Reminiscent of Peter Thiel's statement that "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,' Buzz Aldrin peers from the digital pages of the November/December issue of Technology Review and says "you promised me Mars colonies and all I got was Facebook."
Speaking only for myself, I'm well and truly sorry.
Can the biggest problems in energy, in higher education, in health care be solved? Of course. Can they be solved res publica? Different question.
As a glance at the number of fully funded and audacious Kickstarter projects can attest, individuals are driven to create, to invent. Still, a plasma thruster is not the Saturn V, and even though I have no doubt that inventors still have big plans for the future, crowdsourced innovation pales in comparison to the historic and nationally-funded moon landings. But as Technology Review points out, mounting such a peacetime effort may have simply been an historic anomaly. Apollo consumed four percent of the federal budget in its heyday. With the top federal tax rate about half of what it was during the 1960's and enormous entitlement obligations to maintain, a new "Apollo" - figuratively speaking of course; pick any worthwhile goal - would almost certainly be unaffordable.
The Apollo program, which has become a metaphor for technology's capacity to solve big problems, met these criteria, but it is an irreproducible model for the future. This is not 1961: there is no galvanizing historical context akin to the Cold War, no likely politician who can heroize the difficult and dangerous, no body of engineers who yearn for the productive regimentation they had enjoyed in the military, and no popular faith in a science-fictional mythology such as exploring the solar system. Most of all, going to the moon was easy. It was only three days away. Arguably, it wasn't even solving much of a problem. We are left alone with our day, and the solutions of the future will be harder won.
We don't lack for challenges. A billion people want electricity, millions are without clean water, the climate is changing, manufacturing is inefficient, traffic snarls cities, education is a luxury, and dementia or cancer will strike almost all of us if we live long enough. In this special package of stories, we examine these problems and introduce you to the indefatigable technologists who refuse to give up trying to solve them.
For a bracing read on just one of the many challenges the program faced, read "Digital Apollo." Using almost non-existent read/write space, inventive engineers created fault tolerant and intelligent software that could scan, track and respond to an external environment, all while assessing its own state of play and abandoning unneeded computation. On Aldrin's flight, that technology probably saved the landing attempt.
Still, Pontin, who is the editor in chief and publisher of Technology Review, is correct. Having been alive long enough to have watched televised men on the moon in rapt wonder, any comparison to the past, no matter how wonderfully accomplished, is inevitably romanticized. Quoting Auden, Pontin writes that "we are left alone with our day." Just as those technologists worked within the confines of primitive computing, there are still challenges to be met and Earth-sized problems to be solved that will require solutions specific to our time and age.
Although written on a completely different and far more personal subject matter, Robin Robinson's line "We are drawn to edges, to our own/parapets and sea-walls" is apropos. One poetic valedictory deserves another, I guess.
Give the Technology Review issue a read. Assaying on The Crisis in Higher Education, one of my favorite writers, Nicholas Carr, is also featured. If the piece is anything like his tartly worded blog, Rough Type, it will be a pleasure.
Well done, Jason.
Image: Technology Review