The Roadless Revolution

This post will feel like sci-fi. Sci-fi gets lumped with fantasy, because sci-fi writers usually write to entertain rather than seriously to forecast, and they aren't held accountable for the feasibility of their ideas. As a result, to categorize something as sci-fi is almost to dismiss it.

I think that to escape The Great Stagnation, we need to be imaginative, which means taking seriously things that feel like sci-fi. It's almost a tautology that every technology must be a fiction before it's a fact, that is, it must be conceived of before it's implemented, and probably it also has to be believed in, at least tentatively, before it's pursued. But the kind of sci-fi that deserves to be taken seriously is the kind that describes futures that are possible and even likely, without any mere irresponsible invention of new laws of nature, or even new laws of economics.

That's what I'm trying to do here. What I describe might not happen, and it might not be likely, or even possible. But I think it is possible, and could be brought about without exorbitant effort, over a few decades, by the kind of diffuse, self-organizing web of companies and investors and inventors that typically does deliver new technologies.

A few days ago, I had a fascinating conversation with someone who may someday be a major player in the airship industry, and I wanted to jot down the rush of thoughts while they're still somewhat fresh. (My interlocutor is free to identify himself if he likes. Sometimes he's shy of the spotlight.)

It's a good way to introduce the title of this blog, "The Roadless Revolution," which has hitherto been, perhaps, a bit mysterious.

While this blog is dedicated to giant airships in particular, for this post I'll draw in some other cutting-edge technologies, such as "flying cars" or air taxis, drones and drone delivery, and the seemingly unrelated 3-D printing.

What these have in common is that they're roadless. Obvious, giant airships and drones go from point to point without needing a road to connect them. Air taxis will be small flying vehicles, probably with some sort of vertical takeoff and landing capabilities (hence no runways or airports) that also go from place to place with no road. And a 3-D printer can make all sorts of things at home without you having to get into your car and drive to the store to pick it up.

Let me also admit right away that these technologies have been kind of disappointing so far. In the case of giant airships, a huge capital hurdle has so far been too much for a series of hopeful startups to surmount. Air taxis seem to be more definitely in the technological pipeline and on the way to deployment, but adoption is a big question mark. If, as the linked article above suggests, it's just too dangerous for humans to fly them and air taxis will need to be driverless, that starts to sound difficult. 3-D printing is here, and has been for a while, but it hasn't grabbed big market share from traditional manufacturing. And while drones are readily available to consumers, since they have the advantage of being small and cheap enough to be within the budgets of casual hobbyists, mass applications such as Amazon Prime Air have yet to materialize.

I think the future of these and some other technologies may be connected, in a way that's hard to understand, but for which the magic phrase "The Roadless Revolution" may serve as a label and a mnemonic. Which of course is why it's the title of this blog.

The "Adjacent Possible"

Now let me introduce an important idea in what you might call the theory of technology: the "adjacent possible." Theory is perhaps too generous a term to deploy here. I got the term from Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From, and I think it's wise, but it doesn't qualify as theory in the rigorous sense in which economists use the term. It's a good catchphrase to express a generalization distilled from history by intuition. (I think I know how I'd frame a theory, though, building on my dissertation research, and I hope I can find the time someday... but never mind that for now.) Anyway, it's a wise phrase.

What it means is that innovation generally can't take great leaps forward. And you can't usually make a lot of successful innovations at the same time. Innovation depends on having the right spare parts. And the right niche.

It occurs to me that innovation could be compared to the erosion of a mountain. All the time, rain and wind erode the mountain little by little. (Maybe the mountain is scarcity and the rain is reason.) That's the steady little improvements done by practitioners and small-scale entrepreneurs and households, the slight tinkering and tweaking that makes things work a little better. Cumulatively, it can be quite important. At other times, a stone might break loose and roll or drop a little ways. That's like invention. But when a stone breaks loose and rolls or falls, it might knock another stone loose. Sometimes a dramatic feedback loop occurs, where each stone knocks more stones loose, and erosion dramatically accelerates: an avalanche!

Economic historians sometimes use a periodization that contrasts the "First Industrial Revolution" (railroads, textile factories, steam engines) with the "Second Industrial Revolution" (electricity, airplanes, automobiles, chemical fertilizers, skyscrapers, radio and TV, plastics... too many technologies to list) followed, in some accounts, by a "Third Industrial Revolution" (mostly the internet and cell phones). The point here is that this division of technological progress into "revolutions" suggests a concentration in time in technological progress, similar to the concentration in time in erosion. That is, while the trend is towards the accumulation of applied knowledge raising living standards, and towards the leveling of mountains, progress is very uneven, at times gradual and slow, at times swift and sudden, and the reasons why are very unclear. I think a similar start-stop, slow-fast-slow pattern can be seen in many industries. And the erosion metaphor is useful because what is mysterious in the case of technology is clear in the case of erosion. We can see why great boulders might be unshakably rooted in the earth, or delicately poised and ready to start rolling. Similarly, at any given time, the next technologies that would be competitive and transformative might be relatively easy to implement and make money by-- they might be the adjacent possible-- or insurmountably difficult. Often, one successful technological innovation makes another technology, perhaps in a quite different field, much easier to implement and make profitable.

The Roadless Revolution would be one of these technological avalanches. I don't mean to suggest here that the Roadless Revolution, envisioned as a whole, falls into the category of the"adjacent possible." Rather, what I am suggesting is that the Roadless Revolution is a potential landslide of technological change that would be triggered if certain technologies were implemented which lie within today's adjacent possible.

Floating Warehouses

I illustrated "the adjacent possible" with the metaphor of erosion. Let me now try to illustrate it by counter-example, by saying what it's not. An innovation that, in my view, is not adjacently possible at this point is airships as "floating warehouses" for drone delivery, as has apparently been studied by both Amazon and Walmart.

