrational aversion to having and using power, which was able to reassert itself and quash progress as soon as we were economically comfortable enough to lose our desperation for power. But while I have certainly made statements about the "green religion" that aren't too far out of line with Hall's disparaging take myself, I think this causal reasoning is ludicrous. His implication that environmentalist baptists and oil industry bootleggers quashed nuclear power is much closer to the truth, I think--this example was somewhat sobering for me, since it showed me that I'd almost without thinking internalized a faith in market forces to overcome obstacles to profitable outcomes that made me skeptical of the potential harms of regulation. The nuclear story shows regulations can do real harm, and harm that accumulates over years of lost progress. But the idea that environmentalists have superstitious, irrational values and motivations is hogwash.

The funny part is that Hall's argument is extremely compatible with a genuinely environmentalist value and goalset. His point about nuclear energy would fit extremely well with an argument that followed his but *was* itself concerned about climate change and habitat loss and extinction rates. But he's not that guy and he's not gonna hide it. Hall is a climate skeptic. He believes the process is occurring, driven by fossil fuel emissions, but he is convinced by low estimates of economic impact and argues that ignoring it and focusing on growth would leave us better off in 100 years than wasting time and effort on fighting it in ways that will mostly probably not work. And like, if you were going to use that argument to make a point about nuclear power, it works. If you're going to use it to say nanotech will vastly accelerate decoupling: great. But to just say you think there's no concern at all? Looks sketch, reduces his credibility as a forecaster of the future in general and saps some of the benefit of the doubt on his concern for the poor (though overall I'm totally on board that technological growth is a much more promising way to end poverty than redistribution).

So there are plenty of questions left up in the air here by his incomplete hypotheses, but without a more thorough investigation, there's not much more to do than speculate. It's all "accident of history" stuff--what if the fossil fuel industry had held less sway in the US? What if other, freer countries had had larger markets, to lessen the influence of US or EU regulation? Why didn't China or Russia take up the nanotech or nuclear mantle? Etc. Going forward, though, Hall is optimistic (it's in the nature of a futurist) that technological progress will sidestep the regulatory and political barriers that have held us back for the last 50 years. Drone tech is opening a new path to flying cars. AI and robots are at least on track where they should be. Biotech is creating an alternate path to nanotech. Etc. We'll get there long before we have to worry about catastrophic climate change, one way or another, he assures us. And I guess based on my overpopulation article, I kinda agree with him. I just think to get there, we need a much more serious, scholarly account of the pathologies of cultural evolution and some tactics on how to overcome them.
Profile Image for Brahm.
481 reviews53 followers
October 12, 2022
Trying to figure out where to start on this review. I think it's: 🤯

In this self-published, Kindle-only book (just $4.12 CAD! Apparently it's $π USD) J. Storrs Hall digs deeply into the question of why we don't have flying cars, which is ostensibly the focus. However I think the back half of the title "A Memoir of Future Past" is actually the focus: why isn't the future (i.e., the present) as awesome as we thought it would be? Why don't we have cheap, near-infinite clean energy? Why are healthcare and education so expensive? And yes, where the hell is my flying car?

According to the internet, Hall is an independent scientist and author, who has written extensively "on nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine ethics, and other social impacts of technology" (source). His expertise in these areas and fluency in so many more areas is clear, but what I love is the "independent" attitude: Hall's calling it like he sees it, even if it's going to ruffle feathers and go against the grain, similar to some of my other favourite authors Gary Taubes and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (and in fact, quotes both of those authors at various points).

What I absolutely loved about this book was even though I did not agree with everything Hall was arguing for (details to follow), it was an absolute masterclass in building an extremely persuasive, engaging, and fun thesis.

Structurally, the arc of his argument was great, as Hall dives into different technological disciplines starting with aircraft design but continuing into nuclear power / cheap energy, nanotechnology, AI and more, and explores corresponding issues in government, regulation, industry, and academia, always coming back to "here's the impcat on flying cars" as an anchor point. The chapters start and end with quotes from different historical figures, scientists, science fiction authors, futurists, and futurist naysayers (e.g. people in the early 1900s saying it will take a million years before humans can engineer a flying machine).

As a taste of the dry humour Hall imparts, his book opens by reflecting on how shitty modern travel air experiences are:
Once I got near SFO, I had to refuel my rental car, return it to store, and drag my luggage onto the “airtrain.” This is a piece of Disneyfied transport engineering that appears to combine all the disadvantages of buses, trains, and roller coasters in one vehicle.

In regards to private aircraft - the critical path to adopting flying cars - which were exploding in popularity from the post-WWII 1950s through the late 1970s, Hall argues that an increased focus on product liability in the 70s led to an explosion of lawyers, leading to an explosion of liability lawsuits, leading to the complete eradication of the private aircraft industry. He references a study claiming the US tort system consumes 2% of US GDP, on average, concluding:
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.

On the practical impacts of regulation (recall this book was published in 2018) and the complexities that businesses and innovators have to navigate:
One of the main ill effects of regulation, at least in the United States, is a significant breakdown of the rule of law. Regulators are not elected and the regulations they promulgate are not subject to any significant check or balance. Last year Congress passed 138 laws; agencies published 2,926 new regulations. Federal courts handled about 95,000 cases; regulatory administrative courts a million. [...] Because of the all-encompassing breadth and specificity of the regulations and the clueless literality with which they are enforced, it is essentially impossible to run a productive business without breaking some of them.
Later (I think in an Appendix), Hall shows a concrete example that kneecaps the flying car: detailed, unbendable regulations around side mirror requirements on passenger cars inhibit flying car development: side mirrors are super disruptive to aerodynamics. But regulators won't bend on accepting other options, like a camera-based system.

