Two major stories about technology struck me this week. Each was fascinating on its own, but I thought that pairing them was also interesting:
What does Perseverance landing on Mars, and the massive power failure in Texas, taken together, tell us about technology?
I don’t mean to offer this combination as a way of entirely describing technology in 2021. These are only two stories out of many. It’s an artificial pairing indeed, yet one that’s intended to be symbolic and provocative rather than realistically descriptive. The method on display here is not about achieving historical accuracy, but instead for stirring thought.
I’m basing it on work from my late friend Charles Cameron. He created what he called DoubleQuotes, unusual pairs of quotations that could provoke insights. Over time Charles extended the DoubleQuotes project, adding images to textual framings, extending the reach of each item, always as a tool for reflection and imagination. In that spirit I’d like to pair this week’s stories of NASA and ERCOT, a successful plummet through an alien world’s atmosphere and a catastrophic drop in domestic temperatures, a technological marvel and an industrial disaster, an inspiration and an embarrassment.
What do they tell us about technology in 2021, and what do they suggest about the future?
Consider the themes and ideas each involves. The Texas story includes, among other things: cascading failures across multiple sectors, from water supplies to agricultural production to silicon chip manufacture; the role of climate change; a (pretty dumb) debate about fossil fuel and post-carbon energy sources; state and interstate regulation; international tension; human suffering. On and around Mars we see: automation’s continued rise; multinational competition (China and the UAE also succeeded in getting probes to Mars this month); scientific exploration; human inspiration.
" all breakthrough and no followthrough"
— Anya Kamenetz (@anya1anya) February 19, 2021
On Patreon Anthony Helm agreed, observing that some of the economy is geared towards start-ups but not sustainability. Some firms burn through bright, younger workers. Brett Boessen offered a similar thought, citing a recent Zeynep Tufekci article about financial firms squeezing opportunities for fast, short-term gain.
On Facebook some friends (Tatiana Benet-Riley, Kim DeBacco, Doug Reilly) also agreed with Anya, seeing the Texas story as an example of how America doesn’t care much about infrastructure.
It's very Parable of the Sower…
— Masto: MattCropp@social.coop 🌲🌲 (@MattCropp) February 19, 2021
Christina Wehlburg urged us to separate technology from leadership:
The #TexasFreeze was less about technology failing and more about the inadequacy of those in charge to plan for it—and the fallout of this failure continues. (I’m on day 5 of no water from the tap)
— Dr. Catherine Wehlburg (@cwehlburg) February 19, 2021
Ellen Moody reacted with this observation:
Capitalism unchecked altogether now one of the most destructive forces on our planet, genuinely disinterested gov’t one of the best: witness also these vaccines for COVID19.
Andrew Peterson offered a related political thought:
…we have the knowledge and the resources to do amazing things. I think the problem is with the pace of the people in charge. with 4 year terms, you never get a chance (or super small window) to make the right choice, not just the popular one. No one will praise someone for investing 1 trillion in infrastructure, that might cost the ave family $25 a year…. but when something doesn’t fall down/break/fail, no one notices.
If that’s not enough to inspire you, let me add one more idea in the shape of a question. What does each story suggest about the other’s future?
That is, will America summon up the engineering brilliance and public funding of Perseverance and apply it to infrastructure upgrades, especially as climate change sets in? Turned the other way, will the United States continue to support Mars exploration, or will we back off from paying for the less flashy aspects?
Over to you. What do you make of this DoubleQuote?
This one’s for Charles Cameron. In memoriam.