The concept is certainly fun to think about. Imagine an airship hovering above a city, full of goods that people might want to buy, as well as a fleet of drones ready to deliver it. Order something on or, and the order is transmitted wirelessly to the airship, where human staff or maybe robots find it, package it, and attach it to a drone, which delivers it to your doorstep, or maybe to a delivery pad attached to the side of your house. You reach out the window and grab your item.

Why isn't this "the adjacent possible?" It involves too many new things at once. It involves a giant airship, but we don't have giant airships. It involves drone delivery, but drone delivery, though it seems possible and appealing, has been elusive to implement. And people would have to install drone delivery pads on the sides of their houses, or something, and it's hard to mobilize everyone to do that.

It's conceivable that a big investment push managed to tackle this complex multi-front problem. Aerospace engineers could build giant airships, and also drone makers could get drones to navigate suburban streets, and also policymakers could permit that and solve tricky problems of right-of-way and accident liability, and also customers could install millions of drone delivery pads by their windows. But that's one huge coordination problem to solve! And if any of the pieces don't fall into place, it all fails, and investors lose their money.

There's a good reason why investors prefer to look for the adjacent possible.

What if we already had giant airships and drone delivery (at which point floating warehouses would enter the realm of the adjacent possible)? Would it make sense to combine them?

An obvious objection to any version of the floating warehouse idea is that a giant airship will always be much more expensive than a ground structure with a similar holding capacity. Why not launch your delivery drones from the ground? The only convincing general reason for this that I've read (can't find the source) is that it's beneficial for drones to fly down when they're loaded and to be unburdened when they have to go up. But it seems unlikely that's valuable enough to justify the expense of an airship.

So in the ordinary suburban locations where most middle-class Americans live, I think the answer is no, floating warehouses will never make sense.

Where I could see floating warehouses working is, oddly, at both extremes of population density, i.e., (a) in high-density urban areas like Manhattan and Hong Kong, and (b) in remote, sparsely-populated regions like rural Montana.

In remote, sparsely-populated regions, you'd have not so much a floating warehouse as a flying warehouse. A giant airship would run a circuit, being periodically loaded with orders from customers spread over a large territory, and sending them down by drone. (For that matter, the airship might be running a regular cargo route and have some delivery drones on board along the way. People in remote corners of northern Alaska, but sitting on the airship route to China, might get mail and devices and specialty grocery items this way.) The question here is whether there's a business case, since customers in such places tend to be relatively few and impecunious. But implementation would be relatively easy. There's nothing worse for drones to run into than trees or maybe livestock.

A floating warehouse hovering alongside Manhattan or Hong Kong could make sense for a very different reason: massive volume, rich customers willing to pay premiums for fast delivery, and extremely high prices for the land on which a ground structure would be built. A giant airship is free real estate, plus the heavy-down, lightweight-up advantage for the drones times trillions of orders. Here, there's no doubt of the business case, if only it's feasible. But it would be really hard to do, because here it's really important that the drones fly right. You really don't want them hitting buildings and smashing windows, or worse, hitting cars and causing accidents and pile-ups, or hitting power lines and causing blackouts. And there'd be tons of them zooming around the same airspace, so making them not hit one another, or getting in aerial traffic jams, might be really difficult.

For the moment, though, I'm actually less interested in floating warehouses as a practical possibility than as an imaginative illustration.

If goods are picked up from the factory by an airship, then carried to Manhattan or rural Montana, then brought to customers by a drone, the entire transportation route is completely roadless. Airships do the long haul; drones, the last mile; and it all happens through the air, with no ground infrastructure at all. You don't need "the grid." If that were implemented, it would become possible in a whole new way to live "off the grid."

There's a parallel here between what we might call the Wireless Revolution that is approaching maturity and the Roadless Revolution, which is hopefully about to begin.

The Economics of Off-the-Grid Technology

One of the favorite themes of airship advocates is that airships have "vertical take-off and landing" and can be "infrastructure independent" and "land anywhere." The reason why giant airships prospectively have this capability is that, unlike airplanes, they're lighter than air when in flight, and can hover, so they don't need to hit a runway and decelerate, but should be able, with the right kind of buoyancy control (a topic for another post), to descend gently and settle onto a field or any large (very large because of airships' enormous size) area of unimproved land. That's one of the sense of the word "roadless": not only do airships not need a road en route, they don't need the short roads we call runways at their destination.

That's a pretty cool capability, yet use cases for it actually tend to be rather special and small. After all, just about everything in the economy happens on a road.

Another catchphrase not particularly favored by airship advocates, but expressing a similar idea, is "off the grid." It usually has a positive connotation, of liberation, of escaping constraints. "Off the grid" usually means off the electrical grid, but the phrase could easily generalize to the many other grids to which most of modern civilization is tied: a grid of pipes to bring in water, and another to carry sewage away; the landline telephone network, now largely repurposed to distribute DSL internet; the cable TV grid, also largely repurposed to provide internet service; and the transportation grids, of which today the most obvious and important is the grid of paved roads for cars; but also rail lines of various kinds, of which long-distance railroads were more important in the past, but urban mass transit systems are still very important today; and airports and seaports and river ports, which are not exactly a grid-- no lines connecting the nodes-- but are still a constraint. And there are bike paths and hiking trails, too. The major grids are largely coextensive with each other-- power lines and water pipes run along roads-- though some are more extensive than others-- a lot of people have electrical hookups but use septic systems, and some lack electrical hookups but are still on roads.