Case-in-point on regulations and private aircraft:
One of the more ironic regulatory pathologies that has shaped the world of general aviation is that most of the planes we fly are either 40 years old or homemade—and that we were forced into that position in the name of safety.

Hall turns his criticisms about the future (present) on the energy industry. We need limitless energy to support flying cars, after all, and what better option than nuclear energy? Unfortunately, Hall argues, nuclear crashed at the same time private airplanes did, for about the same reasons (the downfall started before Three Mile Island):
Nuclear power is probably the clearest case where regulation clobbered the learning curve. Innovation is strongly suppressed when you’re betting a few billion dollars on your ability to get a license to operate the plant. Besides the obvious cost increases due to direct imposition of rules, there was a major side effect of forcing the size of plants up (fewer licenses); fewer plants were built and fewer ideas tried. That also meant a greater cost for transmission (about half the total, according to my itemized bill), since plants are further from the average customer.

He even identifies a perfect counterexample clearly showing that regulation (to a lesser degree, public misinformation) is the biggest barrier in nuclear: the US Navy. The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program lobbied (I think, in the 70s or 80s) for a single position of expertise and total accountability for the Navy's nuclear program, who could cut through all other regulations imposed on the rest of the US. the result:
The Navy has over 6000 reactor-years of accident-free operation. It has built 526 reactor cores (for comparison there are 99 civilian power reactors in the US), with 86 nuclear-powered vessels in current use.

Continuing on the energy thread, Hall makes a good point that the LACK of cheap, boundless, clean power means that as a society we spend a ridiculous amount of time optimizing and being efficient with our expensive, unsustainable sources of energy, and this costs us money ("we have forced everyone to pay more for energy-efficient cars, houses and appliances (more dollars, less value)"). This resonates with me as I see this in all industries. By chasing that 0.5% performance improvement, what step change opportunities are we ignoring? Hall doesn't mince words to aspiring technologists hunting for that next generation of clean, boundless power:
If you are a technologist working on some new, clean, abundant form of energy, I wish you all the luck in the world. But you must not labor under the illusion that should you succeed, your efforts will be justly rewarded by the gratitude of the people you have lifted from poverty and enabled to have a bright and growing future. You will be attacked, your work will be lied about by activists, demonized by ignorant journalists, and strangled by regulation. But only if it works.

This review is getting long, and I think I've only got about halfway through Hall's arc, but I'm simultaneously running out of gas and probably not doing the book full justice, so I will get to some criticisms and wrap up.

As I said above, this book was a masterclass in crafting an argument and I enjoyed it for its own sake, but Hall is also pretty "out there" on some ideas. He is voicing a technologist's argument, that is, every problem we have can be solved by technology. Climate change? No problem, just fill the sky with nanorobots that adjust their angles to deflect or allow the appropriate amount of sunlight to the earth's surface. Humanity in total control of the temperature of the surface of the earth: what could possible go wrong? BTW, he mentions, isn't CO2 good for plants - what's the problem? BTW, he also mentions, controlling the weather could be a great way to change undesirable climates like Canada to desirable climates like California, or a great weapon to turn dissident states into cold, sunless wastelands. Sounds amazing.

And can we talk about flying cars again? In addition to his technologist/futurist perspective, Hall writes with what I'd call the US-centric automobile attitude, which is that the modern car is not only a gift from God himself, but an inalienable right. He criticizes the "war on cars" and rails against public transit as "worthless". In his view, the individual's ability to get from A to B in the shortest time possible trumps all other variables. What would a society entrenched in flying cars look like? Hall barely considers possible noise impacts, and completely omits any mention about what such a sky would look like. I'd prefer the future described in Happy City to the mile-high skyscrapers and floating cities surrounded by clouds of flying cars Hall envisions.

I discovered this book from this twitter thread and have to plug following @balajis for a fascinating futurist/technologist/bitcoin/media type dude. Also in that thread is linked a much better review with some of the critical charts replicated, so check that out for a better overview, and some of the data sources.

I would highly!!! recommend this book to futurists, sci-fi fans (sooo many sci-fi ideas explored in modern detail, and so many quotes from sci-fi authors to frame the arguments), engineers or technology people interested in flying cars, nuclear, or nanotech, or anyone interested in reading a really great, well-built, feather-ruffling argument.
Profile Image for Dan Elton.
32 reviews17 followers
February 19, 2022
There's no other book quite like this. This is quickly emerging as a foundational text for the burgeoning cultural movement around progress studies.

Here, Dr. J. Storrs Hall explores why we don’t yet have flying cars and uses the answers he finds as launching off points for a broader discussion on the causes of The Great Stagnation that started in the late 1960s.

Broadly speaking this is a book about how the future could be even more glorious than what was envisioned in the 1960s, how we lost our way, and how we might get back on the path to a grander future. Storrs is a computer scientist by training but is well known for his work in the nanotechnology field. His command of important object-level considerations in multiple engineering disciplines is really impressive. Whether discussing nuclear powered rockets, nuclear batteries, molecular nanotechnology, or pros and cons of different flying car designs, Storrs analyses are firmly grounded in established physics and specific detailed engineering calculations. Storrs makes a compelling case that we would have had flying cars, energy too cheap to meter, supersonic flight, vacations on the moon, and material abundance if we had been bolder and hadn't regulated and litigated ourselves to death. Skeptical? Buy the book! Highly recommended!

Read my full review and notes on this book here:
Profile Image for Peter.
169 reviews20 followers
July 16, 2022
This book pivots dramatically between the literal and conceptual answers to the titular question ("Where is my flying car?") in a fun and jovial way that feels like an authentic representation of the author. At the micro level, it talks about things like piloting flying cars and whether the challenge of navigating in three dimensions would be too complex for the average driver, what the right shape of a flying car might be, and what happened with regulatory overreach leading towards a world where private flight stalled out.

