The ghosts of what wasn’t

A recent Economist article about dying small towns inspired me to think about Retro Futures, the failed promise of the hyperloop, and “sideshadows.”

By Brad Berens

Typically, when I’ve written about retro futures, I’ve explored how old science fiction stories illuminate things happening today. This time, I’ll take a different angle.

One of the problems with being a futurist and seeing the transformative potential of new technologies is that, when those technologies fail, I’m still haunted by what might have been. In his brilliant 1996 book, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, my friend Gary Saul Morson describes this sort of awareness as “sideshadowing”:

Whereas foreshadowing works by revealing apparent alternatives to be mere illusions, sideshadowing conveys the sense that actual events might just as well not have happened. In an open universe, the illusion is inevitability itself. Alternatives always abound, and, more often than not, what exists need not have existed. (117)

That’s abstract, so here’s a concrete example:

The April 20th issue of The Economist ($) had an alarming article, “Emptying and Fuming” about dying small towns in America. Cairo, Illinois was the test case:

Cairo is on its way to becoming America’s newest ghost town. Its population, having peaked above 15,000 in the 1920s, had fallen to just 1,700 people by the 2020 census. Alexander County, Illinois, of which it is the capital, lost a third of its people in the decade to 2020, making it the fastest-shrinking place in America.

From a retro futures perspective, here’s what caught my eye:

Does it matter if places die? Some would argue no. People are better off if they can move to opportunity, instead of becoming trapped in dying cities or jobless rural areas. Indeed, competition between cities helps explain America’s economic dynamism; many economists would like there to be even more movement. Although people are flocking to new jobs in places like Houston or Atlanta, high housing costs stop workers from moving to even better paid jobs in places like San Francisco or New York City. If those cities built more housing, they would attract more workers from other parts of America. Places like Cairo would shrink even faster, but America as a whole would be richer.

In the margin, I scribbled one wistful word: “hyperloop.”

What is (or was) the hyperloop?

The hyperloop is a technology conceived by Elon Musk in 2013 that would have revolutionized mass transportation. In 2017, a cluster of news stories (like this one) hit saying that in the near future people could, for example, travel from Portland to Seattle in 15 minutes. It’s a three hour drive or a short plane flight today.

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The hyperloop would have created a network of vacuum tubes and magnetic levitation tracks. A people-carrying pod would shoot from Portland towards Seattle at 760 miles per hour, no hour-beforehand check in or TSA required. Unlike trains with fixed schedules, the hyperloop would have been on demand.

The hyperloop would have transformed geography and transportation. That was never clearer to me than one stormy winter afternoon when La Profesora and I got trapped in La Grande, Oregon, by a massive pileup on Highway 84. We got the last hotel room in town and hunkered down to get some work done, grateful that the hotel had strong wifi.

La Grande is a small city of around 13,000 in Eastern Oregon, nestled near the Blue Mountains with striking views and fertile soil. It’s east of Pendleton and west of Boise—around 300 miles from Portland. It’s hardly a dying city, but there’s not a ton going on. Walking around town that afternoon, I realized that if a hyperloop could connect Portland to Seattle (around 200 miles) in 15 minutes, then it would probably take less than half an hour to get from Portland to La Grande.

An effortless commute from La Grande to Portland and back again would have created opportunities for folks in La Grande to work in Portland, where salaries are higher, and for folks in Portland to live in La Grande, where houses are cheaper. It would have been transformative.

Sadly, the hyperloop technology failed… or—when I’m feeling optimistic—it hasn’t succeeded yet. (There are still groups working on it in Europe.)

The closest I ever got to a hyperloop was the “Vegas Loop” series of tunnels connecting different areas of the sprawling Convention Center. During CES, for example, attendees can hop into Teslas (human driven, not autonomous) that whisk people from hall to hall via eerie white tunnels created by Musk’s Boring Company. The first time I took such a ride I thought, “so this is how a sperm feels.”

Reading the Economist piece about Cairo, I dwelled inside the might-have-been if the hyperloop technology were viable.

With the hyperloop, here are the approximate travel times from Cairo to these cities:

  • 110 miles to Memphis (10 minutes)
  • 150 miles to St. Louis (15 minutes)
  • 220 miles to Nashville (20 minutes)
  • 265 miles to Louisville (25 minutes)
  • 280 miles to Indianapolis (27 minutes)
  • 360 miles to Cincinnati (30 minutes)
  • 375 miles to Chicago (31 minutes)
  • 450 miles to Milwaukee (40 minutes)

(This excludes the time it would take to get to and from hyperloop stations, buy tickets, get to a platform, etc. Traveling by hyperloop would be more like taking a subway in a big city than a car or bus.)

In this might have been vision, instead of Cairo numbering among the “dying cities or jobless rural areas” (from the Economist article), it would be a vibrant bedroom community sending folks to work in several bigger cities (increasing the tax base) and encouraging new families to settle there to raise their kids.

During COVID lockdown, we learned how much we could get done working remotely. Since we’ve come back out of our homes, we’ve also learned the limits of that remote work. We still need to be around other people at least some of the time, which has created the massive housing shortages in the bigger cities where jobs are plentiful.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop mourning the might-have-been inspired by the hyperloop’s potential to eliminate distance as a barrier.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).



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May 10, 2024