About Nigel Cameron

Writer; think tank director “Asking Tomorrow’s Questions” Speaking managed by ATG│Chartwell US: ellis@americantalentgroup.com, Global: alexh@chartwellpartners.co.uk Nigel Cameron has extensive experience as a keynote speaker and in facilitating high-level conversations focused on the future – crossing disciplinary lines and bringing together participants with diverse opinions and backgrounds. His emphasis is on reframing issues, welcoming outlier opinions, and pressing for a positive sum outcome that recognizes differences and engages them. A citizen of the United States and the UK, he has worked on both sides of the Atlantic and travels widely. He recently chaired GITEX 2015 in Dubai and will be chair of the Future Technology 2016. In one year he addressed conferences on all five continents, including the biennial innovation festival hosted by Australian finance giant AMP in Sydney, and Nanomedicine 2010 Beijing. He was the sole US-based plenary speaker at “the world’s leading conference on content marketing,” the 2011 Content Summit. Other recent engagements include the UN-affiliated Rio+ 20 Planet under Pressure event (London), and the opening keynote at the European Identity and Cloud Conference (Munich, Germany). His unusually wide experience includes serving on U.S delegations to the UN General Assembly and UNESCO; three periods as an executive-in-residence at UBS Wolfsberg (Switzerland); testimony on technology policy and values issues before the U.S House and Senate, the European Parliament, the European Commission’s advisory Group on Ethics, the German Bundestag, and the UK Parliament; and co-chairing a nonpartisan panel that advised the UK Conservative Party on emerging technologies and health policy. In the early 2000s, he was an invited non-federal participant in the Department of State-led Project Horizon, 3-year scenario-based strategic planning process. He has appeared on network media in several countries, including in the U.S. ABC Nightline and PBS Frontline; and in the UK the BBC flagship shows Newsnight and Breakfast with Frost. With a strong academic background together with an M.B.A. he has developed projects focusing integrative approaches to new technologies both in the academic/business context (at the Illinois Institute of Technology) and in the policy community (Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington, DC). He hosted a succession of annual policy conferences on nanotechnology at the National Press Club, which led to the publication of Nanoscale: Issues and Perspectives for the Nano Century (Wiley). Among Washington events in 2011 he hosted a series of roundtables on impacts of new technologies (risk, intellectual property, change), co-sponsored by the Intel-led Task Force on American Innovation; and was invited to moderate panels on the security implications of the “Arab spring” for weapons (WMD) control. He regularly hosts teleconferences with thought leaders such as Wired Magazine founder Kevin Kelly, former Lockheed-Martin chairman Norman Augustine, CEA president Gary Shapiro, innovation leader Vivek Wadhwa and White House technology policy lead Tom Kalil. Other teleconferences have focused emerging issues in cybersecurity, and the future of on internet governance with Ambassador Philip Verveer and others. In Silicon Valley he hosted a breakfast for the venture community to discuss his provocative commentary on the innovation gap between the west coast and Washington, How to Bridge the Continental Divide. Other recent commentaries that have generated thoughtful interest in Washington and further afield: on NASA, and Washington’s core problem thinking about the future. He has written a monthly column for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the latest issues in corporate social responsibility and his op-eds include several for the San Francisco Chronicle on emerging issues in technology and policy. In 2015-16 he is Fulbright Visiting Research Professor in Science and Society in the University of Ottawa, Canada.

Unsocial Networks

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg (Wikipedia)

Facebook’s decision to draw back from one of the few evidences in the governance of social networks that they understand that social is actually coming to mean for the future of the corporate effort is perhaps no great surprise. For a company whose governance is designed top-down like that of a 19th century steel magnate (or, to be fairer, well, 21st century News Corp), the anomaly of leaving users free to make actual decisions, always open to being “exploited” (aka used) by users actually interested in said decisions, could not long endure.

But the question is raised, yet again: when will it be that companies in the ever-broader “social” space will evolve governance (and financing) models that are actually suited to social?

None of the major players has given that thought much thought, so far. The Facebook voting thing being nixed was a vestigial organ from an earlier, pre-IPO, day when the visionary aspects of the company had more logic than they do now (though, for my part, I have no reason to believe that MZ believes them any less). Something much bigger, and strategic, is needed for these companies to align their social mission with their social identity as vast networks of users. The future will not lie with playing cat-and-mouse on privacy and imposing corporate policies from (in Fb’s case) unbelievably non-diverse boards. And for future read profit.

