How to bridge the Continental Divide; moving Camp David tothe Valley; please, pols, start Asking Tomorrow’s Questions – and call me
Nigel M. de S. Cameron
Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies
An earlier, more visionary NASA, thank goodness, sent probesinto deep space. Some of them continue to ping us from far beyond the domesticreaches of the Solar System. But even they have not penetrated as far fromWashington as I did last month. I made it all the way to the West Coast.
It is not simply an issue of littorals, or oceans, or theperspectives which follow from occidental or oriental orientation, or even (I’msure someone out on the PC frontier is using this) occidentation. Though one VCI met did note that he looked out on the Pacific; and averred that Washingtonwas really a European city. More common is general-purpose Valley-style eyeball-rolling.And when it comes to “corporate culture” – my base category when I think aboutthe Valley and its polar complement, the District – we know there’s a lot moreto the jewel of the east coast than the magnificently monumented malarial marshthat’s home to the ultimate nonprofit. Some place called NYC, for example, seemsto be a displaced slice of California (now that would be a neat way of keepingit at 50 when we admit DC or Puerto Rico or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistanor whoever is up next). It’s no surprise that someone, somewhere ensured thatNYC’s connection with the District would be something called Acela, famed asthe world’s slowest fast train. No one has been in any rush to integrate theBig Apple with the midsized federal raspberry.
Point here, aside from offering generally snarky commentswhere I think they are due, is that the Valley and the District are far furtherapart than 3,000 miles and a relatively serious mountain range. It’s hard toimagine two more distinctive, consistent, and contrary cultures within theUnited States, the West, the English-speaking peoples, OECD, or whatever highcategory we prefer for “us.” Indeed, it goes beyond “us.” If you are a denizenof DC, the Starbucks on Sand Hill Road is the restaurant at the end of theuniverse.
Let me underline this with three particulars. There areothers that could be engaged. But these work and they make the point. It is aterrible point.
First is the creativeimperative. In the Valley, they think of themselves as visionaries.Tomorrow is theirs; and their confidence in innovative products and servicesdepends in no small measure on their belief that the future is not simplyinfluencing their thinking (we are, as it were, all futurists now, at least inthese zip codes – if friends in DC will now forgive me a Keynesian allusion)but it will in turn be shaped by their personal and corporate vision. Thefuture is both their study and their creature. They have the kind of symbiosiswith tomorrow that the District has with yesterday. So creativity, risk, and a longentrepreneurial arc, are their stock in trade.
In the District, a community of generally smart andcommitted persons, the “corporate culture” could hardly be more different.Pretty much whatever our politics, our client (sorry) lies in the past.Maintaining the programs of the Great Society? Returning to the vision of theFounders? Addressing as #1 priority the debt mountain we have built? Each ofthese is meritorious, and wherever our political lines lie for most of us eachof them features. Point is not that they are misplaced priorities. It is simplythat they hail from yesteryear. Left and right are stumbling into the future astheir gaze is fixed on the past.
Second, as a result, thenature of the commitment to the future. Part of the problem with theValley, and one of its clear commonalities with the District, lies in itsinnocent confidence in the future. For the Valley this takes the form of awondrous hopefulness, the kind that is required if great capital sums are to beengaged in start-ups small and large in the knowledge that most will fail andthe confidence that some will succeed big-time. The District is a naïf ofanother kind. The confidence is there, but it is one of presumption. Americacannot fail; therefore, America cannot fail. Innovation, as has been said, isan ATM. While speechmakers come and go on all sides, and they include someseriously serious people, speeches come cheap. News, guys, on both coasts.America can fail. And it’s looking increasingly likely that America will. Andthe reason, the core reason, the axis around which all other reasons turn, liesin the failure of alignment and interconnection between these two vastlyseparated entities. But we shall come back to that.
Third, a shared myopia.Self-confidence and disdain are among the several shared qualities of these twocosmically separated polities. They both think they are too good for the other,have no special need of the other, are bored by the other. Go to one of thoseuncommon conferences on policy in the Valley, and likely as not someonemid-level (aka not really that important) will fly in from DC. Which neatlyreinforces the local view. I well recall one where said mid-level panjandruminsisted at the last minute on re-arranging his appearance as events in (hushedtones) DC required his attendance (I ended up missing his speech as a result).And vice versa. Techworld has its representatives in the District. Some of themare my friends. Mostly they are District hires; native guides; sherpas who knowthe Hill and the agencies and – get this – have remarkably little buy-in to thevalues that vivify the Valley. They are short-termers who understand“language,” hired guns, creatures of the deadline short-term cycles of what wasone Long-Term Nation; of an exceptionalism inverted in high parody. Harbingersof a perverse apocalypse in which an entirely perverse deity rewards those whoconsider 12 months to be long-term. “Myboard has made it clear to me,” declared –in private, to me – one tech tradeassociation chief recently, “that my focus needs to be on the short-term.” Nowthere’s a suicide note for America. Moore’s Law, aka exponential change, akadisruptive innovation, requires with mathematical solidity that the future bescoped and engaged more each year.Back in 1800, what did it matter? In September 2011, the stakes are beyondcalculation.
