The Roots of Progress

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A 1959 ad shows the flying-car future we were promised

When people say things like “we were promised flying cars,” I sometimes wonder, “who promised this?”

I guess this is what they mean. From a 1959 ad that ran in the LA Times:

As a friend pointed out, “they're not even wearing seat belts!”
As a friend pointed out, “they're not even wearing seat belts!” The Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1959

“They’re working on it!” the ad claims. “Some of this is happening already.” (Implying, of course, that some of it was still pretty speculative.)

The ability to “dial” a book, lecture, or demonstration is here; the ultrasound dishwasher, automatic bed-maker, and flying car sadly are not.

But here’s what’s most interesting to me: First, the reference, without explanation or justification, to “tomorrow’s higher standard of living”—something people simply assumed was coming. Second, that it was uncontroversial that this higher standard of living would require more electricity. Finally, the boasting of doubling electricity production in ten years. As I’ve pointed out, society once had a different fundamental attitude towards growth.

The US did, in fact, approximately double electricity generation every decade from 1950 until 1973—the year of the oil crisis—after which electricity growth never really recovered. It took almost thirty years to double again, from 1973 to 2000, during which time it was just keeping up with population growth; that is, per-capita energy usage was not increasing. And since 2005, even the total amount produced has been flat:

US electricity generation
US electricity generation Data from US Energy Information Administration

“The electric companies are resolved,” the ad says, to maintain for America “the best electric power service in the world.” Well, we are still one of the top overall producers, second only to China:

But since the oil shocks, I’d say that “resolve” has been shaken.

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

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