Where's My Flying Car? VR Is Just a Distraction From the Unfulfilled Promise of Technology

It offers us marvelous imaging of a different reality even as reality itself is getting worse

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Employees wearing a virtual reality (VR) headsets and holding electronic rifles participate in a demonstration at the SoReal virtual reality park in Beijing, China, March 3, 2017.
Employees wearing a virtual reality (VR) headsets and holding electronic rifles participate in a demonstration at the SoReal virtual reality park in Beijing, China, March 3, 2017.Credit: Gilles Sabrie/Bloomberg

In 1959, at the height of the cold war, U.S. Vice President Richard M. Nixon landed in the Soviet capital, where he attended the opening of  the U.S. Trade and Cultural Fair. Against the backdrop of a model suburban American kitchen, Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in a frank conversation, captured for perpetuity by color video technology. A jovial Khrushchev poked fun at the Americans over the technology they displayed so proudly.

“How long has America existed?” Khrushchev teasingly asked Nixon. “Three hundred years?” When Nixon replied, “One hundred and fifty years,” Khrushchev retorted, “One hundred and fifty years of existence and this is the level she has reached? We haven't quite reached 42 years and in another seven years we'll be on the same level as America. As we pass you by, we will wave 'hi' to you.”

Khrushchev’s comments in the famous “Kitchen Debate” were long regarded as an expression of baseless Soviet arrogance. After all, how far had the USSR advanced in its home-appliance technology even by the 1980s? 

In 1959, the year of the fair, the Soviets launched the first rocket to reach (and crash into) the moon. Over the decades that followed, though, the country, shackled to heavy industrial technologies such as tractor production and steel plants, was unable to join the computer and digital revolution. Nevertheless, from the perspective of recent decades, Khrushchev’s remarks do not seem so farfetched. 

Although Communist technology failed, the technology developed in the capitalist world led by America has been very disappointing. The early 20th century saw the introduction of the automobile, the airplane, radio and television. However, since World War II, technological development has not been all that impressive – certainly far less impressive than we may customarily think. 

The last sentence might sound groundless to those who have been indoctrinated by endless propaganda regarding progress and technological “revolutions.” Technology’s proponents and critics share the conventional thinking that we are witnessing rapid, dramatic changes. But this is pure nonsense. All that’s needed to confirm that fact is to recall the promises made by the prophets of technology decades ago. When I was growing up in the 1980s, we were promised that the 21st century would see underwater cities, flying cars, robotic housecleaners and travel to Mars. In reality, we are still using improved versions of the automobile, the airplane, and radio and television, and doing so with ever-deteriorating infrastructures. The conquest of space project is stalled and it is doubtful whether it will ever emerge from its present crisis. We employ polluting, costly, unsafe technologies that create more problems (such as the threat of humanity’s annihilation) than they do solutions. 

Few believe today that technological progress is capable of solving humanity’s distress. Technology’s promise has primarily created unfulfilled expectations. The British band Pulp rightly sang, “Oh, we were brought up on the Space Race/ Now they expect you to clean toilets.”

Not surprisingly, millions today throughout the world would deny that we are in an age of scientific and engineering achievements, and instead are readopting perspectives that were formed millennia ago – because technology has not lived up to its promises. Nuclear energy, for example, has failed to replace fossil fuels: We still rely on the exploitation of the remains of primitive organisms that carried out photosynthesis half a billion years ago. Despite medical advances, the chances of contracting cancer have increased, antibiotics will soon be ineffective, an AIDS vaccine has yet to be developed, and even a more convenient alternative to condoms is still to be found (Bill Gates’ efforts notwithstanding). What innovations are showcased as technological advances – Smileys to express emotions on Facebook? Wasn’t life good enough before them?

As philosopher Nick Srnicek argues, the liberal age’s technologies have not reduced workloads or stress: “[R]ather than a world of space travel, future shock, and revolutionary technological potential, we exist in a time where the only thing which develops is marginally better consumer gadgetry.” For example, in the second entry in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, Michael J. Fox’s character, hurled into 2015, discovers that few of the hopes people had in 1985 have been realized. Dreams of such advances as anti-aging treatment, flying skateboards, and self-tying shoelaces have not become part and parcel of our reality. The primary technologies presented in the movie are a plasma screen and a hologram of a shark – and by now they already seem antiquated. And this is the point: The main area where technology has made progress is the field of imaging. 

Escapist technology

In 1984, my father promised me that, when I would grow up, personal rockets or anti-gravity boots would transport me wherever I wanted to go. Yet, today, we are still grounded, and we can even say that in recent decades, reality on the planet has deteriorated. Instead, technology’s barons have created efficient forms of virtual reality and escapist reality. For instance, camera-equipped drones that hover over us and view us from above. 

This is, after all, the gist of contemporary technology: It offers us marvelous imaging of a different reality even as  reality itself remains unchanged. Justifiably, digital technology’s enhancements are impressive, but they distract us from recognizing that the range of tools for imaging reality are primarily intended to conceal the failures of technology, science and Project Literacy.

People buy the technological revolution myth because they want to believe that their lives are exciting and futuristic. Although today’s social and political realities are depressing, every five minutes, commercials tell us about a “revolution” in the design of disposal diapers. Our situation is so desperate in fact that technology companies are forced to adopt extreme measures: To place blinders over our eyes so that we cannot see what is happening around us. The blinders are called “virtual reality headsets,” and, strangely enough, people are willing to put them on, even to pay for the experience.

The deal contemporary technology offers us is like a real estate agent telling a client: “I can’t give you the apartment I promised you, but I can show you a great apartment demo.” People are gradually moving into such residences, migrating there from the valley of destruction that we call the world. In the meantime, we can live in VR in style. At least up until the next cyberattack.

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