The Challenge

Originally meant for a Facebook post but it soon spiraled out of control. The subject is a piece by Jason Pontin in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review: “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems.”

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”

Since Apollo 17‘s flight in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. No one has traveled faster than the crew of Apollo 10. (Since the last flight of the supersonic Concorde in 2003, civilian travel has become slower.) Blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated, too, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

Not to say that the article is entirely pessimistic for the future. In a lot of cases it’s not so much a question of know-how as it is mere willpower.

I’ve written about this before (the common thread through all writing on this seems to be the Concorde.  Humans could once buy a ticket to travel faster than the speed of sound. Those days now lie behind us).

And we’re running out of steam, too. Consider the troubled F-35 acquisition program (I hate holding up acquisitions as an example of anything, but…here I am). It’s not even as advanced as the F-22. Yet we still don’t have a combat-ready B variant (the Marine Corps has stood up an all F-35B squadron consisting of exactly three aircraft). And of course, our most advanced aircraft, the F-22 and B-2, were meant to be procured in far greater numbers but went into the “death spiral” of rising cost and declining orders.

This is not a problem unique to “legacy” industries. Even the hyped new media and tech sectors are seeing their own trivialization. As a Businessweek article pointed out, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” As Jeff Hammerbacher says, this does indeed suck.

I don’t know what the solution is, but this is hardly a matter of perception. There’s an explanation as to why we no longer live in an age of optimism with the stars as the limit and a sense of awe and wonder at what tomorrow might bring. We’re stuck in a quagmire with little consequential technological progress, no political progress at all, and a generational rift that could just as easily be a referendum on moving into the 21st century. Other than Los Angeles, who’s building an urban heavy rail line? Who’s developing a faster way to travel? A better way to compute? A food replicator? A way to make money while also enhancing the common good?

The closest we’re getting right now is 3-D printing, and I have very high hopes for the field. Should it really reach its true potential, global supply chains will be completely disrupted (and for the better). But it’ll have to go beyond mere plastics. And other than that, what’s on the horizon? What about today, other than the tiny details, has changed in the last 30 years? What in that time has changed for the better?

I recently read Charles Stross’s Halting State, which deserves a more comprehensive treatment at some point, but which also has the following passage:

“Imagine you were a time-traveller from the 1980s, say 1984, and you stepped out of your TARDIS right here, outside, uh, West Port Books.” (Which tells you where you are.) “Looking around, what would you see that tells you you’re not in Thatcherland anymore?”

“You’re playing a game, right?”

“If you want it to be a game, it’s a game.” Actually it’s not a game, it’s a stratagem, but let’s hope she doesn’t spot it.

“Okay.” She points at the office building opposite. “But that…okay, the lights are modern, and there are the flat screens inside the window. Does that help?”

“A little.” Traffic lights change: Cars drive past. “Look at the cars. They’re a little bit different, more melted-looking, and some of them don’t have drivers. But most of the buildings—they’re the same as they’ve ever been. The people, they’re the same. Okay, so fashions change a little. But how’d you tell you weren’t in 1988? As opposed to ’98? Or ’08? Or today?”

“I don’t—” She blinks rapidly, then something clicks: “The mobile phones! Everyone’s got them, and they’re a lot smaller, right?”

“I picked 1984 for a reason. They didn’t have mobies then—they were just coming in. No Internet, except a few university research departments. No cable TV, no laptops, no websites, no games—”

“Didn’t they have Space Invaders?”

You feel like kicking yourself. “I guess. But apart from that…everything out here on the street looks the same, near enough, but it doesn’t work the same.”

Humanity possesses boundless reserves of optimism just waiting for the right conditions to be unleashed. But I fear we’re a long way away from that. We currently live in an age of in-between, a mere interlude of history, with our small times and small men and small problems. What’s next?

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