I billion and rising. Well, we shall see. Think Kodak and RIM and HP and (ouch, ouch) Apple for curves whose rise is halted.

My take? MS soldiers on; Apple crests very soon in all respects; Fb is close to its zenith. MZ, like SJ and BG, has earned his place on Mount Rushmore. What interests me is what, and who, come nest; and how they manage to align their corporate efforts with their users. Hint: it may involve actually engaging this thing we call “social.”

Oh, and Twitter? As a company, it is in the balance, for just this same reason. Its daily users include some of the very smartest minds on the planet – from @rupertmurdoch down. The interest of the Twitter high command in what they/we think is somewhere around zero.

Facebook to users: Please vote to abolish your right to vote | Internet & Media – CNET News.

Brands will shape Global Labor Standards: Apple-Foxconn Company

Tim Cook, Apple COO, in january 2009, after Ma...

Tim Cook, Apple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Apple signed on to Fair Labor I wrote a column in which  suggested that the logic of their decision – a big shift in approach post-Jobs – would be to bring about alignment between western and  Chinese labor standards. Nothing that has happened since has changed my view. Not that this will happen overnight, of course. But it’s the result of several potent forces that are shaping, not least, this company’s effort: branding and global communications. Whereas these forces twisted the unwilling arm of Nike what seems a long time ago, the superlative quality of the Apple brand and the explosion of social media are together pouring gas on the flames.

While it has been traditional to label western brand efforts to ensure decent manufacture conditions for their products as “corporate social responsibility,” the logic of the Apple case demonstrates that it is naive to see CSR as an adjunct effort, or a marketing ploy, or as anything other than central to value. It’s a case where the values-value connection (another theme of mine) is especially glaring.

The harrowing case of the Foxconn worker with severe brain damage, whose family is now going to the Chinese courts to seek to maintain full company support of their son, drives the point neatly (if tragically) home. This man is, as all can see, a de facto Apple employee, whose conditions of service are so far removed from those of the guys at HQ as to be hard to compare. As his family struggles to ensure that he has long-term care after an undenied industrial injury, they have a bullhorn to the world, and that includes the fashionistas for whom the latest Apple gadget is a must, and who have helped drive up its astronomical share price and stack up a mountain of dollars that could buy Facebook twice over for cash (or buy everyone on the planet a half-decent bottle of wine). As the technological gap, and the design gap, between Apple products and those of its rivals narrow, the brand magic is going to be even more key – and therefore even more exposed.

It was a smart move for Tim Cook to jump into Fair Labor, and then arm-twist Foxconn into big wage increases. It would be even smarter for them to leapfrog the moral/CSR competition and drive excellence in Chinese manufacturing and labor practice without needing to be pressured further.


Foxconn goes to court over severely injured worker | Business Tech – CNET News.

To the Bankers of Sibos: Integrate and Innovate from the Board down

Banking District

Credit: bsterling

The world’s global financial community’s annual bankers’ “Davos” should be a time for urgent reflection and remediation for our financial institutions.

It’s time for high-level integration for innovation – and that begins with the Board and the C-Suite of this very traditional set of institutions at a time of explosive disruption. They have a long way to go.

 “The past,” as novelist L.P Hartley famously wrote, “is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When it comes to the future, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The pace of change is picking up very fast, and institutions – and whole industries – unable to keep up are finding themselves on the wrong side of history. 

Let’s be candid. Banking has never been everyone’s favorite industry. Hardly a customer has had a consistently happy experience on the retail end. And the events of 2008 have left a sour taste that may last a generation – like the losses that millions of citizens have accrued as a result. “Too big to fail” sticks in the craw of Americans of left and right – and makes capitalism, markets, risk, look ridiculous. It takes a lot to make Big Oil look good. And one way or another, the business-as-usual revolving door relationship between Wall Street and the Treasury/supervisory agencies and the Hill and the While House (donors . . .) is tottering. It may survive an election cycle or two. Not more.

So what’s ahead for the bankers? They are sailing into a perfect storm.

First, three potent waves they need to ride. If they don’t, can’t, won’t, then all the clever innovation ideas on the planet will not help them.

