Monday, October 26, 2009

On the Lack of Flying Cars in Modern Times, an open response to Bill's open letter

Yesterday, Bill posted a lament about the lack of flying cars and jetpacks in modern times over on Big Hollywood, in the form of an open letter to me. I complain about not having a flying car and a jetpack all the time (I also complain about not having a functioning lightsaber, but that's another matter entirely. I appended the following response in the comments, which I'll quote here in full.

Since Bill addressed his flying car lament to me, I figured I owed him a response.

(For those who don't know me personally--which would likely be just about everyone--a quick note about where to place me on the political spectrum. I am what was termed by my father's generation a "pinko." Worse yet, I'm a secular humanist pinko. But I'm also a huge geek, and got every one of Bill's references at the beginning of the piece.)

Oh, how I wish I had a flying car and a jetpack. And I share a lot of Bill's concerns about the "nanny state" aspects of modern culture, but I'm not as quick to dismiss it entirely as pernicious. (As a parent of a five year old daughter, the question of how much danger to allow her to put herself in is a constant struggle for me. I don't want to see her hurt unnecessarily, but at the same time I don't want her to grow up cossetted and cushioned against *all* of life's ill. Check out Michael Chabon's excellent essay "Manhood for Amateurs" for some thoughts on this:

The problem with flying cars as I see it, though, isn't so much the danger it poses to the driver, but the danger it poses to everyone *else*.

If an idiot kid gets behind the wheel of a car and barrels down my street at far above the posted speed limit, it might have disastrous, even tragic, effects. He could hit another car, he could hit a pedestrian, could get in a wreck and kill and injure not only himself but other innocents. Sure, he has to be licensed to drive, but there is still risk to the rest of us, but as a society it's a risk that we've come to accept as a trade-off for the convenience and luxury of the single-passenger car.

The problem with the flying car is that the danger posed by unsafe and inexperienced operators is magnified many times over. A thoughtless kid behind the wheel of a ground car could hit a pedestrian, or rear-end a school bus, or any number of other ills, but he's not likely to destroy my house and everyone in it. An inexperienced "driver" of a flying car? A heavy projectile filled with inflammable propellant hitting my roof at high speeds might just do that. Until flying cars can be made safe (there's that pernicious word again) not only to the people onboard but to all of the people on the *ground*, I'm content to live without them.

Jet packs, now, are another matter, or at least pose a less significant threat to all of us on the ground. I think the problem *there* is that the physics just don't seem to work. Like everyone in my generation, I grew up with images of the Rocket Belt, and figured that I'd be able to soar through the air in one *long* before I reached my current age. But the problem with things like the Rocket Belt is that that are (a) prohibitively expensive to operate, and (b) extremely limited in application. I could buy one now, if I had the means, and go out in the desert and fly in a small circle for a minute or two before the tiny fuel tank was exhausted, but that doesn't put me any closer to strapping on a jetpack and flying from here down to the corner store. Even if I could make it there, I wouldn't have the fuel to make it *back*.

Who knows? Maybe some genius will come along and figure out how to rewrite the gravitational constant on the fly, and we all can float safely through the clouds with flight rings like the Legion of Super-Heroes used to hand out to its members. (Heck, they even gave the *rejects* flying belts.) And if we should happen to collide with the ground, we'd do no more damage than a mylar helium balloon blown over from the birthday part of the kid next door. But in the meantime, while still worrying about the possibly pernicious ills of the nanny state, I'm happy that there's someone out there keeping big hunks of flaming metal death from plummeting out of the skies onto my head.

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