I think I once described the relationship between theDistrict and the Valley as a suicide pact. Their fundamental agreement is thatthey are not much interested in the other. But of course it’s worse. It’s agame of Russian roulette, in which we are intent on firing every chamber. We’replaying chicken with our children. We are absolutely ensuring, ensuring, thedestruction of America, by the reciprocal delusion that the Sand Hills RoadStarbucks, and the Rayburn Cafeteria, occupy complementary universes. Yet theydo not. From Ushant to Scilly (if you are into sea-shanties) is, we are told,35 leagues. From the Valley to the District is an immeasurable span. Yet it isone of the two most consequent axes on this particular planet. (The other, ofcourse, is DC-Beijing. How we shall ever address that without first bringingthe Valley and the District into alignment? Who is asking that question, whichneeds to move fast beyond the rhetorical, in either of these zipcodal U.S.entities?)
What am I after? I wrote some time back about the need forevery pol to spend two weeks a year at tech conferences. Please, please. 10days, sans BlackBerry and staff. And the Valley guys? Well maybe if someoneturned the Rayburn Cafeteria, recently refurbished into smart 1950s railroadcafé format (sigh), into a meeting place for peeps rather than tables, the SandHills guys might stop by. But what about this. If the pols commit to the westcoast conferences, what about having the VCs and their entourage each plan tobe in DC and hang a little? See, I’m being practical. A mutual transfusion of culturalblood from these highly diverse species – located as if in different genera –is a key, indeed the key, to U.S. success, global effectiveness, the triumph oftechnologies in a culture still shaped around human values –the future of anation that has no deep wish to learn Mandarin.
The President, whom his supporters and critics need to allowinherited and is seeking to manage an economic and employment crisis withoutparallel in our generation, has addressed Congress and the nation. For somereason, no-one asked me what he should say. There is surely no simpleprescription, no bromide for the hour, no recitation of one ideology or another– although there are plenty of obvious answers that have failed.
How about this for some talkers? Three key opportunitiesstand out, and had they called me, they would each have featured high on mylist.
First, “I’m moving Camp David to Silicon Valley, and willspend at least one week a month of my presidency there. This is not merelysymbolic. I commit that three nights a week, every week, when I am out there inthe Valley, I will invite its brightest and best to dinner. On condition theywill each spend one week a month in DC.”
Second, “I am adding to my cabinet not only the federal CTO,whose status there was discussed during the campaign, but the federal CIO andof course my science advisor; and instructing every cabinet secretary toappoint an under-secretary for the future, who will work hand in glove withthese three cabinet-level officials and have wide influence over all aspects offederal policy.”
Third, “I am tasking a bipartisan panel chaired by Norm Augustineand co-chaired by the President of the National Academies and the President ofthe AAAS and the President of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents; andincluding both President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush: to make recommendations within 2 months as tohow the U.S. lead in science and technology can be both maintained andadvanced, with a view to making us the most competitive nation in the OECDwithin five years. I shall invite members of Congress to sign a bipartisanContract with the Future to join us in ensuring that their recommendations areimplemented in their entirety.”
Those among you who know C-PET will understand that suchproposals do not assume a naïve idea of S and T as the solution to all humanproblems, or a desire of endless U.S. global hegemony. They represent anassumption that the human dimensions of emerging technologies will never beproperly addressed if we do not ramp up our grasp of the significance of theirimplications at least tenfold. And an assumption that the historic role of theUnited States as a beacon of freedom and innovation will be best served in the21st century by an alignment of these two: this nation as the focalpoint of tech/human solutions.
For that is the central question. Technology runs up theMoore’s Law curve. We stay humans (sorry, transhumanists, we do) and need tobenefit in a market economy in which tech has enabled not destroyed jobs, andempowered not zombied human dignity. We need a hotline from the Valley to theDistrict. My sense is clear: one of the two greatest risk issues facing theglobe is the lack of alignment of the D and the V. (The other, as we noted, isthat of the D, empowered or unempowered by the V, and Beijing.)
What we gonna do about it? Obama? Boehner? Perry? Bachmann?Romney? Huntsman? Call me. Then we can sort this out and move on to somethingelse. Oh yes, like getting NASA moving again.
Permission to circulate/republish in full and with attribution.