The reason why "off the grid" is a liberating idea is that all these grids cover so little of the territory of the earth. So many places are off the grid, and some of them are very nice. Moreover, the grid itself is mostly pretty ugly. Power lines are ugly. Pavement is ugly. The noise of cars is ugly. Airports are ugly. A certain impoverishment has taken place here, because horses, the principal last mile transport mode of the pre-automobile age, are not ugly, and they don't need ugly infrastructure on which to move about. Alas!

There's nothing wrong with dreaming of an idyllic life, amidst nature, without the noise of cars. But it's hard to get away from the grid because the grid is so useful. It's a distribution system for all sorts of things. And a far-reaching, efficient distribution system means you can get a highly refined division of labor and massive gains from trade. Illuminating a room with a light switch is a lot easier than lighting a campfire. Buying factory-made furniture from the store is a lot easier than chopping down trees in the woods to make a table with hand tools.

This is why a lot of "off the grid" technologies are disappointing. Small solar power systems have gotten a lot better, but almost everyone still gets their power from the electric company. 3-D printing enables householders to make all sorts of household items in the garage, but why would you? It takes learning a skill, and the store's a short drive away.

One off-the-grid technology that has been super successful is cellular telephony. Of course, we don't think of cell phones as being very off-the-grid, because people almost always use them when they're on the grid, e.g., at home or on the road or walking around a city center. Cell phone service in the US is best in city centers and tends to be patchy in wild places. Yet a certain day wafts into my memory when I was hiking up a mountain, and a friend called me with an important question to discuss involving his household finances, and we talked business for the better part of an hour as I looked out over forests spreading to the horizon and soaked up the sun, and then I continued my hike. That was a very off-the-grid, Roadless Revolution type experience. As cell phone networks improve, we may see more of it.

As cell phone coverage improves, it might become normal, in future, for Dad to bring his wi-fi hotspot and his laptop on the family camping trip. Early in the morning, and again later when Mom and the kids are out swimming, Dad will put in a few hours of work.

There's a sense in which all off-the-grid technologies are complementary, because they all affect the feasibility and desirability of living in off-the-grid locations. Living in a remote cabin in the woods becomes more appealing if you have cell phone coverage and mobile data. It becomes more appealing again if drone delivery is successfully implemented and you're in range. It becomes more appealing again if solar + battery power gets really efficient and you can run all your appliances without connecting to a utility pole. Of course, you still have to build the cabin yourself... unless a giant airship can deliver it for you.

This gives a new context to the floating warehouse idea. It's one instance of the complementarity of off-the-grid/roadless technologies, in this case giant airships and drones.

Sometimes, I think airship advocates do them damage by emphasizing airships' unique off-the-grid potential capabilities disproportionately to their near-term economic value. It can be a distraction. A few key remote transport applications, such as military supply and humanitarian relief, pipeline construction, servicing remote mines and other natural resource extraction related functions, and Northern resupply in Canada are likely to be part of the airship renaissance, but it's by being competitive for routine transport applications that I think giant airships will really score big and start raining money on early investors. There's not enough money in remote transport to get investors really excited-- at least, not now.

But after giant airships, off-the-grid could start to matter a lot.

Giant airships are the breakthrough here because they can deliver big loads-- heavy loads, and especially, bulky loads-- to remote places cheap. From there, the technologies fast-forward each other. Implementing drone delivery, with or without floating warehouses, gets more valuable, more worth implementing. Cell phones, already implemented, gain a new significance, and very low orbit satellites to provide communications without copper wire, fiber cables, or cell phone towers become more valuable, more worth implementing. Flying cars and their supporting infrastructure become more valuable, more worth implementing.

Enter Flying Cars

What's this about flying cars?

Three months ago, I had no idea that flying cars might be an imminently practical possibility. But see here ("Our self-flying car future," Tech Crunch) and here ("Your flying car will be here sooner than you think," Brent Skorup).

After a bit of reading, my far from expert impression is that flying cars are feasible, but dangerous, for now, and possibly pointless. It's hard for human drivers to navigate a 3-D environment like the air, instead of a 2-D environment like the ground. They'd crash into buildings. And if your origins and destinations are all road-bound, you don't really need to be airborne, so why bear the extra cost and risk?

Yes, it would be nice to fly over traffic. However, since the price point currently looks to be over $200,000, among other reasons, it's probably not realistic to imagine a world where every driveway has a car sitting in it, but the car also flies. The self-flying car article above suggested that whereas it's easier for a human to drive on the ground, it might actually be easier to implement autonomous vehicles if the vehicles can fly, since computers can handle the mathematical complexities of air travel, with its fluid dynamics and multiple degrees of freedom, than if they're on the ground, where the geometry is simpler but there's lots of complicated clutter to deal with. And with an expensive piece of capital at risk, and landing always being the most dangerous part of an aircraft's life, it's likely that flying cars will land at dedicated "vertiports" and not suburban driveways. At which point it's more realistic to speak of "air taxis" than flying cars. You won't own one; you'll get a ride.

That might not sound like a benefit, relative to today's mix of personal vehicles and, in big cities, public transit. But 3-D air space has a lot more room than 2-D ground space, so it might be possible to move a lot more vehicles through the air than over the ground without congestion. Relative to the metro, subway, "T," "L," or whatever the downtown rail system is called in your metro area, airports should require much less expensive infrastructure, not only because a vertiport should be much cheaper and simpler than a subway station-- and consequently you can have more of them-- but even more importantly, because your infrastructure is only the nodes and not the links, only the stations and not the tracks. It could well be cheaper, since even if the air taxi is more expensive than the car, it will have a much higher rate of utilization, and the fixed cost will be spread over far more trips.

Of course, flying cars can also go where roads don't. Especially if they don't need vertiports to land.

