Published on October 11th, 2010 | by Tom0
Why Can’t We Do Big Things Anymore?
Michael S. Malone and I wrote this for Forbes magazine.
The recent quick fade of the Deficit Commission was the latest reminder that America no longer seems to have the stomach for big challenges. There was a time – was it just a generation ago? – when Americans were legendary for doing vast, seemingly superhuman, projects: the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Missions, Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy invasion, the Empire State Building, Social Security.
What happened? Today we look at these achievements, much as Dark Age peasants looked on the mighty works of the Roman Era, feeling like some golden age has passed when giants walked the Earth. Even when we can still see the aged survivors of that era sunning themselves outside the local convalescent home – or sitting down with us for family holiday dinner – it’s hard not believe that there was once something larger-than-life about them that they failed to pass on to us. The ‘Greatest Generation’, and those before them back to the birth of this country, seemed to be able to do big things, and think big thoughts, in a way that is now beyond both our abilities and our desires.
We no longer build the world’s tallest buildings – other countries do. We no longer reaching towards the moon – other countries are. And when we do attempt something big – universal health care, alternative energy, improved educational standards, mass transportation – the initiative inevitably snarls up in bad planning, corruption, political pay-offs, lack of leadership, impracticality and just sheer incompetence. The comparatively tiny Lincoln Administration managed to win the Civil War, open up the Great Plains through the Homestead Act, and kick off construction of the transcontinental railroad…all in four years.
Why are things so different now? Why can’t we seem to do big things well anymore? We think there are a number of reasons, some consoling, others worrisome:
Big isn’t big anymore: Big has, in many cases, become Small: nanotechnology, microelectronics, human genome project, distributed networks, ‘smart’ objects – and there is a lot more reward these days in developing a smaller, more power-efficient microprocessor than in pouring a million yards of cement for new dam. So, perhaps much of our sense of failure in achievement is, in fact, merely a failure of perspective.
Collective individualism: Today’s technology, which allows us to connect and communicate directly with each other, makes us less inclined to centralizing themes and collective action. Our networked world gives equal voice to every person, while marginalizing intermediaries, including political parties . . .making it much harder to win policy consensus for really big problems. Worse, in a paradox of our times, the more connected we get the more divided we become. The most vocal, outraged group wins.
The Way of the Wiki: The most important organizational innovation of the last quarter century, and our new defining social metaphor, is ‘the cloud’. The Cloud is bigger than Big, but it is also amorphous and composed of millions of tiny, discrete elements. It is good in bursts, but weak in follow-through. In the wisdom of the cloud, there is an expert for everything. Hammers are always in search of nail – and so, armed with these new decentralized, horizontal, ‘Army of Davids’ we tend to attack problems (and sometimes create them) that respond to a ‘wiki’ strategy.
Been there, done that: Watching Malaysia, Hong Kong and Dubai compete to build the world’s tallest building can be both thrilling and depressing – i.e., cool constructions, but why isn’t the U.S. in this race? One answer is: we’ve already run that race, and won, several times, so why not move on to other challenges? Edifice construction seems to be a phase in the development of successful modern nations; ditto national transportation and communications infrastructures. We passed through that phase fifty years ago – and all that’s left now are occasional upgrades. On the other hand, you can’t help noticing that this type of epic construction is also synonymous with national ambition and confidence, two things that seem sorely missing in modern American life.
Analog is messy: You may not have noticed, but over the last half-century almost every successful U.S. industry has found away to climb aboard Moore’s Law of semiconductors and take advantage of its exponential growth curve. This has inevitably rewarded pure digital plays, such as the Internet, while only conferring partial advantages on physical – analog – industries, such as medicine, automobiles and construction. Big projects tend to be very physical activities . . .and our economy now directs smart players elsewhere to more immediate rewards.
Everybody’s a winner: The recruiting ad for the Pony Express said: “Orphans Preferred.” The ugly fact is that the building of America cost a lot of lives by putting men (and sometimes women) in dangerous, high-risk situations. We don’t seem to have the intestinal fortitude for that kind of sacrifice anymore – and even if we did, our robust system of torts laws would make it too expensive to pursue anyway. You probably can’t conquer outer space with a society that doesn’t keep score in youth soccer games, hands out participation trophies, and sues for every cut and bruise. After all, the virtual bullets in a Halo gunfight don’t hurt.
Big has gotten harder: Fusion power is infinitely more complicated than internal combustion, and a laptop computer inhabits a different universe from an adding machine. Almost everything big we attempt now is much, much more complex and expensive than anything our ancestors could have ever imagined. On the other hand, they probably said exactly the same thing . . .and then went ahead and built it anyway.
Nowism: Big projects require both patience and a belief in history. Our society appears to have neither. Instant downloads, endless channels and movies on demand have trained us to want exactly what we want, when we want it. All the forces that satisfy our consumer desires make us less able to invest in tough, unglamorous, inconvenient things – especially if they take time.
Put them all together and what can we learn about ourselves and our seemingly growing inability to do anything big and important?
First of all, we are doing big new things; they just aren’t like the big old things. The customer base of Facebook is now bigger than the populations of all but two countries in the world. We’ve mapped the entire human gene sequence. With a few keystrokes in a Google search we can now find almost any piece of information on the planet. We make microprocessors so small that their walls are bumpy with molecules and that can perform ten billion computations in a second.
That said, however, the world is still a material place – and it is with big physical projects that we seem to be slowly losing both our competence and our nerve. Part of this is due to the loss of intellectual capital as skilled veterans of past Big Projects fade away; part of it is a new economy that offers better incentives elsewhere; and part of it is a growing national aversion to physical risk, discomfort and deferred gratification. But most of all, it is the lack of the very confidence that once made America and its leaders willing (to quote one of those leaders) to damn the torpedoes and to charge into the future under full steam.
Sure the digital world is exciting, engaging and often quite rewarding. But someday a whole new set of roads and canals and bridges will need to be built – maybe on Mars, maybe on a ruined Earth. We just might want to start practicing for that day right now.