The New Yorker:

They have long been a symbol of a future that never came. Now a variety of companies are building them—or something close.

By Gideon Lewis-Kraus

little more than a decade ago, Founders Fund, a venture-capital firm run by the entrepreneur, investor, and political gadfly Peter Thiel, issued a proclamation called “What Happened to the Future?” As an investment thesis, it was underwhelming—it advanced biotechnology, energy, and the Internet as smart bets—but it was received as something of a spiritual treatise. Thiel was best known for his early investment in Facebook, but he believed that the nation had become sluggish. We might have been attempting to terraform nearby planets or surmount death. Instead, we made apps. His statement belonged to the genre of the writer F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909, which proposed that Italy’s moribund museum culture be razed in favor of a machine cult of speed and steel: “We are going to be present at the birth of the centaur and we shall soon see the first angels fly! We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks! Let us go! Here is the very first sunrise on earth!” Thiel, no poet, was punchier: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

“Where’s my flying car?” quickly caught on as a meme in Silicon Valley and beyond. For Thiel, one culprit was obvious: regulators. In a contentious debate, he told Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, that Schmidt was doing “a fantastic job as Google’s minister of propaganda,” but that the company had capitulated to an ethos of caution. “We’ve basically outlawed everything having to do with the world of stuff, and the only thing you’re allowed to do is in the world of bits,” he said. The economist Tyler Cowen offered a more neutral assessment in his book “The Great Stagnation,” writing that perhaps “the low-hanging fruit has been mostly plucked.” The complaint found surprising allies. The late anthropologist David Graeber, who at the time had no clue who Thiel was, wrote, “A secret question hovers over us, a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like.” The question? “Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars?” Graeber blamed bureaucratic risk aversion and corporations concerned only with short-term capitalist incentives. By 2020, when the investor Marc Andreessen grumbled, in one of his routine tirades, that we still didn’t have flying cars, it felt almost dutiful.

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