1. Service. Banking has to rebuild its brand from the ground up as a “service” industry that is actually seen and experienced as a service. Example: GEICO. Insurance is boring and costly. GEICO customers love their company. I called them the other day to sort out a problem, looked forward to it, enjoyed the experience, and am smiling as I recall it. Banking must be seen to be re-inventing itself as a service.

2. Shared. While “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) has now been almost universally adopted as an element in corporate strategy, by banks like everyone else, it continues to be handled by most players as an adjunct exercise. Michael Porter‘s notorious prognosis that “shared value” is properly the only source of value, incorporating the traditional bottom line and the “CSR” extra, has been treated with derision in private and sometimes in public. Banking must be seen as a leader in building shared value.

3. Social. “Social media” remains an outlier in most mainstream businesses, and barely registers in banking. Not only is social vital to customer service and marketing; more fundamentally it is emerging as the driver of innovation and the continuing renewal of corporate culture – which, as we know, is the cause of all competitive advantage and value creation. Banking must be seen to take the lead in social engagement.

Second, two (of many) special challenges coming their way.

4. Retail. Retail banking is ripe for dramatic innovation. It is almost entirely mechanical, and the perfect subject for machine intelligence. While we debate separating retail from banks’ investment operations, the former is peeling off in its own. The launch in the past few weeks of the Wal-Mart/American Express Bluebird debit-card based banking system is the first major shock. Look at the fee structure (to the consumer, there are none at all), the utter convenience (I opened an account online in literally 3 minutes), the services (huge range and they will be added). Traditional retail banking is ripe for collapse.

5. New currencies. This is more esoteric, and for another post, but from barter to Bitcoin the consumer need for standard money-based transactions has begun to shift. Just begun.

Third: What banking needs in the midst of all this and more is the skill-set it has so far shown it lacks above all else: flexibility, imagination, the capacity to turn on a dime, all those smarts that are distinguishing both New Economy successes and traditional organizations demonstrating themselves capable of re-invention. The core enabling capacity lies in a combination of board governance and executive leadership, and, specifically:

 6. Diversity across generations, genders, perspectives, and disciplines. I discussed this in respect of gender diversity and engagement in social media in an earlier post –  https://futureofbiz.org/2012/07/07/the-two-most-stunning-facts-about-american-business/

We know the problem, but to give an example: in a recent study American Banker found that of 9 large financial institutions operating in California 8 had boards that were at leas 80% white and 80% male. http://www.americanbanker.com/bankthink/board-diversity-greenlining-1039171-1.html

It’s unfortunate, to my mind, that gender diversity issue has been widely perceived as an issue of equity. It’s about value. And whereas in times of stasis a non-diverse board may have worked very well, in times of revolutionary change is represents the voluntary addition of a huge and indefensible element of risk to every decision. Boards and C-Suites need to represent diverse perspectives of all kinds. Only thus will these institutions designed to thrive in an entirely different environment have an opportunity to flourish a second time around in a dramatically different and ever-changing marketplace.

Otherwise, as Kodak and other failed and failing once-great companies like RIM are constantly reminding us, the market is unforgiving. Technology and other emergent forces are toppling the very assumptions that made old-style organizations successful. The logic of service, shared value, social media, and radical diversity at the top level, is finally the logic of the market.

My take? The next decade will see the disruption of financial services on a scale comparable with what has happened to print publishing in the last one. There is everything to play for. But thanks to Moore’s Law and globalization and other forces on the loose in C21, the clock is speeding uo all the time.



Sibos – Sibos – Osaka, 29 Oct – 1 Nov 2012.

Three Digital Fallacies Holding Back our Top Companies

Andrew McAfee Talk at the Berkman Center

Andrew McAfee Talk at the Berkman Center (Photo credit: Berkman Center for Internet & Society)

Make no mistake, a fundamental embrace of the revolution just beginning in digital communication is core to every company planning to be around in more than a couple of years. Not many (any?) of them really get it. Here are three key reasons.

1. The “social” fallacy. We use this term, yet it merges, blends, squishes together many divergent phenomena – from the chit-chat/cat pic end of the data explosion to what are still generally Sears-catalog marketing efforts – to what we are really talking about. Andrew McAfee recently explained why he coined the term “Enterprise 2.0” and avoids the term “social” with “hard-headed” C-Suite types, as it suggests something soft. I’m not suggesting we can give it up, or that “2.0” language (itself now, well, jaded) will answer. But we have a big branding problem here.

