Every now and then a hobbyist inspired by splashy magazine covers featuring art deco cities and soaring vehicles full of the cheerful people of the future puts together a flying car. The result is noted chiefly for its novelty and then everyone moves along because we aren't a flying car culture. From the bottom up we might long to soar above the highways, but from the top down we are a light rail culture, a biodegradable house culture and a guard rail culture.
The flying car belonged to an America at a crossroads. A nation tiptoeing between the adventure of innovation and the progressive order of the nanny state. Since then the car has drive to this future that we have now. A world in which we have an expanding poorly managed government that oversees everything and an innovation culture chiefly confined to building a complex social environment within a data infrastructure built on Cold War communications technology. Or as some still call it, the internet.
Flying cars don't have much of a place in a society with emissions standards, mandatory child seats, heavily taxed gasoline and government motor companies. They have even less of a place in one that banned the lawn dart, requires photo ID's to purchase cough syrup and treats toothpaste as a weapon. America has gone from a nation that idealized freedom and treated the car as a vehicle of autonomy to one overrun by central planners still dreaming of the perfect national rail system that no one will use, because unlike its graceful forebears, but like everything overseen by the humanitarian bureaucracy it will be designed to crush the human spirit.
We don't have flying cars for the same reason that we don't any skyscrapers built in the last few decades worth mentioning or moon colonies, monuments, frontiers or anything that a latter day civilization could dig up and admire. There are skyscrapers still going up in American cities, if you haven't heard of them that's because they're self-effacing LEED compliant glass angular shapes that you forget even while you're looking at them. Even their ugliness is not stark enough to commit them to memory.
And of course they aren't very tall. Tallness like flying cars and the ambition to do anything but put out press releases is unsustainable. They do have a sense of the future to them, but an undramatic one, a future in which everything has been done and everyone sits around in glass boxes, pondering the state of their ennui and admiring the architect for putting an unnecessary asymmetrical triangle at the top of the glass box to remind us that the world dies every time we buy non-locally grown produce.
There is still an ambition to make large things. If the Chrysler and Empire State buildings don't make it to the next era, the stone age dwellers of the future can still marvel over the edifices of our countless government offices, temples of stone and steel filling the land, rope lines through which men trudged, in the opinion of future archeologists to participate in arcane rites or perhaps lining up to be human sacrifices. And they won't be entirely wrong.
We still build things, like affordable housing, government offices and memorials to multicultural heroes, we just don't build anything that matters or that lasts. There is no room in the massive fragmented tower of babel for anything but personal ambition and collective ideology. Nothing is made for the ages, we're lucky if most of what we make lasts till tomorrow.
The vision of bigness that we have is confined to mapping and running a large society. There is no room for individualism within that vision, no towers built to mean something, no vehicles of personal autonomy. It is all about integrating, the endless search for a solution to the puzzle of making all the individual pieces work as perfect cogs in the machine. And that's done by smoothing out the rough human edges so that they all fit together.
We have become a culture run by committees and if nothing ever really gets done, if trillions of dollars are spent and vanish without a trace, that is only to be expected. The innovation that we still have is personal, individual. Apple failed as a company until it brought back the eccentric monomaniacal vision of Steve Jobs, whose neurotic impulses turned it into the biggest company in the world. Its mobile success was driven by the individualistic tinkering of app developers, much like the internet's explosion was made possibly not by Al Gore, but by individual obsessive innovations.
Those obsessions can create a programming language like Ruby or a flying car, but it's much harder to get a society to adopt the latter than the former. Innovation succeeds by outpacing committees who blink in bafflement at it or run to catch up. Had the committees understood what the internet would become, they would have killed it back when that was still possible. But flying cars are easy to kill. In the society that the committees have created, the flying car is a non-starter. The conference attendees sitting around tables aren't plotting to kill the flying car, they're plotting to kill the car.
Flying cars are dangerous. Imagine the accidents, imagine the lawsuits. An elite which panics at a child's drawing of a gun or a new Army recruit illegally drinking a beer is in no shape to cope with a crazy world of flying cars. At least not without a prolonged debate on whether the flying car is a phallic or yonic symbol and how it will impact minority representation in congress, not to mention the obesity epidemic, the self-esteem of gay teenagers and the plight of Guatemalan farmers.
A flying car disrupts the larger scheme of things which requires us to make do with less, to take the carpool lane, not to take to the sky. It distracts us from constantly repeating to ourselves that we are the problem, that the automobile is a pestilent plague and that we are destroying the planet by not listening to our jet setting better's green tips.
Is there any place for a flying car in a low flow toilet culture? Yes there is, as a reminder of what we can't have so long as the latter isn't being flushed along with the entire corrupt lunatic establishment and its single-minded grip on power.
We can't have flying cars and constant media panics. We can't have flying cars and a man in the White House who is determined to reengineer our society by raising the price of energy. We can't have flying cars and regulations on everything. We can't have flying cars and Lawsuits R' Us. We can't have flying cars and the idea that every time we take a breath we are destroying the planet.
There's a basic choice to be made of the kind of society we want. The FDR to Ike to JFK road we have traveled has foreclosed a great many of those options. They turned the fantastic visions of the future into a limited one where we can innovate so long as we do it on our computer and before the legislative window finally closes on the internet.
A country of flying cars is as terrifying to such people as a plague of zombies or the end of the mainstream media. It's outside the box that is being built around us with every law, every new behavior manual and government mandate. Flying is too much like escaping, taking to the air, out of reach of EPA SWAT teams, hectoring anchormen, bickering congressmen and the entire last days of Rome anthill underfoot.
Escape is a dangerous thing. Even the prospect of it gives people hope that there is a future outside the box. And so we may briefly be allowed to look at a flying car, before we head out with our 3-1-1 toothpaste to the TSA, our health insurance bought, our earphones turned to NPR where there is a discussion on how Republican budget cuts are undermining the traditional Native American art of woodcarving. So long as we don't get any ideas about flying away.