At the macro level (more interesting to me), Hall was one of the first people to introduce me to the Henry Adams Curve - a 7% annual compounding in the amount of energy produced and consumed. That curve stopped in the late 20th century when we self-abnegated around nuclear energy and decided that we should focus on conservation rather than growth. Radically, he proposes measuring wealth in watts rather than dollars. This book turned me into a nuclear zealot: there may be other solutions, but nuclear is the most suitable for a society of builders and inventors, and it's the path we should pursue if we're serious about climate change. There's also a lot of random stuff about nanotech - not my area of research, but generally interesting!

Ultimately, the somewhat sad conclusion of the book is that we can have a flying car whenever we want - but we, as a society, don't really want it. We've become a society of lawyers rather than a society of tinkerers, and until we reclaim the desire to build (as represented by the New Industrialist ethos), we'll basically be in the same place in 40 years. Not having flying cars is a collective choice, not a problem of physics or engineering.

Profile Image for Brahm.
481 reviews53 followers
October 12, 2022
2nd read (link to original review, but this one was the BEAUTIFUL hardcover edition by Stripe Press. I don't have many beautiful books, but this is one of them. The cover, the inside covers, the layout, the colouring of the illustrations (all gradients of teal and black like the cover) are all just fabulous. It's a rare treat to read a book you love in its top form!

Seriously, looking at all the other Stripe press books makes me just want to order all of them...

The book has been extensively updated since 2018 for this hardcover edition. In that time, it seems to me that Hall has honed his arguments, improved the structure and layout of the book, and just generally made everything better.

This is a book I'll love despite its faults: Hall is still an unabashed, unapologetic, very American car-brain. Since my first reading in Feb 2021, I've crushed every episode of the terrific War on Cars Podcast and bought an e-bike that I've put over a thousand kilometers on. Hall's an almost-unparalleled technological thinker and futurist, and I love his fascination with flying cars, but I don't think society would be that much better if everyone had a flying car. Call me simple but I love walking, being outside, and cycling. Still: I love this book and widely recommend it to anyone who I think can stomach an ultra-technical, ultra-geekly, and fascinating read.
Profile Image for Sebastian.
124 reviews12 followers
December 27, 2021
Where Is My Flying Car? investigates what Tyler Cowen has called "The Great Stagnation," a strange period in the United States between roughly 1970 and the present where productivity has grown relatively slowly and few new innovations have transformed our lives save for advances in information technology. If we set computers aside, our planes in 2021 are somewhat slower than 1970, there have been few step change improvements in robotics, nuclear reactors are shutting down, and our space program can no longer send men to the moon. What happened to innovation in the world of atoms (versus bits)?

And more importantly, where are the flying cars we were surely supposed to have by now?


During World War II, "any promising technical advance was seized upon and perfected, mass-produced, and put to violent use" [15] and consequently, in the postwar period the American public emerged optimistic about the potential for technology to have a real, positive impact on daily life. In the 1960s, futurists excitingly predicted that by the 2020s we would have many things we did develop like videophones, translation machines, contraception, and self-driving vehicles. But there were many things we didn't build like fusion energy, cyborgs, and cheap transportation at 1000 mph.

These futures were casualties of our Great Stagnation in the 1970s. Hall shows median wages stagnating in real terms, slowing transportation speeds, and our collective derailment from the Henry Adams curve -- a curve showing historical per capita energy consumption in the US compounding at about 2% per year. In one of Hall's better lines: "If you didn't know better, you would think the Department of Energy was established, on August 4, 1977, with the intent to prevent energy use" [33].

But what happened then? Why did we get computers but none of the hypersonic jets and Mars colonies?

It wasn't because of some fundamental blocker in R&D. I was surprised to hear that there was indeed a nascent flying car industry in the late 1950s that never took off, mired in regulatory morass [51-52]. Nanotech which could have delivered micro motors with absolutely stupid power density (1,000 horsepower in a square millimeter) was never seriously pursued, save for the tools available to us through biology -- far less precise ways to manipulate matter than what was envisioned [62-63]. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Utah appeared to be making great forward progress on cold fusion around 1985, for their research program to only fade to obscurity and ridicule [67-68].

Hall pins the cause of our stasis on a combination of different issues:
(A) The Machiavelli Effect - a centralization of scientific funding in groups like NIH and NSF cartelized research and these institutions were captured by groups who didn't like to look stupid or lose the spotlight. Hall: "Failures of Nerve and Imagination, which are particular prevalent among bureaucrats, went from being merely the incorrect predictions of pundits to causing resource starvation and the activate suppression of progress" [88]
(B) Cultural Failure - as the saying goes, good times make weak men. The US's status as leading nuclear-armed superpower then sole hyperpower meant "it was no longer the case that a society that slid into inefficient cultural or governmental practices was likely to [promptly suffer a military defeat]" [94]. Shame and listlessness and distrust from Vietnam caused people to find meaning in things like obstruction and protests... which is a convenient way to *feel* like you are doing a good thing and making the world better, even if you are solving no fundamental problems. [97]
(C) Red Tape - this was not examined as directly as the other two, but goes part and parcel with each. Administrative agencies staffed with self-interested parties and spiritually bankrupt Woodstock hippies had no job except for slowing down progress.

Hall believes that if we want to have a future of flying cars, we as a society have to collectively decide we want these things more than we don't.

