I sincerely hope that some of you will take some time to read Neal Stephenson’s recent essay title “Innovation Starvation” over at the World Policy Institute’s website. As usual, Mr. Stephenson writes very well, but in this case, I find myself in a rare moment of disagreement with his views.
Mr. Stephenson paints an odd picture recounting the glory days of the past. He bemoans the loss of our ability to execute on big projects. He seems to have the usual boomer mishmash in his head of how noble these gestures were, how grandiloquent their concept, how noble their execution. His arguments are vague, making a point by point rebuttal difficult, but he is out of line on this one.
The Apollo missions were and extraordinary waste of time and money. They were an overly expensive publicity to stunt to show our macho. End of sentence. The Russians were in the fool-the-masses game, so our politicians had to throw bones the way of our masses. It was stupid. It only took place because a serial philanderer and mediocre president needed to take the public’s gaze off his series of missteps and stupid decisions.
Nope, we were proceeding nicely with the X-15. We had been heading higher and higher in a low-cost, thoughtful manner. As you all are fully aware, we can’t have any of that thoughtful, incremental crap. No, we had to go for the grand, inefficient, thoughtless wastes of time and money that makes us proud to be Americans. The X-15 would have worked us up through the process of injecting stuff into space without the flamboyant excesses of the Saturn 5 and the media circus of the Mercury Seven. The “manned space flight” programs sucked the wind out of the more rational program. Hell, I can even remember watching the flights on the carpet at my Grandmother’s house with my uncle. Some of my best memories are from this time. But with all the glory of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, it was still the X-15, the Dyna-Soar and the F-104 that hung by fishing line from the ceiling of my bedroom.
We want things big, but in a sense, you look at the big things that we have accomplished, and they will be nothing but the feet of the statue of Ozymandias in no time flat. The Apollo flights came to nothing. The interstate highways system will continue crumbling as it’s use becomes more and more constrained by costs. Big projects make us think that we are more than what we are. Small projects teach us what can be done and how to do the useful things.
But you look at the history of big projects here in the US. Most of what we considered “noble” projects were fantastic boondoggles for a particular segment of the financial elite. The railroads profited enormously from the golden spike, far beyond a reasonable payoff for their work. The two world wars made huge money for the industrialists, we are still trying to get their fingers off our throat (to date, we have failed). The Space programs really haven’t yielded much other than the circuslike fanfare that precedes each program. But the truth be told, I cannot think of any “big ticket” item that truly contributed to the good of the taxpayer. Projects like this are ephemeral shadows of the pyramids, but in this case, the success will be a mere myth without substance, a picture of a man in an odd suit saluting a flag on a bleak plain.
So now, the billionaires want in on their share of the immortality pie. A group of internet billionaires and some rich celebrities want to capture a 500 ton asteroid and steer it into earth orbit so that they can mine it. I find it comical in the extreme that this is probably going to be allowed to happen. We of course know how to do everything smashingly well over in NASA land. Mistakes such as this one won’t occur again because the oversized egos of the folks who brought you Google and the hack who wrote an overblown morality play about resource extraction by corrupt corporations are on the team. What could possibly go wrong?
I realize that authors, poets, and other such icons cannot help but think of themselves as visionaries, but the truth of the matter is, no act of imagination is up to the complexity of executing in the real world. In a real sense, the problems of the world are due to big stuff. The creation of the auto industry was big stuff. The over-centralization of industries and capital allows the execution of big stuff.
No Mr. Stephenson, the projects that you espouse aren’t what is needed. What is need is years of patient work trying to come to grips with the knowledge we have acquired so nilly-willy over the past two hundred years. We don’t need new drugs, we need a more thorough understanding of what we have. We don’t need a space program to fling a lucky elite off planet, we need a way to depopulate the belt of wreckage circling our planet. We don’t need a gang of thieves swinging missiles into near earth orbit for their aggrandizement, we need to spend the time to mine and recover the enormous wealth and resources lying under the ground in dumps.
The only big project that I can think of that has done some overall good is the internet. If you don’t think that tossing cables across a world so that folks can freely communicate isn’t one of the biggest projects ever, put your thinking cap back on your head. Mr Steven’s own article shows the hard work and effort as well as any. But this wasn’t one of the flashy projects of which Mr. Stephenson speaks, just a lot of hard work that I hope can endure.
I realize that authors, poets, and other such icons cannot help but think of themselves as visionaries, but the truth of the matter is, no act of imagination is up to the complexity of executing in the real world. In a real sense, the problems of the world are due to big stuff. The creation of the auto industry was big stuff. The over-centralization of industries and capital allows the execution of big stuff. We are now finding out what happens to a society where the concentration of capital allows for such unrestrained acts of vanity.
All that another “big” project would do is distract us from the difficult and mature tasks that are pressing us. We keep bringing up the ideas of big shiny projects as a way to postpone the hard work of growing up and cleaning and organizing the mess where we currently live. I would posit that the bulk of our problems are stemming from the sin of pride. We consider ourselves, as Americans, to be the chosen of God.
Such drudgery is beneath us.
Percy Blythe Shelly
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works ye mighty and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.