As with floating warehouses, the business case looks strongest at both extremes of population density. In your ordinary, middling suburbs and towns, the traditional non-flying car seems to do just fine. Roads go everywhere, traffic is light, and all the interesting destinations are at ground level. In remote rural areas, the "roadless" character of the flying car becomes important. Flying cars can go far more places. And in huge cities, in Manhattan or Hong Kong, the greater density of transportation allowed by 3-D air space compared to the congested streets below becomes massively valuable. As with floating warehouses, the business case seems stronger in Manhattan, but the implementation is easier in remote areas.

Anyway, what's really interesting, for me, is to think about the complementarities of flying cars and giant airships.

Suppose a giant airship delivers a fully-built modular house to some nice place like a lake or an island or a mountain slope, with no roads. It has solar panels and batteries for power, and there's cell phone service. That's still not much use if it takes a day's hike to get there. No one can live there. They need stuff. They need to socialize. But now suppose a self-flying car can swoop in and pick them up if they want to head into town, maybe to shop, or to go to a party. Suddenly, the opportunity cost of living in a beautiful, remote place is much lower.

The San Gabriel Mountains near LA are an interesting scene for a Roadless Revolution thought experiment. They loom above the 2nd-largest metropolitan area in the United States, the great Los Angeles, with lots and lots of sunshine and beaches, and home to Hollywood, but too hot, and strangled with smog and traffic. LA has a very rich and complex economy. The San Gabriels are above it all, cooler, quieter, with fantastic views. And yet they're largely unused. There are a handful of hiking trails and resorts, but mostly, people don't go there. Why not? I'm not quite sure, but I think it has to do with environmental concerns and lack of roads and traffic; all in all, it's too inconvenient and/or not allowed to live there.

Giant airships could deliver supplies to build houses with roadlessly to the high slopes of the San Gabriels. Developers could then build little colonies high up on the slopes of the San Gabriels, with a much smaller footprint than if they had to build roads. Giant airships could then make regular, large deliveries to these colonies. Air taxis could regularly carry commuters from the new San Gabriel colonies to vertiports all over LA. Work in LA, live in a roadless community high in the San Gabriels. It sounds pretty nice, doesn't it?

And maybe if you forgot to buy something small, you can order it to be delivered by drone.

An even more direct complementarity between giant airships and flying cars is that flying cars could deliver passengers to an airship, probably even to an airship in flight, without needing it to slow down. Composite aircraft, where one aircraft launches from another aircraft, was a thing in the early 20th century, but has largely disappeared in the jet age. Airships are much more suitable for it than airplanes, since airships have to be fast and narrow, whereas airships are roomy and relatively slow.

So picture this. Sometime in the future, if you want to travel long-distance, your journey starts at your neighborhood vertiport, or maybe just an open field near your home. You look up a schedule and find that a long-distance cargo-and-passenger airship will be passing by at a certain time. You order an air taxi to pick you up. A few minutes before the airship arrives, the air taxi lands, and you step aboard. The air taxi takes off, flies a little way, converges with the airship, coasts into a large bay in the belly of the airship, touches down and stops. You step out, with your luggage. The air taxi takes off again and self-flies back to its home vertiport. Then you ride the airship to your destination. Or maybe you need to change airships at some point, in which case an air taxi picks you up in the first airship, flies out of the bay, converges with the second airship, and drops you off there. When you're where you wanted to go, another air taxi picks you up in the airship and carries you to the vertiport, or maybe just an open field, where you wanted to go.

How would this process compare with our current flying experiences? In one respect, it's worse: speed. Airships can't match airplanes for that. For comfort, it's better: no more cramming in coach class seats. You'd probably have a bed. The airship could be like a flying hotel. If you telecommute, time on the airship might be as productive as time at home, making the relative slowness less important. It would likely be cheaper, due to the inherent cost advantages of airship technology, and produce fewer carbon emissions.

But the big payoff is that you don't need to live near an airport, or even a road. You need to live near the route that a giant airship flies, but a route is a line, and an airport is a point, and lines contain a lot of points, so "near an airship route" is a lot more territory than "near an airport." You also need to have access to an air taxi, which is pricier than a car, but can be shared among many over a sizeable territory. The number of points connected by airship + air taxi is far larger. It extends well beyond the road network.

When air taxis can move passengers onto airships, living roadlessly starts to look really viable. You could travel, and supply yourself with necessities and luxuries, without having to live with the noise of cars.

One of the big benefits of living in big cities is that you're near an airport with enough volume that flights are cheap. You have that mobility. Air taxis and flying hotel airships would provide that to rural and even roadless places.

It even seems possible that air taxi/flying hotel travel would become available to remote places a little earlier and/or more conveniently than big cities, if the complexities of navigating flying cars among skyscrapers took a long time to figure out.

Test-Driving Towns: The Roadless Revolution as a New Age of Exploration

The discussion of "roadless lifestyles" so far might suggest that the Roadless Revolution will bring about a bifurcation of humanity into the roadless, living amidst nature and relying on an aerial grid of drones, flying cars and airships for resupply and travel, and the road-bound, still driving cars and stuck to the grid. But it need not be so dualistic. Someone might live on a road, yet do 90% of their commerce and travel roadlessly. In some places, the roads might cease to be maintained but still be usable, and occasionally used, for a few years or decades. Some roads, no longer deemed so critical as runways for cars, might be converted into pedestrian and bike zones, and beautified with lansdcaping and fountains and art, until they became open-air community centers. Some communities might be roadless in the sense of having no road links to the larger road network, yet have internal roads. Perhaps they could experiment with different road rules. For example, it might be in one of these unconnected road networks that autonomous-only, no-human-drivers-allowed road systems would first be tried.

A particularly interesting case is that a community might start out roadless, then, as it grew, add roads.