2. The digital/IRL fallacy. Someone tweeted today that in a year or two 25% of business will have a Chief Digital Officer. O boy. The “social” revolution is not about segmenting off yet another slice of the dispersed responsibilities of the C-Suite; it’s about integration. And now, I suppose, we await a new fad: the Chief Integration Officer. Integrative thinking comes very hard to “functional” people and, in a fundamental way, is rendering them systematically dysfunctional. There are a lot of people in high places in these organizations who need to check out their golf swing.

3. The generational fallacy. OK, there is a certain utility in throwing around “digital natives” language, but it’s getting not just passe but dangerous. The depressing lack of engagement of CIOs in social media (now well-documented) is nothing to do with their age. It’s to do with their inability to flex, to roll with the continuing punches of innovation, to grasp a rising level of risk as a friend, to grab the keys to organizational transformation – and value creation.

I’ve argued before that the neglect of social, side by side with a far more long-standing refusal to bring women into the top echelons, reveals a deep-seated death-wish on the part of U.S. business. What we need above all is to reframe the questions raised in the search for value, and rebrand the resources of the 21st century economy. Now.

What Sells CEOs on Social Networking.

#Risk needs to be at the Center of our Thinking. All of us. All the time.

Front page of The New York Times July 29, 1914...

NYTimes July 29, 1914, “AUSTRIA FORMALLY DECLARES WAR ON SERVIA” announces the beginning of World War I (Credit: Wikipedia)

The latest New York Times carries two striking pieces that are both mainly about risk. One is a big piece on the data centers that constitute “the cloud” and consist of acres of servers humming with power. The other, an informative opinion piece on the next pandemic, and its potential sources.

We tolerate carnage on the road, are 100% risk averse in the air, and rarely think about it anywhere else. Yet risk awareness likes at the heart of all complex decisions, and this becomes more true the faster change takes place and the more disruptive innovation shows itself to be.

Carry that thought into work and play as this new week starts. It can only help.

Data Centers Waste Vast Amounts of Energy, Belying Industry Image – NYTimes.com.


Why Leaders Need to “get” Twitter, ASAP

English: Jack Dorsey and Barack Obama at Twitt...

Jack Dorsey and Barack Obama at Twitter Town Hall in July 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s my interview with Paper.li’s Liz Wilson on the gap between executive behavior in business and politics and the huge advantages conferred by engaging with social media – and, especially, Twitter.



On 9/11, Asymmetry, Exponential Change, and Washington’s Culture Challenge

As 9/11 comes around again, 11 years on, it’s time to think about risk, asymmetry, and the long term. Because a key lesson of that dark day is a simple one: that advanced technologies and the global communications they have enabled have reset the game of security, once and for all.
Three key reflections as we grieve anew – and look ahead.
The core mission of C-PET, the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, is to advance, in Washington, DC, the long view – in which we ask “tomorrow’s questions” as the context for today’s decisions, at the interface of policy and technology. In parallel, my consulting practice Strategic Futures, LLC (akaFutureofBiz.org) asks “tomorrow’s questions” as the context for today’s decisions at the interface of business and technology. The corporate/government relationship, which we all agree is too mired in lobbying and short-term advantage should be stronger and visionary.
1. I wrote some time back that the past decade been dominated by two global experts on asymmetry, neither of whom worked for the U.S. government. Their names were Bin Laden, now dispatched, and Assange, now incarcerated in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy in a situation somewhere between scandal and farce. Point is simple – and I make no suggestion of moral equivalence between them. These two men intuitively grasped the capacity of strategically deployed small means and small numbers to shape global events. There have always been asymmetries of power – I fly tonight to London, where Karl Marx sat writing Das Kapital in the British Museum. But technology has changed the game. And the key issue for our security in Century 21 is how we play it when we no longer set the rules, and they keep being changed.
2. While destructive technologies are developing apace, and increasingly accessible to individuals – synthetic biology, which we have addressed in our Roundtable series in Washington, is one key example; and cybersecurity, another C-PET theme – the principle we need to keep in focus is that of exponential change. While change has always been at a gathering pace, it’s in our generation – powered by Moore’s Law but other factors too – that the impact of exponential has begun to have dramatic implications. We all know this, of course, as a fact. The degree to which it has been absorbed in Washington is another matter, of course.
3. To begin to grasp the implications of asymmetric shifts and the exponential pace of change, we need not simply to be far-sighted (that is, constantly working the long view, future scenarios, asking what tomorrow’s questions shall be); we need to be integrative, interdisciplinary, radical in our patterns and practices quite aside from our thinking. Our politics, in my own view, is in general the realm of good men and women incapable of rising above a “corporate culture” that sets their foreshortened agendas and is dooming us to decisions that take tomorrow for granted. The rumblings of what I have named “exopolitics” suggest a seismic change to come, one that is indeed cognizant of the asymmetric potential of social media and other aspects of our new communications technologies.
So on 9/11, a day that will always be somber to us, let’s take a fresh look at asymmetry and the impact of the exponential change that has given it such significance, for ill and for good; and let’s redouble our efforts to bring about a culture of government in synch with such dramatic shifts and attuned in Century 21 to the values that laid down the foundations of this nation, and the technologies that, in large measure, have resulted from its efforts.

