Pluralistic: You were promised a jetpack by liars (17 May 2024)

Today's links

A cartoon image of a jetpack-flying man waves hello at a gap-toothed, awed young boy. Beneath them in the corner, a sinister figure with huge, hypnotic-spiral eyes works the switches on an imposing control panel. On his desk is a copy of Amazing Stories with the same rocketeer. In the image background is a faded, halftoned image of the NYC 1964 World's Fair.

You were promised a jetpack by liars (permalink)

As a science fiction writer, I find it weird that some sf tropes – like space colonization – have become culture-war touchstones. You know, that whole "we were promised jetpacks" thing.

I confess, I never looked too hard at the practicalities of jetpacks, because they are so obviously either used as a visual shorthand (as in the Jetsons) or as a metaphor. Even a brief moment's serious consideration should make it clear why we wouldn't want the distracted, stoned, drunk, suicidal, homicidal maniacs who pilot their two-ton killbots through our residential streets at 75mph to be flying over our heads with a reservoir of high explosives strapped to their backs.

Jetpacks can make for interesting sf eyeball kicks or literary symbols, but I don't actually want to live in a world of jetpacks. I just want to read about them, and, of course, write about them:

I had blithely assumed that this was the principal reason we never got the jetpacks we were "promised." I mean, there kind of was a promise, right? I grew up seeing videos of rocketeers flying their jetpacks high above the heads of amazed crowds, at World's Fairs and Disneyland and big public spectacles. There was that scene in Thunderball where James Bond (the canonical Connery Bond, no less) makes an escape by jetpack. There was even a Gilligan's Island episode where the castaways find a jetpack and scheme to fly it all the way back to Hawai'i:

Clearly, jetpacks were possible, but they didn't make any sense, so we decided not to use them, right?

Well, I was wrong. In a terrific new 99 Percent Invisible episode, Chris Berube tracks the history of all those jetpacks we saw on TV for decades, and reveals that they were all the same jetpack, flown by just one guy, who risked his life every time he went up in it:

The jetpack in question – technically a "rocket belt" – was built in the 1960s by Wendell Moore at the Bell Aircraft Corporation, with funding from the DoD. The Bell rocket belt used concentrated hydrogen peroxide as fuel, which burned at temperatures in excess of 1,000°F. The rocket belt had a maximum flight time of just 21 seconds.

It was these limitations that disqualified the rocket belt from being used by anyone except stunt pilots with extremely high tolerances for danger. Any tactical advantage conferred on infantrymen by the power to soar over a battlefield for a whopping 21 seconds was totally obliterated by the fact that this infantryman would be encumbered by an extremely heavy, unwieldy and extremely explosive backpack, to say nothing of the high likelihood that rocketeers would plummet out of the sky after failing to track the split-second capacity of a jetpack.

And of course, the rocket belt wasn't going to be a civilian commuting option. If your commute can be accomplished in just 21 seconds of flight time, you should probably just walk, rather than strapping an inferno to your back and risking a lethal fall if you exceed a margin of error measured in just seconds.

Once you know about the jetpack's technical limitations, it's obvious why we never got jetpacks. So why did we expect them? Because we were promised them, and the promise was a lie.

Moore was a consummate showman, which is to say, a bullshitter. He was forever telling the press that his jetpacks would be on everyone's back in one to two years, and he got an impressionable young man, Bill Suitor, to stage showy public demonstrations of the rocket belt. If you ever saw a video of a brave rocketeer piloting a jetpack, it was almost certainly Suitor. Suitor was Connery's stunt-double in Thunderball, and it was he who flew the rocket belt around Sleeping Beauty castle.

Suitor's interview with Berube for the podcast is delightful. Suitor is a hilarious, profane old airman who led an extraordinary life and tells stories with expert timing, busting out great phrases like "a surprise is a fart with a lump in it."

But what's most striking about the tale of the Bell rocket belt is the shape of the deception that Moore and Bell pulled off. By conspicuously failing to mention the rocket belt's limitations, and by callously risking Suitor's life over and over again, they were able to create the impression that jetpacks were everywhere, and that they were trembling on the verge of widespread, popular adoption.

What's more, they played a double game: all the public enthusiasm they manufactured with their carefully stage-managed, canned demos was designed to help them win more defense contracts to keep their dream alive. Ultimately, Uncle Sucker declined to continue funding their boondoggle, and the demos petered out, and the "promise" of a jetpack was broken.