A fascinating possibility created by the Roadless Revolution is that people might be able to, so to speak, test-drive a town. Suppose there's some site where you think there really ought to be a town. Or suppose there are some people you'd really like to found a town with. Or both. The road network limits your options. But the Roadless Revolution would mean that you could set up a town just about anywhere. Giant airships could deliver materials and structures to get you started, then deliver large orders cheaply later on. Drones could bring small deliveries, while flying cars could meet commuting needs. See how you like it. If it doesn't work out, break the town down into pieces small enough (not very small) to fit into a giant airship's cargo bay, and haul it away, and go live somewhere else.

It's likely that roadless lifestyles will remain eccentric for a very long time. If so, successful founders of a roadless town might soon discover that roadlessness puts a ceiling on their success. Growing businesses would find it hard to recruit people used to being able to hop in their cars and take a road trip, or to drive to shopping. They'd get tired of trying to sell potential newcomers on why ordering an air taxi isn't an inconvenience, or why limited local shopping isn't a problem once you get in the habit of storage and learn some home production skills. So they'd build a road to the outside world. A few years later, the formerly roadless town might not look that much different from other towns.

But roadlessness still matters, because it gives people more options to explore and experiment. A town could prove itself a success roadlessly, before incurring the huge expense of building roads.

Places that might especially benefit from the Roadless Revolution are slopey places (hills and mountains probably would be problematic for airships, but perhaps less so, relatively, than for cars) and especially islands. The sinuous coast of Maine, the islands of Greece, and Hawaii could be big winners. But the option of exploring new places is, if anything, likely to prove less important than the option of exploring new social models. Rod Dreher's influential book The Benedict Option describes some ways that Christians alienated by modern anomie might form tight-knit communities within which they could practice the tradition of the virtues-- but for now, they'd have to do it on the grid, in the physical midst of the society they want to escape from. The Roadless Revolution would allow people yearning for counter-cultural communitarian lifestyles to really try them out.

Another fascinating aspect of this is that the Roadless Revolution could put a new premium on seemingly obsolete self-reliance skills. A new roadless town with cheap land and plenty of modular housing an airship call away might afford quite a cheap lifestyle to a group of telecommuters using low-orbit satellites for digital connectivity; but it probably couldn't initially support such frequent airship visits as would be needed to supply produce with the freshness and variety to which grid-dwellers are accustomed. So there would be a premium on gardening skills. Stranger still, I think horses might come back into fashion in some roadless places. If the aerial grid meets most of your needs, but you do want to move around on the ground sometimes, a horse can cover more types of terrain than an ATV can. Likewise, old-fashioned "witchers" and well-digging would be in high demand.

A prediction that life in roadless communities will be in some ways more primitive than contemporary road-bound lifestyles might seem to contradict my techno-optimism about the Roadless Revolution and its aerial grid. But the point is that the aerial grid won't be a perfect substitute for the old road-bound grids; it will be better in some ways-- cheaper, faster, more convenient-- and worse in others. Those who remain road-bound will have the aerial grid and the road grid, resulting in unprecedently rich physical connectivity and division of labor. Roadless lifestyles will involve keeping the former and sacrificing the latter. It will involve a fair amount of do-it-yourself (DIY) hard work, and some loss of creature comforts, in return for being able to take night walks under the stars, with no car noise in the background, and no light pollution to blot half the stars out.

In other cases, roadless lifestyles will involve jumping into some very cutting-edge technologies more quickly than the road-bound will need to do. Roadless lifestyles will probably depend on cutting-edge solar power, as well as windmills and watermills. An interesting case is 3-D printing. When 3-D printing emerged a few years back, it seemed very revolutionary and transformative. Suddenly, you can make all sorts of things at home on a 3-D printer instead of going to the store! Yet it turns out that shortage of stuff isn't actually a pain point in modern life, and trips to the store-- or ordering from Amazon-- just aren't that inconvenient. So 3-D printing has been limited to hobbyists and specialists. In a relatively remote colony, out of range of easy drone delivery from a nearby store, 3-D printing might become much more important. It would be worthwhile to learn how to search a database for designs for stuff you might have need of, store vats of raw materials delivered occasionally by airship, and make what you need. Perhaps it wouldn't be so much DIY as a small-time specialized trade. There'd be a village 3-D printer, as there was once a village blacksmith.

Roadless living wouldn't be for all, and probably not for most. But it's good for there to be an alternative. And over time, it would alter human geography by enabling exploration and colonization. Historians sometimes emphasize the importance of "founder effects": the first settlers of a place often leave a mark on its character out of all proportion to their numbers. A crop of town founders empowered by the Roadless Revolution might leave a much nicer inventory of inhabited places to posterity than those into which they were born.

The Roadless Revolution versus World Poverty

So far, the implicit context in which I've been describing the Roadless Revolution is basically the United States, or at any rate a developed country. There are plenty of cars, well-stocked stores, and adequate wages to buy the goods. New lifestyles born of the Roadless Revolution compete with a pretty comfortable alternative.

But that comfortable alternative is only available to maybe one-sixth, or at most one-fourth, of the world population. Billions in the developing world lack cars, and well-stocked stores to go to, and incomes adequate to buy the goods those stores would sell if they were there. Their lives are more deprived and precarious than it's easy for Westerners to imagine.

And a big problem is lack of infrastructure.

Years ago, I worked for the World Bank in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries. The country had 10 million people but hardly any decent roads. There was one: a two-lane road, not quite as good as a typical quiet backstreet in a small American town, running from the political capital, Lilongwe, to the commercial capital, Blantyre. Other than that, the roads were mostly dirt, and often, if you got far from those two cities, mud. Once I took a drive out of town, just to see the country. At first the road was paved, badly. Then it turned to dirt, with maybe a little sand or gravel. I had a huge SUV. You have to, there. At one point, I packed 12 Peace Corps volunteers into it, on their way to a conference. But I was by myself. Soon I was the only car. But there were still lots of people on the road, walking, walking, walking, moving out of the way for the big white man in his huge SUV, looking curiously. Women carried huge loads on their heads.

