The (Re-)Privatization of Big Dreams

May 27, 2013

The 20th Century had some really big ideas, not all good. Genetics. Nuclear Power. Computers. Nuclear Weapons. Socialism. Fascism. Nazism. Keynesian Economics. The Internet. Relativity. Space Exploration. Quantum Mechanics. The Automobile. Suburbia. Widespread college education. Many others. That’s a lot of ideas.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the 20th century is that many of these big ideas were all State Sponsored. All of the failed social experiments in Europe were, by their nature, performed on the level of large governments, and America’s adventures in suburbia with the automobile came directly from the creation of the highway system, along with other government advocates like Robert Moses. US colleges grew popular out of the Morrill land-grant acts of the late 19th century. The more scientific experiments of the 20th century seem to fall into two groups: theoretical and experimental. The theoretical ideas, like relativity and quantum mechanics, required relatively little in resources (beyond an abundance of genius). On the other hand, space exploration, nuclear science, the computer and the Internet all required direct funding from big governments.

Not that there was ever central planning or foresight on how big these ideas might be. The computer (specifically the Von Neumann architecture) was a tangential outgrowth of the Manhattan project to do more nuclear calculations more quickly. And the entire occupation of NASA for twenty years was to essentially prove our superiority over the USSR; getting to the moon was just the vehicle to accomplish this in the eyes of the public.

The longer term historical model for this is called patronage. Rich or powerful patrons would historically fund scientists or artists to come up with amazing works (or works of art), usually with the intended side effect of displaying the patron’s level of awesome. We think of patronage as private funding. While many patrons also had public or royal offices, the funding of science or art was decidedly private in modern terms (with a few exceptions). Certainly none of the normal citizens had any say in how funds were distributed.

Only in the 20th century has this model been diverted into something that governments fund. I’m not sure why or how this happened. I think it might have been a bit of a historical accident; a coincidental era when strong feelings of nationalism tied in with potentially large projects requiring massive investments. It’s hard to see a 1960’s era private venture to the moon, or a private group being able to come up with the atomic bomb.

The pace of technological discovery and advancement has grown rapidly in the last hundred years. In the last twenty years, it’s accelerated even more. Most astoundingly, many of these new advances are applicable to a huge percentage of humanity on a daily basis. Most of use now carry around a handheld device far more elegant and useful than anything even conceivable twenty years ago. Lieutenant Data had a tricorder, but I’ll take an iPhone over that piece of junk any day.

The scale of big ideas in the last one hundred years was new to the world. To react to this scale, governments were required for funding. But now the scale is changing again. The big innovators of the 21st century have been companies like Google or Apple. And looking forward, the switch will be even more obvious. Small, agile companies will be doing more with less. 3D printing will change manufacturing. Energy production will become more and more distributed. Google, not the US government, is tackling the problem of the driverless car. Even large projects like space travel are moving towards private ventures like SpaceX or Planetary Resources.

When Neil Degrasse Tyson addressed congress to ask for more funding to NASA, he began his testimony with this Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” NASA used to work like that. So did Lockheed Skunkworks, or the Manhattan Project, or GM in promoting the freedom of the highway system, or the Socialists. NASA doesn’t do that for this generation. But Elon Musk does.

Nations seem to rise and fall on a 100-150 year cycle. The UK was the last great power before the US, and now the US is waning very slowly. And Tyson hit on why exactly. We are uninspired. Auden’s verse from The Fall of Rome is how we think of our governments today:

Caesar’s double-bed is warm As an unimportant clerk Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK On a pink official form.

The difference today, in this connected world, is the opportunity to break the oligarchic cycle of empires and provide a far more widespread thread of inspiration. If we can successfully divorce big government from big ideas, the next patrons will be private citizens rather than public States and will work and pay for projects to help the entire world.

When I read the last stanza of Auden’s poem, I think immediately of the rising states of China, India, or Brazil. But I hope for economies instead of States.

The Fall of Rome

The piers are pummelled by the waves; In a lonely field the rain Lashes an abandoned train; Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns; Agents of the Fisc pursue Absconding tax-defaulters through The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send The temple prostitutes to sleep; All the literati keep An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may Extol the Ancient Disciplines, But the muscle-bound Marines Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm As an unimportant clerk Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity, Little birds with scarlet legs, Sitting on their speckled eggs, Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast Herds of reindeer move across Miles and miles of golden moss, Silently and very fast.

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