The Bell Nexus hybrid electric air taxi concept is on display at the Bell booth at CES on January 8, 2019, in Las Vegas.
Photo: Getty Images

Last week, there was an interesting but subtle change in the way that Americans talk about the future. And it’s probably a sign of bad things ahead for technology.

I’ve written many times about how the flying car is always just two years away. It was two years away in 2008, two years away in 2009, two years away in 2010... you get the idea. But in the wake of CES 2019, the annual consumer gadgets show held last week in Las Vegas, there seems to be a new consensus emerging. The flying car isn’t two years away, it’s four or five years away. And we can probably thank President Donald Trump and the country’s general fatigue as he systematically dismantles American institutions.

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Just check out these headlines from last week:

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I’ve been writing about past visions of the future for 11 years now (I can’t believe it either), and in that time flying cars have always been two years away—a form of perpetual vaporware. Even a version of Uber’s flying taxi service that everyone was so excited about last week was just two years away in early 2017.

To be clear, flying cars weren’t going to get here any faster or slower thanks to President Trump. But the expectations around the near future have changed while he’s been in office. President Trump has undermined core American institutions and is currently holding the government hostage for his racist border wall. Oh, and the FBI even opened an investigation to determine if he’s acting as an agent of the Russian government. This is all unprecedented, to say the least, and it’s hard to be cheery about America’s future in the midst of so much damage.

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The flying car index, as I’ve come to think of it, is a barometer for how optimistic technology-minded people are at any given moment. But it also takes into account the public’s tolerance for over-hyped bullshit. And people don’t have much time for over-hyped bullshit right now. Not when Trump seems to be doing everything he can to harm the United States and its standing in the world. Think that’s a stretch? A new report today notes that Trump would like to withdraw the U.S. from NATO, perhaps the most important goal of Russian foreign policy.

As my colleague Adam Clark Estes wrote last week, this was an “off year” for CES. And most people who went seemed bored to tears, with more of the same TVs, robots, and other gadgets that we saw in 2018. And while that’s not the president’s fault, the way that we talk about the things that are “futuristic” in our society can be colored by world events.

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“There was a little talk about some cool new technology, but we didn’t really see anything we hadn’t seen before,” Estes wrote.

And the same could be said of flying cars. We’ve seen them before. For roughly 100 years, actually. But who’s counting?

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I’m don’t make many predictions because I know it’s a dangerous business, but I did predict this one shortly after President Trump was elected. The flying car is always two years away—until an authoritarian-minded asshole is elected. Then 4-5 years just feels more realistic to even the most optimistic tech nerds.