Later that day, I got stuck in the mud. It's a touching story. I was hopelessly mired in a ditch, and the road had been mud for hundreds of yards. I had gone further than I should have, risking the worsening downhill road in hopes it would get better. Forward, it got steeper. Back, it was muddy and uphill. I was lost, too. But then African villagers began to gather around. They offered to help, and my objections that someone might get hurt were either not understood or ignored. I joined in the effort, switching between revving the engine and standing in the mud alongside them and pushing. I was miserable and hopeless... and yet they did it! The young men ran alongside the car for a long way, pushing it back towards the road, away from the muddy ditches. I gave them what little money I had, said I'd come back with more, and asked them what they wanted from the city. And I was stunned by the answer:

"Maize," they said, though we were in the middle of what seemed to be thriving fields of maize (i.e., corn to Americans). "There is much hunger here." Nothing else.

So I brought them maize, but also other things; the soccer ball was very popular with the boys, who had been playing soccer with a ball of plastic bags.

On another occasion, I met a white man, not an expat but a native-born African of European ancestry, whose business was trucking. He was the guy who delivered food aid from the West to the food-insecure (e.g., not quite famine-stricken but underfed and at risk) country. It was a tough business. The roads were bad, and his drivers kept dying of AIDS.

Anyway, the point is that lack of infrastructure is a huge problem for developing countries, especially in Africa.

My old professor Jeffery Sachs emphasized that access to the sea has historically been a big determinant of economic development, because water transportation gives places access to rich networks of specialization and trade. Europe's sinuous coastline gives it a unique abundance of access to the sea, which is one of the secrets of its success. Rapid economic growth in the Pacific Rim of East Asia in the late 20th century depended heavily on its abundant access to the sea, which enabled it to export labor-intensive goods to the US and other Western countries. Africa, by contrast, has poor access to water transportation, because its people tend to be concentrated inland and it has few navigable rivers.

Access to the sea and navigable rivers is considerably less important today if you can build infrastructure. Americans enjoy high living standards in a lot of very landlocked places, thanks to their highways, railroads, and airports. But if you start out very poor, where do you get the money to build roads?

Enter the Roadless Revolution, which could liberate countries from the trap of wretched infrastructure and crippling logistical incapacity. Giant airships could deliver hundreds of tons of supplies to anywhere in Africa in a couple of days. Famine relief is one application, but perhaps even more valuable, in the long run, is cheap factory goods going the other way. "Sweatshops" have a bad reputation, but the truth is that exporting labor-intensive manufactures is one of countries' best staircases out of poverty. Giant airships could haul in supplies, haul out cheap clothing and toys and furniture etc., and turn a lot of African subsistence farmers, prone to starve if the weather is uncooperative, into factory workers with enough to eat and a little to save. Floating warehouses with fleets of delivery drones could bring medical supplies and high-quality seed to every village.

There is a strong parallel here between the Roadless Revolution and the Wireless Revolution. Traditional landline telephony requires not only a large capital investment in extending wires over long distances to attach them to every building, but complex governance problems of sharing utility poles and operating in the public right-of-way. In developed countries, these problems were solved, and telephone networks were built. In the developing world, traditional landline telephony was a much patchier affair, and universal phone calling became one of the features of life that distinguished developed from developing countries. But cellular telephony requires less investment, and the problem of governing the airwaves is less tricky and more amenable to technocratic, centralized quick fixes. So cell phones swept the developing world. Today, more people have cell phones than have clean water or electricity, including 94% across low- and middle-income countries and 76% even in sub-Saharan Africa. The developing world skipped landline phone technology and leapfrogged its way right into the cellular future.

We could see something similar happen with Roadless Revolution technology. Where poverty and/or inept or corrupt governments prevented a good system of paved roads from ever being built, the Roadless Revolution might sweep through and render it unnecessary. It might start with motorcycles, which are already common in developing countries, and for which giant airships might offer drive-on, drive-off service. "Floating warehouse" airships on circuit, with fleets of delivery drones, might deliver the next generation of smartphones. Flying cars that connect with giant airships might be within middle-class budgets for special occasions and business purposes fairly early on, then economic growth would bring them within reach of the majority later. It might turn out that developing countries can skipped the pervasive paved roads phase in technological evolution, the way they skipped the universal landline phase.

Developed countries, too, might stop investing in the maintenance of quite so many paved roads. Doubtless many would remain, probably especially in the suburbia that they did so much to help create. Others would be repurposed, or let to break up and turn to grass, quaint reminders, like the many idle railroads that litter the American landscape today, of a bygone technological era.

Technology, Human Geography, and Roadless Revolution Cities

Looking back over the history of technology, new technologies often alter human geography, in favor of greater or less population density, warm or cold latitudes, flat or sloped land, greater or lesser preference for proximity to seacoasts and rivers, etc. Air conditioning tended to move people south, or rather, towards the equator. (I presume that warmer parts of Australia benefited much as warmer parts of the US did.) Sometime in the mists of prehistory, the invention of fur clothing must have encouraged people to move north, into countries with colder winters. The Age of Sail put a premium on living near water, while the automobile age made access to the sea a lot less important. I've long wished I had time to write an article titled "How the Automobile Destroyed the British Empire," about how the dissolution of the British and other European colonial empires had a good deal to do with the technological devaluation of the sea links that connected it in an age when automobiles permitted a productive densification of land-contiguous territories and increased, for practical purposes, the relative remoteness of anywhere overseas. The automobile also created suburbia, which gave families just as much privacy and greenery as automobile transportation could afford them while still enjoying convenient connectivity to urban hubs of creativity and commerce.