The final section paints a picture of a "Second Atomic Age" of abundant molten salt nuclear power, betavoltaic devices (nuclear batteries), nanomachines cable of arbitrarily arranging matter, personal space travel, and climate-controlling weather machines. We can have all these things! We just have to actually want to solve these problems and let scientists build instead of spending a trillion dollars each year on climate mitigation efforts that will do diddly-squat in comparison to Hall's proposed aerostat device [272] -- which isn't that crazy of an idea. Rather than making fun of the climate engineers, perhaps the climate change devotees could put on their listening ears and have the adults (i.e. scientists who aren't religious zealots) work out a real solution for humanity.

"Will we, as a society, pick a comfortable, static level of existence, requiring a modest amount of production that robots could easily supply? Or shall we put a flying car in ever garage, usher in the next Atomic Age, and inhert the stars?" [280]. Up to you (looking at administrative agencies, sneering journalists, and misguided nonprofits.)


I'm not the first person to identify technological progressive versus technological conservative as a dividing line in society today. But increasingly I see these two groups forming: there are STEM optimists who like David Deutsch believe all problems are soluble with knowledge that we can obtain through science. Then there are the safetycrat pessimists who can only seem to regulate and prevent type 2 error -- but never actually reach towards a better tomorrow.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale, there were a lot of smart students who stayed away from physical chemistry and instead padded their GPA with political science and other waste of time courses. These are the same people today that work at law firms, nonprofits, and agencies, and because they can't truly solve climate change (e.g. developing fusion energy), simply say "no" to plastic straws, avoid blame, and stand athwart a higher living standard for all humanity... and feel great about their contribution in return.

We know when we are carrying water and when are not. Good for people with an elite education to look in the mirror from time to time.
Profile Image for Sandy Maguire.
Author 2 books162 followers
December 22, 2021
EDIT 2021-12-22:

Well, I finally got around to finishing this book, and it's actually fantastic if you can slog through it. This is the first book I've seen in a long time that has any coherent view of what the future should be, that isn't just that our phones will get faster and our cameras will have more megapixels. It's inspiring as hell, though not without flaws.

Started off great, but it meanders aggressively and was unable to maintain the author's or my attention. His claim is that the technology exists for flying cars today, but the political wherewithal for them hasn't kept up. Regulations and environmentalism have gotten in the way. This corresponds well to my priors, but he downplays environmentalism more than I think is deserved; when I dug into his citations they were of poor quality, which unfortunately makes me shift away from the bit of his premise that I agree with. 2/5 due to abandonment.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,252 reviews68 followers
January 6, 2022
This was gifted to me. I found it really dry. With long sentences, that were a chore to parse. The best section of it contrasted the Jetsons with the average family of its broadcast day.
February 23, 2023
I’m really torn on this book - the explanations of the real scientific basis for some of our favorite “Sci-fi” technologies and how they could actually be made today was fascinating and really well done.

The explanation for why we don’t have that technology? Incredibly poorly written an justified. The author’s basic thesis is that the problem is regulation and environmentalists interfering in the free marketplace of ideas. I just don’t understand how someone can look at the world today and come to the conclusion that “the problem with modern society is that we have too many regulations and cars too much about the environment.”
Profile Image for Allan Aksiim.
86 reviews14 followers
November 13, 2020
At times rambling but fascinating. Speculating yet mostly truthful or at least with solid math. Not everything written here should be taken at face value. While reading own research and fact-checking is recommended.

I would consider this an antidote to Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won't Save Us Or the Environment Not a perfect book, but sufficiently well argumented one. For example Hall reversed the Jevons Paradox for me. Paradox being in the fact that if something (like a car engine) becomes more energy efficient then the energy source (here petrol) will be used just as much as before and then some - meaning people will drive more and use more fuel than with the previous less efficient engine. In Techno-Fix this was considered a sign (one of several) that we cannot control, plan or predict the effect of our technology and energy use. For Hall its wonderful - it means people are getting more value out of the new engine than the older one.

Hall also hates green environmentalists. A lot. And bureaucracy. A lot. This was on the verge of off-putting but one must always be reminded of the dysfunction of American Federal Government compared with... well the rest of the developed world. I've worked for the public sector of my country and have used public services a lot with little complaint (but not zero complaint). We'we actually had a lot of public sector innovation in Estonia. For someone more interested in the US public sector 2nd book of Francis Fukuyama Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy is recommended. Something did truly happen in the 70s and we are still living through the consequences. Changes in the quality of public administration, growing awareness about questions regarding conservation, climate change and energy efficiency. The points concerning energy are the most important for me - not the possible technologies or even the flying car. More energy use means a more wealthier economy and it is a truism few understand sufficiently.

I'm not a libertanian and I have no problem with environmental protection or the skepticism of the public for things of unknown effect in their backyards (like an idea to build a flying car in a garage by the neighborhood mechanist). Yes the arguments for a cleaner environment and less CO2 producing economy are sometimes exaggeration but so are the arguments to defend this or that business in time of great economic upheaval - public discourse needs simplification on the verge of lying, sadly many people do not dig deeply enough to verify the facts or start to believe their own simplifications. Also on a reverse note the intergovernmental climate panel Halls relies on is actually more likely too conservative in its estimates because for the final policy brief part of the document - all member states have a say in all the wording which means it is ridiculously soft. There is also (quite humorous and angry) criticism of the economic analysis of climate change effects by Steve Keen (The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change).

Also it is unlikely that the author of the book would enjoy living in current Chinese or Russian cities where clean air is hard to come by. I also really don't like the car-centric worldview (flying car or not) - I like a walkable city but I understand we can and should not force one mode of transport for everyone.

Final thoughts were mixed. One of the odd one is that somebody should write something like this for Europe or at least for a mayor country or region in Europe. People decry about Brussels regulation but in general life here seems better than in America (and I'm living in what used to be part of the Soviet Block). I am not that worried about the lack of flying cars but I find the technology fascinating and worth tinkering and experimenting. Are we in Europe doomed as well to stagnate and for the same reasons or is our stagnation different or is it US-specific? Time will tell.

