For the Week of October 23, 2006
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a conference called Accelerating Change, at Stanford University.
I offered a talk on The World of Always On. Use the wireless router as a platform for applications which live in the air, I said. Sensors and motes can measure the condition of your heart and blood, can measure the condition of your lawn, can monitor your perimeter, can find your stuff. A PC board can calculate when alerts must be sounded, or can respond to your verbal commands. This can let millions age in place safely.
Nothing happened. I'm not a programmer. I'm not an entrepreneur. I'm a journalist. I was speaking of what I expected to see, it was pure advocacy. I had no power to make it so.
But I was right about the trend. The World of Always-On is starting to happen. In China.
It was the failure of Always-On to happen here which led to my current obsession with politics. What I have been looking for are policies that will accelerate change. In normal times, throughout the 20th century, America had the very best environment for accelerating change. We had the schools, we had the laws, we had the freedom to fail. Something, I concluded, had gone horribly wrong.
What was wrong will, unless the next election is stolen outright, be put right. (If it is stolen, I can't vouch for any outcome.) It will be put right slowly, but it will be put right. Because businesspeople, regardless of party, aren't stupid. And businesspeople (as opposed to the bureaucrats who run our largest corporations) run America. Always have.
We will get copyright and patent reform, albeit slowly. We will get more freedom to invent, and more incentives to bring inventions to the market.
So how then do we accelerate change? How do we take advantage of this re-awakening?
We do it by making change a priority. Not just a political priority, but a business priority, an academic priority, a media priority.
In the early years of the 20th century, in the 1930s, and in the 1960s (all described as times of Crisis in my work on political history), we did precisely this. We made heroes of our inventors – Thomas Edison, Howard Hughes, the Apollo project. We made celebrities of them. We need to do that again. And we will.
The way we do that is by setting big goals in front of people, and bringing the media fuss to those who offer solutions. There will be some wrong turns, some bogus solutions. But rapid progress will result.
The problem with merely "letting business decide" is that business follows demand. By its nature it can't lead. Absent pressure to change, it will consolidate and atrophy. We need to create demand, to focus demand, to make demands. Do that and business will change.
There are many ways in which we can do this. We can do this through the political process, as was done in the 1960s with Apollo. We can do this through a media process, as we did in the 1930s with aeronautics. We can do this through an educational process, as we did in the early 1900s with cars and planes and electrical appliances.
In going through the effects of my ancestors, who lived through those times, what I'm most struck by is their careful attention to technology. We can be that way again. Despite my lack of a technical education, I have tried to be that way in my work. We all need to be that way.
There are enormous challenges facing us, starting with the task of trying to save what we can of this planet and its ecosystem from the "progress" of the past. The only way forward is forward, through technology, through the process of accelerating change.
I promise to devote the rest of my life to that search, and I hope you will do the same.
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