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?

Handheld Technology and the Red Queen

According to John Robb et al., one of the primary enablers of ‘global guerrillas’ is cheap, accessible technology. The possibilities that modern technology allow for are nearly limitless, and much of today’s problems are locked in an escalating war of symmetry.

If you’ve ever studied evolution (or possibly just read Michael Crichton’s The Lost World), you’ve probably come across the Red Queen scenario. As originally found in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the queen says to Alice: “It takes all the running you can do, just to stay in the same place.” As a complex system, the Red Queen definitely finds some parallels in warfare.

Need to brief from the field? There’s an app for that. Modern technology is miniaturizing and decentralizing, so that tools once in the hand of a battalion commander or higher have devolved to sub-squad levels. An individual soldier now has access not only to real-time satellite intelligence, but also has the ability to reposition those satellites. From the field.  For the cost of roughly $1 million per satellite. It’s trial-by-fire, as the military is deployed to several hotspots around the world.

Right now, much of the devolved abilities available to the average soldier come through consumer-grade products; iPods and iTouches and the like. To a certain extent, the development of specialist equipment seems redundant. But that’s where the Red Queen comes in.

The nature of warfare and arms competition means that the enemies of America are doing the same thing. Both are modernizing as fast as they can, but the technologies take very different paths. Whereas the United States, having seen the potential of these consumer devices, is now rushing to design a proprietary purpose-built system, the other team is making do with what they’ve got. We may be able to control our Predator drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan from thousands of miles away, but the neo-Taliban can “hack” them with $26 software (though as The Security Crank points out, it’s not really hacking).

That’s the difference in a nutshell: they make do with what they’ve got (Rumsfeld’s “army you have”); we’re constantly trying to forge our own path. I’m not making a judgment one way or another, but that’s the choice ahead. ‘Open-source warfare’ means that these ideas spread without any additional prompting. With off-the-shelf technology, you can go right ahead and set up a self-organizing peer-to-peer wifi network.

The neo-Taliban has been cracking and forcing cell networks offline in Afghanistan for years, and we can merely react. It’s really an open-ended question as to where this all might lead. You can’t stifle innovation at home just for the sake of denying advantages to our adversaries (besides, it’s not like they operate on the cutting edge).

We’re running as fast as we can just to stay standing.