Why is @rupertmurdoch on Twitter? The C-Suite Mystery

English: Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Murdoch at t...

Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Murdoch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Social, Strategy, and the Mystery of the C-Suite.

My first job – before college – was in a finance company. Customers sent in longhand letters saying they were moving house. In the basement was the high-security “computer room,” with men (sic) in white coats and banks of tape machines that lived on such info. The analog/digital go-between: me. Deciphering the letters, agonizing over how to fit the addresses into 16 squares and four lines on the input form, calling banks (illegally) to track down missing account numbers, and later sticking labels spat out by “The Computer” on the several separate sets of manual files the company still maintained. IT has come a long way since 1970. But if only 4% of CIOs blog, 10% tweet, and –wait for it – fully 74% report through the CFO, it still has a long way to go.

In light of these remarkably low levels of participation by the CIO, it may be less surprising that very occupants of the CEO’s office are personally engaged in social media. The evidence is clear that the culture of the C-Suite is one of nearly unanimous detachment from public social media. The facts are astonishing. Only 16 out of the F500 CEOs have Twitter accounts; and of those 16, hardly any use Twitter regularly. (When I last checked, one of the 16 was Warren Buffet. He had tweeted once.)

One who does, of course, is @rupertmurdoch. But we shall come to him.

What is stunning is the vast gulf between the personal engagement in “social” by the key C-Suite decision-makers, and the mounting evidence – clear, now even to non-techies, non-geeks, and late adopters – that “social” is a key to value. Vast value.

But first, let me head off a comment that 484 CEOs are making as they read this blog. It really is not enough to hire people to handle these things. Especially, typically, young people very junior people, in customer relations roles. The whole point about social is that it’s like saying you’re sorry; you can’t have someone do it for you. We have CEOs and CIOs, effectively, entirely disengaged from the most potent value-driving force on the planet. And part of their disengagement is the idea that hiring kids to monitor this stuff will do the trick. What a fail whale.

So: Latest input that one would have thought would get even the most inert analog executive mind moving: The McKinsey report suggesting up to $1.3 trillion can be released through companies’ forthright engagement with social media has drawn attention in the past week or two. It would however be interesting to note whether there has been an uptick in C-Suite engagement with Twitter, which seems to me to be the touchstone of “getting it” where social is concerned. Further down the totem pole all kinds of social media engagement is in progress (though remarkably there is still a big minority of companies who make no use at all). It’s strategic engagement that counts, and that will come only when the CEO and CIO are setting the pace – and giving evidence that they get it.

That’s why @rupertmurdoch’s joining Twitter at the start of the year was so revealing. Here we have one of the smartest, most controversial, and (face it) also oldest CEOs jumping in. With both feet. As his erratic typing and often unpolished tweets reveal, this is Rupert himself. Not a PR functionary. And he is not just pumping out opinions from on high. He reads the incoming (“watch the language,” he tweeted one time.) And he often answers (he has answered me). He’s found a way to break out of the gilded tower in which corporate leaders are imprisoned to read what his critics are saying, to catch the latest memes, to learn from the 24/7 cocktail party that is Twitter.