EDIT: I also did a review (with different points) in Estonian: sirp.ee/s1-artiklid/c9-sotsiaalia/mik...
83 reviews3 followers
September 14, 2020
This book is basically about what the world could look like if the technological progress from the late 1800s through the 1950s or so continued to today. It has more interesting ideas per page than any other book I can remember reading, and much of it seems technically feasible and worth pursuing. Hall's history of VTOL aircraft development was fascinating, and despite knowing quite a bit about VTOLs already, he covered a lot of developments that were unfamiliar to me.

I'm familiar with Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation hypothesis and pretty much agreed with it before reading this book. While I think Cowen's idea that most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked is largely true, Hall convinced me that there are major technological developments within our reach that haven't yet happened due to excessive regulation and our inability to generate enough power to make them work.

So why am I only giving this book 4 stars? In many cases Hall is either too naive, too optimistic, or both. Some of his claims about regulation are just crazy. For example, he claims that without regulation the average income in the US would be 130k higher than it is currently. This seems obviously false, as even if regulation is the current bottleneck to wage growth, a new one will surely pop up once regulation is solved. And it ignores that some (by no means all) of the existing regulations are useful and avoid tragedy of the commons type problems. There are many similar cases throughout the book where he makes exaggerated claims that can be falsified with just a moment's thought.

Perhaps my biggest gripe is how nanotechnology is his solution to everything. Repeatedly, when a seemingly impossible problem arises, he just says "don't worry, nanotechnology will solve it". Of course, he never defines what nanotechnology is, or how it can be developed. He pretends like he does, by referencing a talk Feynman gave in the 60s, but that deals with miniaturization of macroscale objects. Somehow, he jumps from micromachining to claiming we have a way to create atomically precise structures literally from thin-air, but provides no explanation of why these two things are related or why progress in one should allow us to make progress on the other. His citing Drexler suggests to me he doesn't understand the science very well, since Drexler is a known charlatan who hasn't achieved anything tangible and his theories ignore intermolecular effects that we know would be important at the scale he wants to work at. Similarly, his constant allusion to diamond structures ignores the actual material properties of diamond. Yes, diamond is strong and hard, but it will also shatter along imperfections. Not a good structural material because of this devastating failure mode.

Overall, great book. Probably the most thought provoking thing you'll read this year, but be skeptical anytime he starts talking about nanotechnology, and remember that he lives in engineer-world where every problem has a technical solution.
Profile Image for Tanner.
10 reviews10 followers
April 3, 2022
I thought this book was going to be a discussion about why technology and innovation has stagnated in the last half century, and what we can do to fix it.

However, the book covers this topic almost in passing, offering pretty simplistic (though totally fair) assessments of why the stagnation occurred.

Instead, a very sizable portion of this book is dedicated to the literal discussion of "Where is my flying car?" From the size and efficiency of electric battery's, to engine horsepower and weight, to the science of lift and flying, to airplane and helicopter history; You get a very literal, and very thorough discussion about why you dont have a flying car...

This book was definitely not what I expected going in, and I wish it would have spent more time on why there has been stagnation and offered better solutions on how to overcome it. However, I still found it pretty interesting overall. I enjoyed learning about possible technologies that could be developed in the future. Mainly, nano technology and thorium based fission are topics that I want to learn more about in the future.
Profile Image for Denis Vasilev.
648 reviews93 followers
August 1, 2022
Роскошная книга про состояние технологий и науки. Начинается с забавного - «где моя моя летающая машина?» и погружается в важнейшие вопросы прошлого, текущего и будущего технологического развития. Очень рекомендую
10 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2021
This is the latest release by Stripe Press, which focuses on publishing Science and Technology books. Many are republished books that have long since been out of print and are hard to find, or selling for $800 on Amazon because they were mentioned on some podcast. I have bought most of them, the covers are colorful and unique. J. Storrs Hall originally published Where is My Flying Car? in 2018 in a version that was available online. Several different people have notably focused on the thesis that we are in a Great Stagnation. There were noticeable improvements in life from 1900 to 1960, but if you were in a room in 1960 compared to today it would mostly be the same.

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel summed it up: "We wanted flying cars; we got 140 characters." Tyler Cowen published a book called the Great Stagnation in 2011 which theorized that all the low-hanging technological fruit has been picked except for in a few areas like computing and that as a result, our economy has slumped since the 1970s. Ross Douthat recently wrote the Decadent Society that more broadly made this case that we are also slumping in other areas, see the 27 movies of the Marvel Universe. The Jetsons which took place in 2062 presents a clear vision of what the future could be. And while it is hard to tell if the predictions in The Jetsons were a satire of the science fiction of the time or realistic expectations, it is clear now that "Flying cars have become a symbol of a mismatch: The future as imagined in the first half of the 20th century seemed a lot brighter than the present we're living in now."

Hall however takes the argument beyond simply that we have stagnated and makes clear that the path to flying cars, cold fusion, nano-technology was achievable, in paths laid out by Richard Feynman and others to explore if we simply had the collective to achieve them. And yet there is still hope for what he calls a Second Atomic Age which is a coming together of nano-technology, AI, and nuclear power if do not continue to make the same mistakes. "Most of the technologies that I've examined here are those we could have had by now, had we not dropped the ball. Second Atomic Age technology is not something beyond our grasp." But we must be optimists (David Deutsch talks about this in, The Beginning of Infinity). We seem to not be living in the optimistic future of Robert Heinlein, but in the pessimistic and dystopian future of Philip K. Dick." Cowen recently has been optimistic that the mRNA vaccines and bio-tech are a sign we are coming out of the great stagnation, so hopefully, that is in fact the case, and we will have those flying cars soon.
Profile Image for Itay.
152 reviews14 followers
January 2, 2021
טוב זה היה ארוך.
פרופ' הול עושה את הכל לא נכון. הוא מפרסם ספר בהוצאה עצמית, במחיר של 3.14$ (פאי דולרים, חה!), לא שוכר עורך ולא לומד כתיבה לפני כן. ועדיין, 4 כוכבים וקריאה מהנה שהיה כיף לסיים איתה את שנת 2020.

