The Ultimate Mash-up: Innovation in Washington?

In Aspen with Tom Lehrer on my Mind

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies

Once a Tom Lehrer fan, always one; at least, you can’t keep him out of your head. So I was sitting in Aspen at the TPI innovation conference a week or two back, and this time it was his Vatican Rag. But the tagline now: “innovate, innovate, innovate.”

Of course, in tech circles innovation is the talk of the town (as in, Washington), even though it is often twinned with a sense of resignation. The problem is that politics was never designed for a society in which the rate of technology’s development is exploding at ever more rapid rates. Remember Thomas Malthus, 18th century English clergyman and statistician, and his half-true theory of demographics? (It was resurrected for a time in the semi-hoax of the “population bomb” in the 60s.) Malthus said population grows geometrically, food resources arithmetically; ergo famine, disease, large-scale death. So here: technology’s progress is as exponential as it comes, Moore’s Law as far as the eye can see. And politics? Our system of governance? Well, it’s arithmetical in every sense. Big Bang versus Steady State. Which did not much matter when the curve was a lot flatter. We saw the future in gradualist terms, and we got away with it. No longer. We’re facing a crisis, potentially deadly, for the nation that has been fated to be top dog as the exponential tech revolution heads skyward. How is steady-state politics to fathom, let alone frame, the fissile material that is 21st century technology?

Intel’s Paul Otellini has been hammering his theme. American needs innovation; it needs an innovation-focused Washington; the nation’s losing its edge. Earlier in the year he teamed up with the Aspen Institute to host a crisis summit at the Ronald Reagan Building in downdown DC. Otellini emceed corporate leaders, innovation gurus like John Kao, and the Obama administration’s Larry Summers and Arne Duncan. What’s innovation? Why is it in crisis? What can be done? It was impressive, an A-list event that kept the A-listers on task for 24 hours.

Then as summer came we circled around, and Otellini again was center-stage in Aspen – Aspen the place, this time, not the Institute. A glittering occasion. As well as Otellini, the Technology Policy Institute hosted CEO-turned-politico Carly Fiorina, VC and LinkedIn pioneer Reid Hoffman, Intuit’s folksy CEO Brad Smith, and Valley entrepreneur and writer Andrew Keen. And its program asked the question, over and over: is America losing its edge? (Answer does not require a trip to Aspen. It’s yes. And you can see the video online.

My point is that the questions go deep. How shall government of the people, by the people, for the people, guided by members of Congress who dutifully ride their horses to Washington for two-year stints per the Constitution, and an administration whose decisional timeline is rarely longer, address what is best seen as a slow but quickening and essentially uncontrolled explosion? Today’s key resource that creates both wealth and security is something quite novel: information, data. Perhaps the most disruptive invention in our generation has been something which simply didn’t exist a generation ago: search. Most people think the “digital revolution” is now mainly behind us. It has barely, barely begun. And you don’t have to be a disciple of Kurzweil to believe that the curve is set to start going close to vertical in our lifetimes. One a counter-intuitive principle of living with change: the faster it goes, the more important to look ahead. We just can’t make good decisions for today without spending time in tomorrow.

Back in the early 2000s, the National Science Foundation, brainchild of that practical genius Vannevar Bush (who famously foresaw an analog version of the web using that handy but clunky old-time invention, the microfiche), convened a series of conferences on what they called “converging technologies” – nano, bio, info, cogno, the “NBIC” mantra. I presented at one, attended others, and have written of them in critical terms as they were too much influenced by a naïve “transhumanism” (which blunted, rather than sharpened, their impact) and not enough focused on engaging the policy implications of the very remarkable developments they considered. But they were right to throw the future in the mix and ask hard questions about where current tech trends are leading.

And where is there now to meet the future in Washington? It’s future-mindedness that we need more than anything other single thing. A visionary, open, reflective, awareness that science and technology are framing every emerging question. That there is no area of policy or social and personal life unaffected. That change gets faster every day. That every elected and appointed official, while they may not be technologists, must be a futurist. Must have the keenest interest in what lies ahead, in the pace of change, how things are trending, in the impacts good and bad of every shift in the power and price of the chip – and every creative thought that determines what those chips deliver. And the chips are driving it all. Synthetic biology applies engineering to genetics. Artificial intelligence and robotics are moving far beyond the production lines of Detroit. One thing we know as we look ahead: this will not be your grandmother’s future. I won’t say all bets are off, because some things are pretty clear. Two of them are the sheer extraordinary pace of change, and its pervasive, disruptive impacts.