At the same time, lower down the organization, it’s plain social media is slowly catching on. Even here the slowness is staggering – 50% of utilities do not even have Facebook page? The headline on this report refers to companies’ widespread take-up of social, but it seems to me it has been slow, sporadic, and – as I have pointed out – almost entirely to the exclusion of the CEOs and CIOs who are the ones most able to develop a strategic understanding of the social revolution underway around them. Point is: Social is not about adding some new media opportunity to marketing, or handling a new customer relations channel. Yes, these are real; but they are far down the list of what is interesting and important.

One well-informed source responded to this argument with the claim that many C-Suite officers are actively engaged in Yammer-like private, secure networks within their organizations. This may well be true, though I have not seen figures. But in fact it adds to the problem. There is a vast gulf between the CEO chatting with CMO and CIO on Yammer, and what @rupertmurdoch and a handful of others have begun to do on Twitter.  And if the C-Suite view is that “social” is about Yammer for private chat and marketing/customer relations channels lower down, the net result is a disaster for strategic decision-making.

There’s no doubt that certain types of personality adjust far quicker to social media than others; and age is not the only factor at play (as Murdoch has neatly demonstrated). It’s now a serious question whether those unable to adapt are fit occupants of their C-Suite offices. Well, in respect of the CIO, I don’t think it’s any longer a question. Time for house-cleaning.

5 Labor Day Questions for America

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)

Henry Ford (ca. 1919) (Wikipedia)

As we celebrate Labor Day in 2012, we confront the hardest questions about our future. The Industrial Revolution, for all its early horrors, offered vast employment opportunities and a higher standard of living for many millions of people. It enabled general education and powered democracy. It facilitated the consumer economy. The vast companies set up by the steel barons and Henry Ford and their like provided lifetime employment for hardworking men and women. The companies remain – but we know that’s all over.

These are my questions. To America, to its leaders, to its people. They aren’t partisan (the big issues no longer fit the partisan divide). They’re tomorrow’s questions. Unless we have answers, we can’t make today’s decisions.

And before we go any further: There is something terribly Narcissistic about “knowledge workers,” people like you and me, who hang on Twitter and blog and one way or another are shaping the future. We claim no superior status to those who labor hard with their hands. We may shape the conversation, but it is to our embarrassment if we do hot shape it to include them – just as the uber-rich are to be despised if they find their self-worth in their net worth. It is together, as fellow members of Homo sapiens, radically equal, women and men, in the equation of human worth, that we are called to tackle the greatest of questions of C21. Kindly join me.

1. How do we create jobs, when the result of our smartest innovative thinking has been to create machines to do jobs for us? (Level 1, this is a problem. Level 2, it’s the end of the world as we know it.) More about this: https://futureofbiz.org/2012/07/23/5-stories-that-make-me-worry-about-whether-the-future-has-jobs/

2. How do we foster innovative, risk-taking culture when health benefits remain tied mainly to jobs? (Listen up, both GOP and Dems; the contrast with Europe is remarkable; in the world’s other main market employment is essentially irrelevant for healthcare.)

3. How do we prepare our kids for an environment in which they will have multiple jobs several careers, but in which far more will depend on their initiative at every point? On their taking responsibility. On their “de-schooling” themselves. (Kids are more cossetted and green-housed than ever before; the worst possible preparation. And this question is not about schools.)

4. How do we re-engineer our public schools to lead the world again? The STEM mantra (science, tech, engineering, math) is exactly that. A mantra. Even if we revolutionize our public schools (ha!) it will take half a generation to make a difference. How do we build a techno-literate culture, at all levels?

5. And the fate of the essentially uneducated? Aside from the millions of poorly-educated and/or poorly-gifted kids, we have a massive underclass who are hard to employ now and are fast becoming impossible ever to employ. Is this the hardest question?

There are answers, in part and pro tem; but unless these are the questions there will never be sufficient focus on those answers to drive home the changes they require.

On the Death of the Man on the Moon

Flag of the United States on American astronau...

Neil Armstrong (Photo: Wikipedia)

An odd thing on a Saturday evening to discover on Twitter that the most interesting man in the world has died. And to recall that he had shared my birthday, August 5. There’s a curious boding in birthdays.

I had met him. Met him at an embassy in Washington, DC, where despite the fact he was guest of honor there seemed much more interest in the cocktails than in shaking his hand. So I shook it. And we talked. About the moon, about the occasion, and about C-PET. And our shared birthday.

