Our present is always built on the ruins of possible futures. The history of science fiction is littered with hopeful, but unrealized predictions. When our prophecies do come true, they too often prove to be waking nightmares showing only that we often fail to heed the warnings of our predecessors.
That sense of frustration is central to a meme that’s recently been making the rounds on Twitter and other sites. Like all the best memes, its basic grammar is simple and easily replicable. At some point in the past, it proposes, we imagined the future would bring us flying cars. But here in 2017 … things are a little different.
The internet scholars of Know Your Meme trace the origins of this trend, which they title “I Bet There Will Be Flying Cars in the Future,” to a Facebook post from February. It subsequently populated through the Reddit ecosystem before ultimately exploding on Twitter. Its spread is likely a sign of the times: Where 2016’s best meme told concise personal stories of our collective fall from grace, this new one reminds us that we already live in fallen times, calling out the goofy reality of our supposed accomplishments.
A recent New York magazine headline describes the meme as “bleak.” That’s an understandable take, but it also misses the silliness that has precipitated the popularity of “Flying Cars in the Future.” As one recent study indicates, a significant percentage of Americans really do want autonomous flying cars. That we don’t have them yet isn’t so much a reason to mourn as it is an opportunity to laugh at the branching paths of technological progress. It is no surprise, then, that meme-makers frequently use it to poke fun at the debased state of innovation.
(Roughly translated, the sign in that last one reads, “We have fidget spinners with lights and Bluetooth.”)
These examples don’t suggest that 2017 is awful (though it is, in many ways), so much as they demonstrate that it is dumb. Flying cars are, as Slate’s Henry Grabar puts it, “the quintessential undelivered promise of future,” but we’re arguably closer than ever to making them a reality—and yet we’re no better off for it. Last year, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Google co-founder Larry Page had dumped more that $100 million into a flying car startup. More recently, news broke that DeLorean Aerospace was working to develop a two-seat vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.
If or when those contraptions do arrive, we’ll almost certainly roll our eyes at them too. The hype surrounding them is already, Grabar warns, a distraction from our willingness to invest in much needed public transportation infrastructure. By the time we get airborne taxis, we may be left with crumbling roads and nonexistent bus systems: hardly an ideal eventuality, let alone a future that will be fun to live in. Meanwhile, the vehicles themselves will surely serve as signifiers of ludicrous luxury, there because we were supposed to invent them, not because we really needed to. Like the original DeLorean, they will soon strike us as silly precisely because they speak to the future we once imagined, not what we want in the present.
That’s arguably as it should be. Today inevitably disappoints because it is not tomorrow. But as “Flying Cars in the Future” shows us, we can and should always laugh at our failures.