הול, פרופ' למדמ"ח העוסק בננוטכנולוגיה שואל שאלה פשוטה. איפה, קיבינימאט, המכונית המעופפת שלי? מכוניות מעופפות כבר היו קיימות, מסתבר. כבר בשנות ה-50 היו דגמים של מכוניות מעופפות. לא על הריצפה, אלא באוויר. עם אלפי שעות טיסה. החל ממכוניות עם כנפיים מתקפלות וכלה במכוניות הנעה אנכית - היזמים והמהנדסים ציפו לעתיד מעופף ומזהיר. אז מה השתבש? השאלה הזו גורמת להול לעשות סיבוב עתידני בכל הטכנולוגיות שנמצאות ב-cutting edge שלפני הפריצה. היתוך קר, ננוטכנולוגיה, רובוטיקה, המהפכה האטומית השנייה. אין להול עורך שיקצר אותו, ולכן אין שום דבר שמונע ממנו מלזרוק בכל פרק עשרות ציטוטים, טבלאות, ניתוחים וצלילות עומק לתחומי מדע רק כדי להסביר אנקדוטה לא חשובה. לפעמים זה מעייף, ומצאתי את עצמי מדלג, אבל לפעמים החפירה פשוט מרתקת. הול הוא פשוט גיק שמחזיר אותי לילד המתלהב ממד"ב של פעם. היה נחמד להרגיש את זה שוב.

650 עמודים לא הולך ברגל. מצד שני, כולה 3.14$.
Profile Image for Raul Pegan.
185 reviews6 followers
May 29, 2023
I wrote a massive review and then Goodreads crashed so I lost it 😭 But in short, this is a look into futurology’s past and present. Why did humanity slow down technological progress after the mid 20th century? It’s quite a shame that we went from the first airplane to the moon in a few decades but then decided that was enough. Author blames several factors for this “great stagnation”; among them there’s strict regulation, apathy in funding, Luddites refusing to accept new approaches and discoveries, and of course the political/economical landscape. Seems like today’s world rewards people who innovate in ad-clicking technology more than they do for mechanical engineering innovators.

Electronics/computing being the only field that’s advanced considerably in recent history makes me a bit sad, as that’s technology that’s meant to help the development of other fields; computing doesn’t help humanity directly. Maybe AI protein folding will be the counter example here.
Profile Image for Peter.
17 reviews3 followers
August 7, 2021
Offers a lot of great insight on the causes of the decline of technological progress since the 60s. And also offers good insights on the future of technology that could happen, if humanity dropped the new, green, religion, and went full steam ahead to develop and use energy for the betterment of the human condition - instead of limiting ourselves to 'save nature' and praying to the wind and sun gods for our daily energy. Then we will finally have our flying cars, and much more! However, the book could have been a bit shorter, if the author had slightly limited his enthusiasm for a particular tech, 'real nanotech', which was interesting at first, but to me this overemphasis started to detract from the overall structure of the book (it kept popping up all the time) and general enjoyment of reading the book. But with that sidenote, I recommend the book.
Profile Image for Bartosz Pranczke.
32 reviews39 followers
April 12, 2021
I enjoyed this book immensely. I guess it's a rather niche book for people interested in science, progress, technology and flying cars at the same time, but for those, it is great.

Turns out to answer where is my flying car we need to dive deep into the progress studies, nuclear, avionics, civil engineering, nanotechnology, history and so much more.

This book is a perfect example of why I love to read. Very smart author spends 10 years researching multiple domains and I can just read the summary of it in days. What an investment :)
Profile Image for Niklas Heer.
80 reviews10 followers
April 9, 2022
This book covers a lot of different topics, and the author goes way beyond the central question of the book, “where is my flying car?”.
At times it was therefore harder for me to get through the book. I'm afraid I also have to disagree with the author on some topics like nuclear energy. Sure it’s an exciting power source but what to do with the waste? He doesn’t really answer that.
Overall I can recommend this book to people interested in science and science fiction.
Profile Image for Bouke.
169 reviews30 followers
June 15, 2022
An enjoyable exploration of the history of aviation, that goes into why we don't all have flying cars and why the amount of energy each of us has access to has stagnated over the past 50 years. I like that you can read the frustration of the author through the text—why isn't the present like the future we were promised!

