The November/December 2012 issue of MIT Technology Review ran the cover on the right, showing a distinctly unhappy Buzz Aldrin. He appears on the left, photographed by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 lunar landing. This issue of TechRev tackled the issue of Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems. The implication is, of course, that we are no longer able to undertake large projects and long-range planning. This is particularly disturbing in light of the civilizational challenges of resource depletion and climate change that we will have to contend with this century.
A related issue is that technological advances are notoriously hard to predict. Scientific American columnist David Pogue noted a year ago that “The Future Is For Fools.” He gave some noteworthy examples of hilariously wrong predictions about technology, like one of the Warner Brothers exclaiming in 1927, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Pogue concludes by quoting Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Perhaps. Still, it’s worth remembering that from the standpoint of 1969, it seemed far more likely that we would have Mars colonies (or at least a permanent lunar outpost) than handheld devices capable of retrieving any piece of information or communicating instantly with anyone else. In 1969, after all, computers filled up large rooms, were staffed by teams of programmers, and were symbols of conformity and centralized control.
The difference is a matter of scale and direction. The Internet and mobile phone revolution occurred in a decentralized way, with individual tinkerers, programmers, and firms pursuing innovations they thought were interesting and/or profitable. The space program was a huge, centralized marshaling of resources over a long period to accomplish a fairly useless goal–to land a dozen men on the moon for a couple days. As inspiring as Apollo was, it didn’t make anyone’s life better in the long run.
This returns us to the question of solving big problems. Although we got Facebook and not Mars colonies, it’s pretty clear that the Internet is a pretty useful technology. Try imagining life without it. Ditto cellphones. I think the Buzz Aldrin of 1969 would be impressed with the Internet and mobile phones.