Broadly speaking, technology has historically favored urbanization. The most fundamental reason for this is that technology involves a proliferation of the things that humanity can do, and doing so many and so varied things almost necessarily involves growing specialization and trade, and ever more refined specialization requires ever greater concentrations of people. A secondary reason is that technological progress often involves overcoming the hazards and discomforts that arise from the somewhat unnatural situation of urban concentration. Thus, cities used to be death traps, usually unable to sustain themselves through natural increase, usually relying on migration from the more fecund and healthy countryside to keep fueling their interesting and important life. Then modern medicine came along and allowed urban man to live long and multiply-- though even today a lot of metropolitan downtowns have low birthrates. Again, 19th-century cities were plagued with vast quantities of horse manure, then the automobile came along, (ironically from today's perspective) solved this grievous environmental problem, and made urban life more pleasant and attractive.

Sometimes transport and communication technologies pull the other way, allowing people to spread out, by allowing specialization and trade to happen over long distances. Sailing ships spread European settlers across six continents, and automobiles spread Americans out from dense urban cores into leafy suburbs. Yet it is interesting and illuminating that the last great technological revolution, the internet and cell phones, which was sometimes trumpeted as "the death of distance" and which seemed so favorable to out-of-the-way places relative to big cities, seems if anything to have strengthened a handful of high-flying metro areas at the expense of a declining rural hinterland, with mid-sized metro areas just holding their own. I think I can see, only just, why that is so-- something along the lines of this: (1) face time is a special, not-easily-replaced input to human relationship development, and the superabundance of cheap communications by cell phone, social media, etc., made face time relatively more scarce and therefore relatively more valuable; and also (2) cell phones specially liberated urban dwellers from grid-bound landline telephony and gave them more freedom to enjoy urban variety and adventure-- but not well enough to feel like I can generalize the lessons.

Anyway, it would be bold of me to predict that the Roadless Revolution will go against the grain, and actually favor a spreading out of humanity over a still more urbanized human race. I don't predict that. I've emphasized the "roadless" places and lifestyles that the Roadless Revolution would make possible, because they are interesting and counter-intuitive, and also because they seem to me more imaginatively accessible. But for the sake of balance, I'll try to rise to the challenge here, and envision the great cities of a Roadless Revolution future.

Picture, then, a city in which all automotive road traffic has been abolished. Intra-urban vehicular movement of freight and passengers has been entirely relegated to an aerial grid of self-flying cars and drones and (above the city, for big loads) giant airships, plus underground and elevated rail systems, some of them operating, perhaps, hundreds of feet up, clinging to the sides of buildings.

The streets of such cities might be delightful places. A certain impoverishment of cities took place when cars displaced pedestrians. (Horses, with their charm but also their dung, complicate the picture, but never mind.) The streets of the historic centers of old Renaissance cities are inconvenient for cars, but they're wonderful places, because the role they played in urban life lent itself to and encouraged their beautification. Cars make streets dangerous and ugly. Pedestrians get pushed to the edges. Strolling is less pleasant. One would rather duck into a cafe to talk.

I've often been struck by what wonderful places city parks can be. I once lived in Washington, DC, quite close to Rock Creek Park. It was amazing how, though I was near the center of one of the world's great cities, I could walk five minutes from my doorstep and be in something like wild nature, with relatively little to indicate that I was in a city at all. From there, I could walk and walk along bike trails, always under trees, relatively quiet. At certain times of year I could pick mulberries from the trees to keep hunger at bay. The irony is that few rural areas would have afforded such opportunity for such ambling enjoyment of greenery. They're fenced and farmed, and/or blocked with impenetrable undergrowth.

In the cities of the Roadless Revolution future, urbanites who learned to ignore, or like, the whizz and zoom of the aerial traffic above might feel, everywhere in the city, the pleasure of Rock Creek or Central Park, mingled with the charm of a Renaissance Italian city. Sidewalk-to-sidewalk pavement would give way to bike trails and gardens. There'd be plenty of room for statues, murals, and public artwork of all kinds. Also for playground equipment for children, swimming pools, free open-air zoos. Wealthy cities might hire farmers to intensively cultivate berries, vegetables, and other food crops in public places for city dwellers and visitors to pick freely, not so much to feed the poor as to lure talent and raise property values.

It occurs to me that city dwellers roaming what might be called the "garden level" of a Roadless Revolution city might be able to order, by drone, just about anything they wanted, and have it delivered within a couple of minutes. The drone would track your phone.

Meanwhile, overhead, the aerial traffic might look much like road traffic today, starting and stopping in response to sensors and signals, with this difference: whereas road traffic is crowded into a single layer, aerial traffic could spread out over ten or a hundred layers, as many as needed, greatly mitigating congestion.

Giant airships play a key role in this, as the principal means of resupply. Drones and flying cars will be great for "last mile" transportation, but in per ton-mile terms, they'll be permanently handicapped by the need to use energy for lift as well as propulsion. That's where airships have the edge.

When the Empire State Building was first built, it was designed so that airships could moor themselves against its tower. Well, that didn't work out... or not yet. But it's a good idea, and it could still happen. Giant airships could moor themselves on skyscrapers and resupply the city from above, hundreds or thousands of tons at a time. Attendants could bring people's orders down to their doors, or they could take the elevator upstairs to what might become known as the "shop level" of the city, where people go to do their routine shopping, from shelves regularly restocked from the cargo bays of giant airships. Maybe fashionable shopping would still happen down at the old "street" level, where it's as much about seeing and being seen as about resupplying one's home.