I'm not sure I'd want to live in a city like it's painted in the book though—the sound of thousands of flying machines would be ear-deafening.
Profile Image for Daniel Seymour.
10 reviews
August 25, 2022
General lament of “Why isn’t the future better?” + classic sci-fi quotes + semi-detailed summaries of a collection of technologies, mostly aeronautical + general theses from the extended blogosphere of Tyler Cowen and Scott Alexander. I think other reviewers are right to the extent that it summarises the general ideology of the group of people claiming the banner of Progress Studies, but it felt too much like a book written for that group, adapting those tweetable ideas in book form, rather than anything truly novel. That is why I felt justified in abandoning the book after one hundred or so pages.
Profile Image for Ben.
226 reviews10 followers
October 11, 2020
Inspiring, wide-ranging, opinionated. Strongly recommended (even though I don’t agree with everything).
Profile Image for Simão Freitas.
27 reviews2 followers
August 15, 2022
Great stuff. Learned a lot more than expected but also felt very overwhelmed by all the technicalities for airplanes and jet engines and the like. At times hard and challenging to read, most the of the times fascinating and inspiring even if I, from a sociological standpoint, disagree with quite a bit.
Profile Image for Miles Gould.
73 reviews5 followers
March 4, 2021
I read this on the strength of Jason Crawford's excellent review: https://rootsofprogress.org/where-is-... I think Crawford does a great job of summarising the book, but am still glad I read the whole thing - I highlighted literally hundreds of passages. In particular, the section on urban planning was a revelation: he points out that the entire job of cities is to increase the number of valuable possible journeys by bringing lots of people close to lots of desirable destinations, and that cities with slow/unreliable transport networks are failing at that job - he thinks that cities should be enormously better-connected, with many levels of highways and entirely separate pedestrian infrastructure. There are also many eye-opening factual claims, like his claim that the study of physics at the scale of atomic nuclei has basically stalled since the '60s, or that R&D output is negatively correlated with federal funding.

His overall claim is roughly
- flying cars are technically feasible (indeed, they have been made)
- they would have huge benefits
- they were strangled in the crib by a combination of over-regulation and alarmist environmental activism.

I don't know enough about aviation to properly assess his claims on point 1, though the existence of working prototypes makes a strong argument. He skates over some difficulties - for instance, an engineer friend said "let me know when you get to his answer for air-traffic control", and I had to disappoint him - Hall touches on ATC a couple of times, but never gives a properly clear answer, other than to say that modern ATC (like much about modern aviation) is very tightly regulated in a way that assumes and bakes-in the technological limitations of a previous era. A ground-up redesign (as may be happening for drones) would look very different, and should be able to support much higher traffic density.

I think his criticism of Green activism is much too strong (for instance, he thinks the harms of climate change aren't worth the cost of mitigation - I checked his citation of an IPCC report, and I think he's confusing cost of mitigation with total cost if we don't mitigate), but it's useful to see someone making a (mostly) strong argument for activism's downsides. Likewise, I hate cars, so found it challenging and somewhat refreshing to read someone making an actual quantitative argument for why they are good, and why flying cars would be better.

My main criticism of the book is that he needs an editor, both to trim down the most-crankish stuff (cold fusion, in particular), and to clarify the overall structure of the book so it's more clear what he's proposing. He has a tendency to switch rapidly between
- what was actually done (autogyros in the '30s, various forms of converting cars in the post-war years)
- what could be done technically, starting from where we are now (better autogyros at the low end, VTOL ducted-fan electric aircraft with electricity generated by gas turbines at the high end; nuclear reactors and nuclear batteries everywhere)
- what could have been done by now if the level of innovation and regulation from the 1930s had continued to the present day (hard nanotech, weather control, orbital megastructures - this is the most fun part, but also the most handwavy)
... so it's sometimes hard to get a handle on what he's actually claiming or proposing.
Profile Image for David Peng.
10 reviews
March 2, 2022
I am torn on this one - on one hand, this book offers a very idiosyncratic and fascinating insight into why innovation has stalled in the last few decades. On the other hand, this book is absolutely laborious to plow through and it is evident that there is a mismatch between the author's knowledge and his ability to express himself eloquently. Like a dinner conversation with an economist that goes on for far too long - or that crypto bro at the party who won't shut up about his altcoins. A hallmark of lazy and uninspired writing is to quote other texts in chunks and this book has no shortage of that. There is also an entire section dedicated to explaining how it is relatively simple to fly a small aircraft. A YouTube link would have done the trick. Also, the author's thinly veiled criticism of environmentalism feels dated. Using the pronoun "we" to describe people who know how to fly planes, however, is a great way to signal that you are an absolute baller and the author is very successful in conveying this fact. We get it, you know how to fly a plane and your family spends entire winters in Europe. Did we ski past each other in Chamonix last year?
April 14, 2022
This book has stuck with me for a while. J.Storrs Hall answers the titular question, but the book is about much more than just flying cars – it’s about energy usage, what happened to the rate of progress, and our societal outlook on the future. Moore’s Law has been prescient about the development in the world of bits. Where’s the corresponding improvement in the world of atoms?

Over the first few chapters, we learn that 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. 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.

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?

Hall argues it’s a problem of our 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.

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.

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.

Here’s my guide to reading 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.

If you want to read more, I put Hall’s book in conversation with Donella Meadows’s Thinking In Systems on my Substack, Book Pairings in Black Mirror or Through the Looking Glass?
Profile Image for Kevin Liu.
3 reviews6 followers
October 17, 2022
I confess this book makes so many claims that I haven't verified most of them, but it puts together the world very beautifully into a tale of lost potential, stifled by regulation and protest. I'm still thinking about the ramifications for the clean energy industry (nuclear fusion over solar?), urban planning (should we make 10x cars rather than public transit?), and the future (nanotech?).
1,150 reviews8 followers
May 25, 2022

[Imported automatically from my blog. Some formatting there may not have translated here.]

The disappointing answer to the book's title: still workin' on it.

But since I started reading the book a few days ago, I've kept my eye peeled for news. And it's pretty easy to find. A couple weeks ago, there was a Christopher Mims column in the WSJ: The Biggest Problem With Flying Cars Is on the Ground. (I.e., where are they going to land?)

But perhaps more sobering, from Reason's wonderful Katherine Mangu-Ward: Where's My Damn Flying Car?: An Update

Terrafugia, Inc., an MIT-born firm, has released a flight simulator for their model, the Transition. They're calling it a "roadable aircraft" because of niggling little details like the fact that you need a pilot's license to operate the vehicle. But it's a flying car. You can drive it to the airport, unfold the wings, and take off.