As I listened to the 99 Percent Invisible episode, I was struck by the familiarity of this shuck: this is exactly what the self-driving car bros did over the past decade to convince us all that the human driver was already obsolete. The playbook was nearly identical, right down to the shameless huckster insisting that "full self-driving is one to two years away" every year for a decade:

The Potemkin rocket belt was a calculated misdirection, as are the "full self-driving" demos that turn out to be routine, pre-programmed runs on carefully manicured closed tracks:

Practical rocketeering wasn't ever "just around the corner," because a flying, 21 second blast-furnace couldn't be refined into a practical transport. Making the tank bigger would not make this thing safer or easier to transport.

The jetpack showman hoped to cash out by tricking Uncle Sucker into handing him a fat military contract. Robo-car scammers used their conjurer's tricks to cash out to the public markets, taking Uber public on the promise of robo-taxis, even as Uber's self-driving program burned through $2.5b and produced a car with a half-mile mean time between fatal collisions, which the company had to pay someone else $400m to take the business off their hands:

It's not just self-driving cars. Time and again, the incredibly impressive AI demos that the press credulously promotes turn out to be scams. The dancing robot on stage at the splashy event is literally a guy in a robot-suit:

The Hollywood-killing, AI-produced video prompting system is so cumbersome to use, and so severely limited, that it's arguably worse than useless:

The centuries' worth of progress the AI made in discovering new materials actually "discovered" a bunch of trivial variations on existing materials, as well as a huge swathe of materials that only exist at absolute zero:

The AI grocery store where you just pick things up and put them in your shopping basket without using the checkout turns out to be a call-center full of low-waged Indian workers desperately squinting at videos of you, trying to figure out what you put in your bag:

The discovery of these frauds somehow never precipitates disillusionment. Rather than getting angry with marketers for tricking them, reporters are ventriloquized into repeating the marketing claim that these aren't lies, they're premature truths. Sure, today these are faked, but once the product is refined, the fakery will no longer be required.

This must be the kinds of Magic Underpants Gnomery the credulous press engaged in during the jetpack days: "Sure, a 21-second rocket belt is totally useless for anything except wowing county fair yokels – but once they figure out how to fit an order of magnitude more high-explosive onto that guy's back, this thing will really take off!"

The AI version of this is that if we just keep throwing orders of magnitude more training data and compute at the stochastic parrot, it will eventually come to life and become our superintelligent, omnipotent techno-genie. In other words, if we just keep breeding these horses to run faster and faster, eventually one of our prize mares will give birth to a locomotive:

As a society, we have vested an alarming amount of power in the hands of tech billionaires who profess to be embittered science fiction fans who merely want to realize the "promises" of our Golden Age stfnal dreams. These bros insist that they can overcome both the technical hurdles and the absolutely insurmountable privation involved in space colonization:

They have somehow mistaken Neal Stephenson's dystopian satirical "metaverse" for a roadmap:

As Charlie Stross writes, it's not just that these weirdos can't tell the difference between imaginative parables about the future and predictions about the future – it's also that they keep mistaking dystopias for business plans:

Cyberpunk was a warning, not a suggestion. Please, I beg you, stop building the fucking torment nexus:

These techno-billionaires profess to be fulfilling a broken promise, but surely they know that the promises were made by liars – showmen using parlor tricks to sell the impossible. You were "promised a jetpack" in the same sense that table-rapping "spiritualists" promised you a conduit to talk with the dead, or that carny barkers promised you a girl that could turn into a gorilla:

That's quite a supervillain origin story: "I was promised a jetpack, but then I grew up and discovered that it was just a special effect. In revenge, I am promising you superintelligent AIs and self-driving cars, and these, too, are SFX."

In other words: "Die a disillusioned jetpack fan or live long enough to become the fraudster who cooked up the jetpack lie you despise."

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Gigantic study of UK CCTVs find that they should be used in parking lots, scrapped elsewhere

#15yrsago Montreal cop cuffs, busts and fines student $450 for not holding escalator rail in subway

#10yrsago How advocacy beat ACTA in Europe

#5yrsago Elizabeth Warren proposes legislation to enshrine Roe v Wade in Federal law and guarantee reproductive health care in all insurance plans

#5yrsago Europe’s top trustbuster thinks it’ll be impossible to break up Facebook

#1yrago The IRS will do your taxes for you (if that's what you prefer)

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

A photo of me onstage, giving a speech, holding a mic.

A screenshot of me at my desk, doing a livecast.

Recent appearances (permalink)

A grid of my books with Will Stahle covers..

Latest books (permalink)

A cardboard book box with the Macmillan logo.

Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: Precaratize Bosses

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla