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.
I initially posted this pairing across social media and people responded with good thoughts. For example, NPR reporter and Future Trends Forum guest Anya Kamenetz tweeted:
" 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.
Back on Twitter, Matt Cropp found a science fiction parallel:
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.
I think this quote gets at the heart of the problem: “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.”
I don’t have time to find the citation, but some researchers recently published an article that found that politicians who spend big after a disaster get rewarded with more votes, but politicians who spend big on prevention and infrastructure prior to a disaster do not get rewarded. Which is not a surprise.
And that’s the conundrum: we cannot count on private firms and free markets to provide public infrastructure, public safety, public health, etc. But government has inherent weaknesses too; the incentives that politicians faces lead them to favor short-run electoral success over long-run efficiency and public welfare.
It’s a built-in incentive for underperformance that affects governments on both the Left and the Right. Voters in San Diego hate paying taxes so the city government kept public employees’ salaries low but compensated with generous pension packages. And one can imagine what happened a few decades later when those employees started retiring and now the city has to pay those pensions as well as the salaries of current employees. Oregon’s state government has done the same with state employees, with billions of dollars of unfunded pension obligations. New York City’s subway system has been under-financed and under-maintained for decades, with the bill now coming due. Etc. etc.
So what’s the solution? The best solution is probably unachievable in the short run: voters who are smart and wise enough to vote for far-seeing politicians who are attentive to these long-run issues. Oregon had a couple of governors, decades apart, who pretty much turned the entire coast into a state park; there are still towns and private land along the coast, but it’s limited. So instead of the coast being a haven for billionaires and gated communities, it’s largely undeveloped and accessible to the public. That took foresight, guts, and political skill to achieve. Plus voters who were willing to vote those governors into office. And I do not know how to create those sorts of voters, and to elect those sorts of political leaders.
Except through education, which is where I and a lot of your readers work. But is it working? The willingness of citizens to reject elections and take over the nation’s capital are not good signs.
Mars is in the hands of scientists; Texas is in the hands of Republicans.
Texas is also where spaceflight has a huge presence. Ditto Alabama. And Florida, mostly.
Space is weird, in terms of American partisan politics.
I’m shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Charles Cameron, whom I met in the 1990s through the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.
Here is an article of his that you may not know about.
Charles gave eclectic talks at CMS over the years, and I approached him about contributing a chapter to a book I was editing, but he turned me down. His unique perspective would have added to the project. Sad to learn about this.
Glen, I had no idea you knew Charles. What a network moment.
I don’t remember if I read that one on Di. I did talk with him about her.
A fine, unique human being.
Technology may be helpful but it is vastly overrated. It cannot save us unless technology is combined with values. Technology has been used for the good of humanity but it has also been used to destroy, oppress, and weaken.