I suspect that in the Roadless Revolution cities of the future, buildings might get taller. A natural metaphor might suggest why I think so. Trees are generally 100 feet tall or less, but in coastal California, there are some trees, above all the giant redwoods, that get much taller. Why? Because of the fog. Frequent fog on the California coast prevents the tops of the redwood trees, which couldn't be kept sufficiently moist by the usual capillary process, from drying out.

Today's tall buildings need to be resupplied from the ground. The taller they get, the more inconvenient that is. It means more time spent on elevators, more energy expenditure to keep hauling people and cargo up to the top. But in the age of the Roadless Revolution, tall buildings can be resupplied from above by giant airships, and up and down their whole height by drones and flying cars. That means there's less reason to stop going up, up, up.

With giant airships stopping constantly at the summits of skyscrapers to resupply them, it would be natural for them to take passengers, too. Airships might get specialized into freight vs. passengers, but there's a reason why it makes sense for one airship to handle both, namely, freight would almost always exhaust an airship's weight capacity long before it exhausted its space capacity, whereas passengers like to have room to walk about. Combining freight and passengers means more frequent service and more room for both. So skyscraper dwellers might be able to take the elevator up to the top floor almost anytime, wait an hour, and board a big roomy airship to anywhere in the... well, I was about to say "the world." But better to say, in the region.

For long trips in a hurry, you'd still take a plane. Airplanes have an inherent, permanent speed advantage over airships. But airplanes couldn't dock at a skyscraper, so first there'd be the trip to the airport that we all know so well. And airplanes couldn't accommodate air taxi stops, so at the other end, there'd be the runway affair, and going through an airport to get your bags, and then a car or air taxi to your final destination. So there'd be some threshold at which the greater ease of airship/air taxi would make the trip faster than the hassle of getting on a plane. Perhaps the airship radius would be 300 miles. The greater comfort that airships could offer, and the more generous baggage accommodations, would make some people pick the airship for longer trips.

The places I'd expect to benefit least from the Roadless Revolution are the suburbs. They're really optimized for the automobile age. Of course, suburbanites might enjoy drone delivery, and commuting by air taxi, and fresh produce delivered by airship. But after the Roadless Revolution, the suburbs might be seen as an unhappy medium that doesn't offer either the grandeur and convenience of the cities, or the verdure and beauty of their garden levels, or the serenity and limitless space of the deep countryside. The suburbs would probably be the last place to keep using ground-based cars and a road grid.

Meanwhile, the principle of getting away from the city to someplace quieter would take new forms.

A charming possibility is that Manhattanites might take weekends in roadless resorts in places not too far away, like the Green Mountains of Vermont. Late Friday afternoon, you take an elevator up to the 250th floor of your building, and step aboard an airship departing north at 5PM. You eat a long, slow dinner in the flying restaurant. Then around 7:30PM, around sunset, you step into a flying taxi, watch the airship cruise away, and whizz among the sinuous slopes and verdant forests of New England. Your air taxi touches down, you step out with your bags, and it zips away. And then a profound stillness settles over all things, and you watch the stars come out before stepping into your cabin to light a fire by the hearth.

Disclaimers and Exhortations

What's the good of a futuristic flight of fancy like this?

I'll be the first to admit that we're not going to see it anytime soon. I have no real method for forecasting this, but just based on economic history and a backward glance at how technologies break out and spread and mature, I'd say the maturity of the Roadless Revolution is a century away.

If it happens at all, for of course, I could be wrong. Let me unpack that "I could be wrong" a bit:
  1. I could be wrong about the details of how the Roadless Revolution will happen. Actually, I'm pretty certain that I will be wrong in plenty of the particular guesses about the future I tossed around in this post. In the best case, in future, this post will seem rather prophetic in its general vision or aerial logistics changing the world, and "the Roadless Revolution" will prove to be a good description of the next phase in the economic history of the world, but I'll have been over- or under-optimistic, off-base, or downright silly in some points. That's a success case for a futurist visionary.
  2. I could be wrong about the potential of aerial logistics to achieve major technological advances with far-reaching and transformative economic impact. In that case, I just wasted everyone's time, except inasmuch as the post might have had entertainment value for some sci-fi nerds.
  3. I could be right about the potential of giant airships and other novelties in aerial logistics to change the world, but wrong in forecasting that it will actually happen, because entrepreneurs, investors, incumbent corporations, and policymakers will fail to act to realize opportunities that lie within the realm of adjacent possible. For a societal elite to miss an opportunity for the betterment of the human condition would not be unprecedented.
It's to avert case (3) that I wrote this post.

While few if any alive today will see the Roadless Revolution in its maturity, there's plenty we can do today to help bring it about. Indeed, much of what would bring it about is already being done. There are companies manufacturing drones, companies working on flying cars, companies working on giant airships, companies trying to figure out how to implement drone delivery as a retail channel.

What I particularly want to suggest is that giant airships could be the boulder that, if only we could dislodge it from its perch in the adjacent possible, and bring it tumbling down into practical implementation, would let loose an avalanche of technological change. That it's with the renaissance of giant airships that the complementarities among adjacent possible technologies would gain critical mass.

This is relevant not just to today's far-sighted philanthropists but to today's investors. Once founded, a good company can last a century and more. It can keep on bounding through new waves of technological change, adapting, growing, building its brand name and organizational capital. A patent's value depends on use, and use depends on continuing technological relevance. So if you're trying to forecast the likely ROI for a bit of R&D, or the payoff for investing in a promising startup, the whole panorama of the technological future is relevant. Even if people alive today never see the Roadless Revolution in its maturity, its youth should create some billionaires and teeming hordes of millionaires.


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