Yet out political culture continues pretty much as it has. We fund S and T. The genome project was for a time center-stage. Now it is the $1.5 bn National Nanotechnology Initiative (on which C-PET has a half-day Roundtable discussion on 9/17; come join us). And of course the Space Program. And NIH. We all agree all these things are important, vital. Researchers, and tech business leaders, want more funding for research and development. They want a tax regime that would make the United States the most competitive, start-up friendly nation in the world. We may well think that is a no-brainer. (Why are no-brainers so hard in DC?)

But the issue goes deeper. The problem in Washington lies not just in the short-term nature of politics, but also in the privileging of issues of disagreement that often gives them more importance than they deserve, in our binary political environment; and disprivileging, as it were, of issues that don’t fit the conventional divides. Then add that few of our leaders are attuned to the future. We know there are exceptions. But we know the default. And while democracy strenuously needs principled disagreement, no nation will thrive in the 21st century that cannot place the impact of technology – and its implications, good and bad – at the center of its view of things, and do so in manner that is both highly informed and multi-disciplinary.

Of course, no-one in Washington is actually against innovation. It sounds odd to be asking the question, when every year huge sums in federal dollars are doled out to the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health; when the Department of Defense is a vast consumer and patron of the highest tech around; when the current administration came in trailing a cloud of appointees and rhetoric from Silicon Valley and Seattle. And of course the United States dominates the global emerging technology landscape in ways that many do not quite grasp. Perhaps 75%. Yet this extraordinary dominance is not our birthright, and U.S. companies are busy globalizing – not least to hedge their bets.

One of the stars of the Intel/Aspen conference was John Kao, whose brilliantly perceptive book on innovation lays out an anatomy of the problem. He wants innovation-specific roles in DC, an innovation council, an “innovation czar” approach. That might be useful. I’m not convinced. It might also let everyone else off the hook, and in the process ensure the failure of the “innovation” appointees. And it assumes a model of government as problem-solver that many of us question, especially in the 21st century and in the area most open-textured and dependent on initiative. Yes, by all means let’s have the most innovation-friendly tax (and immigration) regimes in the world. But that is government removing obstacles rather than trying itself to solve problems. The issue is pervasive and needs a pervasive solution. How about this? We all read the news stories about the vast questionnaire required of potential Obama appointees. What about adding a smart instrument to test engagement, aptitude, awareness of innovation and its future? – an innovation/futurist litmus-test for every political appointee? That’s the kind of thing a seriously integrated, pro-innovation government would take forward.

As a congressional newspaper put it recently, Digital Nation, Analog Hill. And the issue is not simply the Hill (which, for the record, has full-function email, although remains one of the few places on earth where faxes are still in routine use). It’s appointees to thousands of offices and hundreds of boards. It’s the think tanks. Washington has (literally) hundreds of them. There are half a dozen big ones with wide-ranging portfolios and the intellectual firepower of universities. Where is technology, innovation, on their agendas? The issue is one of pervasive corporate culture.

And what about the west coast, the Valley, the tech heavyweights? Well when they get into town, they tend to do what people in town do: focus on the next year, focus on language issues, lobby the FCC, work on tax breaks for R and D. Which at one level is fine. Yet their cynicism about policymakers and their focus on immediate issues go hand in hand. All very logical, especially when they have been assured by their policy people that there is no chance of influencing the culture, game-changing, paradigm-shifting. Washington’s time-horizon is if anything shorter than before. Get over it, and get in there and lobby. Big, big mistake. We gotta change the culture. How? I have ideas, we all have ideas. We have to work at it. Keep working at it. America needs our efforts, and if we keep at it, year in year out, on a corporate and social rather than a political timescale, we may succeed. If we don’t, one thing we can be sure of is that we won’t.

Fortune 100 corporations work with 5, 10-year plans and in the tech sector are constantly scoping beyond the next decade. And that’s what they need to do in DC, side by side with what they do now; lobby for the short term, work for change in the long. The corporate culture of our political establishment is sick, it is antithetical to the interests of the nation as well as its technology companies, and it is failing to face the radical implications that emerging developments will have for its own agenda. Employment. Healthcare. Security. Education. Technology policy has long since ceased to be chiefly about technology – but, as Michael Caine would say, not many people know that.

And the next big thing? We listened in Aspen while Otellini warned that unless Washington changes, it will not come from Silicon Valley. The world is flat, and getting flatter.

Much flatter than back in the 60s, when globalized threats were of another kind and Tom Lehrer sang his satire on the loyalties of the famous German rocket scientist whose skills had laid the foundation of the space program. But Lehrer’s caustic humor is as relevant now on a very different competitive stage. “And I’m learning Chinese, says Wernher von Braun.”

Lehrer lyrics at

Join us for C-PET’s Emerging Technologies Roundtable on Innovation in Washington over lunch on October 13 in our G Street offices. Register at

Permission to reproduce/circulate if unedited and with attribution.

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