Do you get the feeling that we’re slowing down? I mean that in the entropic sense, that humanity may have gone as far as it can and is now contracting. Look at how far we’ve come since the year 1910 – two world wars and all the carnage and technological progress they produced, rocketry and space exploration (we put a man on the moon), the rise of computing, Moore’s Law, all the conveniences of modern life. And yet, where are the big breakthroughs?
John Horgan recently wrote in Scientific American about “scientific regress,” fields of science that are not just slowing down as a result of diminishing returns, but that are actually retreating from their own discoveries. Infectious disease is back, including some that were on the brink of eradication. The Concorde, fastest commercial jet in history, was entirely scrapped, and there are no plans to replace it. Even science itself has come under fire – evolution has shifted from common knowledge to a disputable “theory.”
Research and technologies without ‘practical’ application never get off the ground. Hence the hole in the ground that could have been America’s own Large Hadron Collider. Who knows what CERN’s will discover? Alexander Fleming was just studying some bacteria. He ‘invented’ penicillin. Or consider the Vela satellites used to detect nuclear explosions on Earth, which ended up discovering the existence of Gamma-ray bursts. Even the most mundane of new technologies can have serendipitous results, and that’s why continued innovation and discovery is so important. But we’ve stopped.
Even in terms of military procurement – and let’s not forget that ARPA and DARPA brought us the internet and the global positioning system – we’re taking steps backwards in the name of fiscal sanity. Not that balanced budgets are an ignoble pursuit, but we’re voluntarily ending production of the most advanced fighter in the world (the F-22) in favor of its slightly less capable cousin (the F-35). Production of the F-35 itself will be notably slashed. With Britain retiring the Harrier and the F-35B variant in jeopardy, the novel technology of VTOL aircraft may itself not be long for this world.
Meanwhile, the Russian-designed contemporary of the F-35, the Sukhoi Su-35, is making waves, with China about to become a major purchaser of the technology. It takes ages for a new system to come online – the Airbus A400M military transport just now making maiden flights has been in the works since 1982! And even the new weapons systems intended to create capabilities where there are none – the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle comes to mind – are being canceled.
We don’ produce anything any more. The picture of our economy, especially vis-a-vis China, is that of a junkyard. We have a resource economy now, where we ship raw materials out for “more skilled” hands to mold into a finished product. These products are things that just fuel our consumerism, a consumerism wherein we look forward to things breaking just so we can feel the rush of buying something new.
We put so little energy into real long-term thought. Everything we do as a society is all about the quick buck, the near-term gain, what we can see and hold and spend now. Politics continue to be an internal, mind-numbing struggle with no winners and no vision beyond the next election. And of course today’s politicians won’t be living with the consequences of their decisions (there’s still time to atone, though). As the Great Society gets rolled back, the New Deal is next. And what then, the gains of the Progressive Era?
It’s not like I don’t understand why – when you don’t even have a paycheck to look forward to in the next week, every day becomes its own micro-scale struggle just to get to the next one. But it’s not impossible to take care of today’s problems and plan for the future. I’ve previously called for stronger leadership, or a real public works plan, or maybe some British-style openness and transparency (and when the Brits are leading the way in those fields, you just know something’s gone horribly wrong somewhere). These things are not impossible. And they’re not too expensive. I don’t care how bad the deficit looks; no one cares (no, really, outside of a vocal few, it’s not the most pressing concern). It’s certainly a problem, but we have the chance to solve other problems while still looking to the future.
Things are expensive. But in the long long term, doing nothing and stagnating will be even more costly. We need to keep building, inventing, dreaming, knocking over test tubes accidentally, leaving petri dishes next to each other, and to stop arguing over today. Tomorrow is more important.
Think big. Think bold. But most importantly, think ahead.