A man as modest as Steve Jobs, that other defining figure of our technological age, was self-absorbed. A man whose anguish as 43 years were spent by this allegedly visionary nation in failing to build on what he had signally achieved was kept almost entirely quiet (the Obama administration’s space strategy emerging in 2010 finally drew him and his fellow astronauts into polite regret). The first earth-man to set foot on another body in space; who for all we know was the first sentient being ever to do that in the vast expanses of the cosmos. (And before you start poo-pooing and raving about extra-terrestrials, go think for more than 5 minutes about the Fermi Paradox.)

The comparison with Steve Jobs is illuminating in so many ways. I don’t know whether they ever met. It would have been a fascinating encounter. The visionary of the miniature in conversation with the epitome of the astronomic. Together, these two dead engineers define an era, itself the platform that lays claim to the future, a future in which the exponential explosion of digital technology has enabled us to leverage our human engineering capacities beyond all prediction – and which has engaged them to serve ends that history will surely see as equally cool and equally trivial.

It’s Peter Thiel, whom I greatly admire even though I don’t share all of his analysis, who quips that we wanted flying cars and got 140 characters. Had his target been Facebook, on whose board he sits, rather than Twitter, it would have been easier to cry Huzzah! But his point is fundamentally sound. When I was a kid (and, by the way, ran the astronomy club at my English boys’ school), the coolest of all kids wanted to be astronauts. Raise the question now and you are likely to get a yawn, or worse. Anyone who’s into engineering wants to work in the Solar System that for so long circled around Steve Jobs. Micro has displaced macro; the human imagination has become absorbed with digitally-enabled human interaction, so “the social network” seeks, allegedly altruistically though undeniably IPO-ly, to connect all 7 billion of us so we can share our kids’ (and kittens’) pics. This cosmic narcissism stands in so great contrast to the vision of cosmic Columbuses and Vasco de Gamas as to be hard to grasp by those who love children (and kittens) and yet stare at the night sky and lust after both knowledge and presence.

Andrew Keen’s brilliant and non-naive critique of naive digital culture, Digital Vertigo, has forcibly reminded us of the flawed genius of utilitarianism. If what truly matters is for us to be happy, if the summum bonum of Homo sapiens lies not in the beatific vision and the cultural mandate (and if, dear secular thinker, you don’t know what they mean, o boy, you should), or even a post-theistic re-statement of them both, but in a mirror and a merely social network, then who can challenge the Lotos-eaters or their chip-popping couch potato cognates, for whom the good life is merely the life at ease?

This same week, Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of The Murdoch, turned her family’s business debacle into an exercise in education – in her Edinburgh lecture which the establishment of my former nation regards as the year’s top occasion for media discourse. What is the point of profit, she asked? It needs to have a point. The transcendence milled into human nature, whether or not understood within the Judeo-Christian frame – which set the stage for science as well as democracy (yes, through the proud Enlightenment) – demands always something beyond itself. Else why for modest rewards and ambiguous esteem have so many of our countrymen and women lost limbs and lives in jungles and deserts and mountains far from our alabaster cities? Humans constantly grasp after reductionism, with happiness as its goal and no judgment as to means; at the same time as their striving for what lies beyond becomes frenetic.

And yet, three short years after Armstrong set his feet upon that other cosmic body, we lost interest. Budgets, priorities. And we had knocked the Soviets into a cocked hat. And space costs moolah and does not win elections.

This modest engineer became a Right Stuff pilot and the first walker on another world. 43 long years later we are ambling back into the game. There’s time to make up. Perhaps, with SpaceX and others, we can.

It’s hard to see what sense America makes without a sustained engagement in the future. JFK’s moon commitment and its follow-through across a decade of leaders offer a benchmark of national capability and trans-party vision.

And that takes us back, of course, to the 19th century, where most of what needs to be said was said. And Tennyson’s Ulysses, penned in 1842, the closing lines:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
  We are not now that strength which in old days
  Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
  One equal temper of heroic hearts,
  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Ulysses, aged now, sets out on another voyage. It was of course Tennyson who had written 10 years before of the Lotos-Eaters. There really are only two courses. In 1832, and 1842, he laid them bare.

Oh yes, and Tennyson was born on August 6. Close.

Farewell, man on the moon.


NASA and the Wrong Stuff:


On the Death of Steve Jobs:


Neil Armstrong, First Man on Moon, Dies at 82 – NYTimes.com.