The history of humankind is one of gradually reduced mobility. We generally travel for three reasons: resources, work, entertainment. In the past, as humans captured and started governing more of nature thanks to advances in technology, the need to travel for each of the above decreased. Now, as we move to the digital medium thanks to advances in VR, the need to travel may completely disappear. With VR on the cusp of mass adoption, betting on the autonomous car, whether EV or solar-battery powered, as the next big thing in mobility, may not be the smartest thing to do.
It is no wonder that the means of transportation have actually barely changed even from pre-historic times. For example, in some parts of the world people still use the horse to go places. The cart and the boat are still here, just more powerful because we have improved our energy sources (when it comes the cart-auto, not necessarily even faster in the big cities). The train may look novel but, ultimately, it is just a more efficient version of a mass transportation ‘cart’. The airplane, however, is really a novel way of covering distances. First, because it is air-based while all other means of transportation had so far been land/water-based. Second, because it is much faster than any other means of transportation.
Perhaps that is why we have been so fascinated with the flying car as the next step in improving our mobility. But the flying car never came. I argue below that this is because there is no need for it as humans have naturally moved less and less through the ages. (It may actually seem less so, as images of the great sea voyages during the Renaissance or as we recently have started to conquer space, come to mind, but these are exceptional cases which actually do not involve that many people relative to the mass human movements in the past.) In addition, as VR continues to improve, we are in the process of ‘moving’ away from the physical to a completely new and different medium of being: the digital.
It is generally believed and accepted that the first human appeared in Africa and from there settled all distant corners of the Earth in search for basic resources for survival. We cut on our nomadic lifestyle of ‘travelling’ for resources first after the Agricultural Revolution when we stopped chasing wild animals for food and settled to a more sedentary lifestyle. That included conquering more arable land and learning wholesale farming, as well as perfecting animal domestication. Mobility actually temporarily increased as people moved to where the arable land is – cities formed and grew. But once settled there, there was barely a need to go anywhere else.
This was also the first time we acquired a surplus over and beyond our needs for survival. Sadly, this did not eliminate scarcity because we lacked the means for its ‘fair’ distribution. The Agricultural Revolution was perhaps the peak of human mobility for resources.
The second time we drastically reduced our mobility was after the Industrial Revolution. Back then we stopped producing our own food and focused on specializing in producing goods for basic needs in much greater quantity than it was ever necessary. This also resulted in a temporary increase in mobility as people had to come to the factories. Cities naturally grew bigger, but once people settled there, mobility went down again. During this period our welfare drastically improved to the point that we soon started to produce goods not just for basic consumption but also for leisure and entertainment. Our ability to distribute this surplus accordingly, unfortunately did not. The Industrial Revolution heralded the beginning of the need to travel for work. That need probably reached a peak sometime after WW2.
The beginnings of the Digital Revolution sometime in the 1980s marked the third time we reduced our mobility as the need to travel to acquire resources and for work became less prevalent. Again, similar to the previous instances, our mobility got a temporary boost because we started travelling for leisure. By then, the fruits of the technological advances of the past had brought an unbelievable welfare surplus which, though never distributed equally, was enough to push not just basic but also discretionary goods prices down. This made leisure and entertainment affordable to the masses. People not only went to restaurants to eat (instead of at home) but to the movies and bowling alleys for fun. Later on, people even started taking vacations in different continents! Mobility for entertainment probably reached a peak in 2007 with the invention of the smartphone (and, unfortunately, with the wider spread of terrorism more globally).
I fear the wide adoption of VR will bring the final nail in the coffin of human mobility. Just until a few years ago, at least we used to go ‘shopping for resources’ to our corner grocery store. Now Amazon and a bunch of other companies bring our food and necessities to our door step. Travelling for work is also decreasing as Internet/network connectivity improves. VR brings the culmination of our mobility for entertainment as well, as the need to go to a concert, the movies, etc. or even travelling across the world on vacation is reduced.
VR will eventually be able to replicate the stimulation to all our senses and once that happens the ‘V’ in VR may become redundant. At the moment vision and sound are the easiest to manipulate. But still, a wide-field vision is mostly lacking in current VR headsets (humans can see at about 220 degrees, the best VR headset is about half that). Resolution is another one which needs to undergo further improvements to get to the 20/20 human vision. Touch is probably the next one after to improve on, and there are already huge strides made in that regard with the haptic glove, for example. Taste and smell are the most difficult ones to replicate but there is progress there too.
Our VR experience does not need to be 100% of what is current ‘reality’. But as that experience improves and as the cost of VR-ing goes down, humans will naturally use more of it relative to the ‘real thing’. Our physical mobility will suffer even more as a result. That is the easier bet simply because there is such a strong trend of this process going back thousands of years. However, eventually, anything associated with the current physical reality may become irrelevant.
And this is likely to happen within our lifetime, or as we used to say on the trading floor, before the long bond matures. It is simply inconceivable that, from one hand, we are working on brain-computer interface and we have even managed for the first time to upload a brain on a computer but then, on the hand, we are still forecasting that our relationship to the physical world will not change much.
I am sure the self-driving EV/Solar ‘car’ is coming but I think the overall number of ‘cars’ on the road will be much, much smaller than what people are currently forecasting. And, yes, most likely people will still be travelling in the physical world, but that will be the exception rather than the rule. And since I mentioned the ‘flying car’, well, it is already here – the drone. But unlike in most science fiction movies, it will continue to be used to transport mostly basic physical goods to the humans in VR ‘capsules’ who need to refuel their energy in the old-fashioned way, i.e. until we decide to upload our brain and be completely cut off from this reality…