Post Scriptum: Why We Can't Solve Big Problems
„Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems”, the MIT Technology Review.
President John F. Kennedy had asked the United States Congress to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” […] Kennedy’s goal was also absurdly ambitious. A few weeks before his speech, NASA had strapped an astronaut into a tiny capsule atop a converted military rocket and shot him into space on a ballistic trajectory, as if he were a circus clown; but no American had orbited the planet. The agency didn’t really know if what the president asked could be done in the time he allowed, but it accepted the call.
In all, NASA spent $24 billion, or about $180 billion in today’s dollars, on Apollo; at its peak in the mid-1960s, the agency enjoyed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The program employed around 400,000 people and demanded the collaboration of about 20,000 companies, universities, and government agencies.
The agency’s solutions were often inelegant. To escape from orbit, NASA constructed 13 giant, single–use multistage rockets, capable of lifting 50 tons of payload and generating 7.6 million pounds of thrust. Only an ungainly modular spacecraft could be flown by the deadline
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? . . . Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? . . . 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 . . .”
Apollo was not seen only as a victory for one of two antagonistic ideologies. Rather, the strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology.
To contemporaries, the Apollo program occurred in the context of a long series of technological triumphs. The first half of the century produced the assembly line and the airplane, penicillin and a vaccine for tuberculosis; in the middle years of the century, polio was on its way to being eradicated; and by 1979 smallpox would be eliminated.
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.
That something happened to humanity’s capacity to solve big problems is a commonplace. Recently, however, the complaint has developed a new stridency among Silicon Valley’s investors and entrepreneurs, although it is usually expressed a little differently: people say there is a paucity of real innovations. Instead, they worry, technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys.
The motto of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm started by Peter Thiel, a cofounder of PayPal, is “We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters.”
Thiel is caustic: last year he told the New Yorker that he didn’t consider the iPhone a technological breakthrough. “Compare [it] with the Apollo program,” he said.The Internet is “a net plus—but not a big one.”
Max Levchin, another cofounder of PayPal, says, “I feel like we should be aiming higher. The founders of a number of startups I encounter have no real intent of getting anywhere huge … There’s an awful lot of effort being expended that is just never going to result in meaningful, disruptive innovation.”
But what seemed futuristic at the time of Apollo 11 “remains futuristic, in part because these technologies never received the sustained funding lavished on the electronics industries.
It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it.
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.
Tagged as: future, innovation, sf | Author: Martin Leyrer
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