The Age of Diminished Expectations

Megan McArdle laments the loss of imagination in the United States, reflecting on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk:

During the incomprehensibly lengthy interval between you and adulthood, man would surely prepare itself to go to Mars and beyond, and you were going to be among the pioneers.

Four years before I was born, man walked on the moon for the first time, the most magnificent single feat our little tribe of East African Plains Apes has ever managed. Now we don't even do that. What happened to the dream? Government mismanagement, yes, but something more than that, too, some failure of imagination and will.

I'm in complete agreement, and I don't think the blame for this state affairs lies with government interference. Although I don't doubt that space travel would be in a more advanced state with a freer market, there seems to have been a deeper, psychological shift in the nation's psyche. We just don't want to build big anymore.

A few weeks ago while researching something else, I ran across one of the odder transportation ideas I've ever heard of:

A vactrain is a proposed, as-yet-unbuilt proposal for future high-speed railroad transportation. This would entail building maglev lines through evacuated (air-less) tunnels. Though the technology is currently being investigated for development of regional networks, advocates have suggested establishing vactrains for transcontinental routes to form a global subway network. The lack of air resistance could permit vactrains to move at extremely high speeds, up to 6000-8000 km/h

And these ideas were not coming random kooks writing in their parents' basement. The vacuum tunnel high speed train proposal was published by RAND, one of the most respected research institutes of the time (and today). Serious proposals about space colonization were being published by NASA in the 70s.

I'm not saying these particular projects made any sense. Rather, there's something sad about a society that doesn't even dare dream of wild, even stupid things, preferring a sedate existence. But is it true that we have lost all ability to think big? I don't think so. Projects like the sequencing the human genome are huge undertakings too, to say nothing of, say, Aubrey De Grey's SENS proposal. And yet these manage to capture at least some of the public's attention.

It seems more to me that we've lost the interest in building things, even if our imaginations still run wild in other areas. And if that's the case, why has this happened? And does anyone else see this is as a bad thing?

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What's the benefit...

in getting from New York to London in less than an hour if you have to spend three hours standing in line for TSA at one end and another three hours standing in line for customs and passport control at the other?

Which is probably your point.

if you have to spend three

if you have to spend three hours standing in line for TSA at one end and another three hours standing in line for customs and passport control at the other?

Which is probably your point.

Definitely seems like we're in some agreement. I don't deny that TSA could easily foul up something like that, but it's sort of sad that this is what springs to mind. Not "that's awesome!" or even "that's crazy and stupid", but "how will this technology make our crummy, bureaucratic lives marginally worse".

Sometimes I like to play a game with myself. Think of a major technical breakthrough, suppose it was reported in a major newspaper, and imagine the flood of negative comments that would result (life expectancy improvements are a good one for this).

It's just amazing how negative we've become. Maybe 'twas always thus, and there just wasn't an outlet for it, but I really do think we've become so unrelentingly negative and pessimistic that we have almost no imagination of a better life anymore.

Your post reminds me of this

taken from page 40 of The Driver by Garet Garrett (PDF or audio):

Take the railroads. With already the cheapest railroad transportation in the world, people were clamoring for it to be made cheaper. Crazy Populists were telling the farmers it ought to be free, like the air. Prejudice against railroads was amazing, irrational and suicidal. All profit in railroading had been taxed and regulated away. Incentive to build new roads had been destroyed. If by a special design of the Lord a railroad did seem to prosper the politicians pounced upon it and either mulcted it secretly or held it forth to the public as a monster that must be chained up with restrictive laws. Sometimes they practised both these arts at once. Result: the nation's transportation arteries were strangling.

The context around this quote, and indeed the whole novel, questions the mass psychology around economic booms and busts.