Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Back to the future

Last week was my 24th visit to Israel. Over the last three decades I have watched it transform, from a poor agricultural country, into a cutting edge high tech market economy. But during all that time, there is one thing that hasn't changed....getting there! It's over forty years since El Al, Israel's national airline introduced jet airliners to its fleet, and it still takes the same time, four and a half hours to get there from the UK.

When I was a child, all the movies, books, and science programmes told us we would be travelling in flying cars, flying at the speed of sound, and even going into space for our vacations. Instead of all that, here we are, still driving motor cars, still sitting in traffic jams, and still waiting for our delayed flights. Even the ageing space shuttle has been grounded.

When Concorde was retired last year, many commentators said that the demise of supersonic air travel was a unique example of progress moving backwards. I think they missed the point. Moving backwards has now become the norm. We've become luddites, and slowing down has become an aspiration. There is even a well publicised lobby group, the slower speeds initiative which dreams of taking us back to the days of the red flag act.

I often joke to my friends that by the time we have grandchildren, motorists will be forced to travel by horse and cart, and we'll be flying on propellor planes. What worries me is that my jokes might come true! What went wrong? I think it all goes back to the cold war. As long as there was rivalry between the US, its Allies and the Soviet Union, Governments were prepared to risk lives, the environment and huge amounts of taxpayers money to gain the technological upper hand. But it was also a very optimistic period where people believed that humans were capable of achieving almost anything. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, we saw things differently. The Russians had the most advanced military technology, yet the country was bunkrupt, and its people lived in abject poverty.

As soon as the cold war ended, we became more risk averse and realised what mattered the most was our quality of life. Technology is fine, as long as it makes us healthier, live longer, and saves us money. As a result, our priorities have changed. Why pay £7000 to fly supersonic across the atlantic, when you can fly on a regular plane for £200. Why travel half way across the world to go to a business meeting when you can have a video conference from your own desk.

And that's the point. With information technology moving leaps and bounds, and getting ever cheaper, there's less of a need to travel...unless you're going on holiday. You can visit the Supermarket without even moving out of your armchair. All those movies about the future missed one thing out. After flying at the speed of light and travelling in his flying car, our hero still had to find a phone booth in order to make a call. How old fashioned is that!