Only problem: that's from 2006. Terrafugia was taking deposits for delivery of the Transition in 2009. And you may have noticed: it didn't happen.

These days, Terrafugia has more modest goals: the SEEKER, "an innovative, electric, fixed-wing/VTOL hybrid aircraft designed explicitly for autonomous commercial aerial applications." Unmanned. Ho hum.

But back to the book: flying cars are only one of the areas the author, J. Storrs Hall, investigates. He's willing to believe they could happen, and considers a lot of the obvious constraints and objections: yes, flying is well within the capabilities of normal humans; yes, it's plausible there would be a robust demand for them; yes, there are no obvious technical gotchas. The big roadblocks are government over-regulation and the explosion of liability lawsuits.

But flying cars are only one example of a general problem. The concept behind nanotech was (essentially) thought up by Richard Feynman in 1959. K. Eric Drexler's 1986 book Engines of Creation (yes, I read it) told us all of the wonders just about to come… and then, meh. What happened? Hall has explanations there, too. Again, there don't seem to be any technical roadblocks, just misdirected government funding to organizations that don't seem very interested in doing anything revolutionary.

The book contains many other interesting technological wonders that could be ours, if only we'd get our act together. Some are (near-literally) blue sky. Worried about climate change? Hall doesn't mention my favorite solution, Artificial photosynthesis; instead he imagines billions of centimeter-sized diamond baloons filled with hydrogen, floating 20 miles up. They would contain mirrors that could be continually adjusted to reflect sunlight back into space: essentially a global thermostat. Cool! (Literally.)

Hall's stories are plausible and interesting. (He has an unfortunate hangup about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, though.) And his observations sometimes overlap into mine: he likes the technologically-optimistic SF of Heinlein over the pessimistic drug-inspired dystopias of Philip K. Dick. (My own: Dick has 46 writing credits at IMDB; Heinlein has a mere 20. And a slew of those 20 are from the execrable Starship Troopers franchise.)

All in all, the book made me think about Deirdre McCloskey's insight: that the "Great Enrichment" of the past couple centuries was due to a shift in beliefs and moral norms that extended respect and dignity to commercial activity.

I can't help but wonder if what Hall calls the "Great Stagnation" is due to a similar shift in attitudes. And whether such a shift will turn into a "Great Impoverishment". It's unfortunately not implausible.

Profile Image for Drake Shadwell.
10 reviews2 followers
September 29, 2022
Hall fluctuates between an impassioned futurist and a disgruntled defunded scientist.
Frankly, unrealistic.

I enjoyed the speculation on behalf of Hall on many aspects. The pursuit of the life of the Jetsons is admirable and a worthy one. However, his claims were made with a tone so jaded that it spoiled much of the book for me. Instead of applauding our major advancements in 'low energy' technology and making a case for the future of 'high energy' advancement alongside it. Hall chose to take up a position opposite those major advancements and deride them as second rate in light of what we SHOULD have doing with our time and energy. Mainly advancing nuclear and nanotechnology. I agree that these are incredible pursuits that could lift man up to the next level of society, but don't discount the amazing impact that personal computing, telecommunications and personal transport has had on daily life.

The main argument Hall uses is to project progress into the future based on the progress we've made in other fields. He constantly relies on the phrase 'Now imagine if we had continued to pursue
x like we did y'... Making a false assumption that the same effort expended into two different fields would have yielded the same results. That we could make the same amount of progress in nanotech as we did in personal computing or in flying cars as we did in regular manufacturing. Or even that the progress would have continued upon the same trajectory as when interest and funding for it waned, instead of a natural digression or plateau. Both these assumptions are flawed in their logic because they require past performance to indicate future gains. A flawed approach at future projections. The truth is there are a million reasons why something might not catch on in daily life. A good example is Virtual Reality (a 'low energy' technology that hasn't seen the advancements expected in science fiction which Hall decided to leave out of his analysis.) The technology for virtual reality has been around for decades and seen little to no improvements until just the past 5 - 10 years, and still we are lightyears away from the fantasies of "Ready Player One" or "Sword Art Online". However, based on Hall's hypothesis, a technology with such 'low energy' should have increased on the exponential curve alongside the other computing platforms. Instead, the software is still clunky, the worlds are still far from lifelike and we are just now seeing large scale adoption. Even that 'large scale' is struggling to capture a ubiquitous audience because it is not as convenient as our current information distribution. 'Pancake' screens deliver 80% of the experience at 200% of the comfort level and people are not willing to make that trade, and that's a large reason why there is still so much friction for the adoption of the Metaverse (in my opinion.)
I use this example not to make a direct comparison between the lack of adoption of VR and the advancements that Hall longs for, but instead to highlight that there are intangible difficulties with the development of any innovation. It's highly difficult to know when, where and how something will get major adoption and development in the human world.

I gave this 4 instead of 3 stars because I do admire and respect the research, time and knowledge that went into constructing this book. Hall does an incredible job of synthesizing material from many disciplines and creating a beautiful picture of a Utopia. I also think he makes great points about how regulation strangles innovations during infancy in a lot of ways that is truly tragic. (I'm not surprised at all to find out that the FAA scrapped flying cars because they "couldn't handle the traffic." As a drone pilot, it sickens me to know that they're so myopic with the control of the sky.) The only thing that kept this book from being a masterpiece was the overwhelmingly negative and whining tone pervasive throughout it. He sounded too much like a spoiled brat who is so mad that his parents won't buy him a nuclear power plant, that he doesn't appreciate all the luxuries they've bought for him over the past decades.
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