of “moonshots” over a far less-inspiring
reality. You have probably heard the
comment, “we were promised flying
cars, but we got 140 characters” (a dismissive reference to Twitter). That is
true, but let’s not forget that anyone old
enough to have been promised a flying
car, back in the 1950s when Ford promoted the idea heavily, was also promised a moon rocket by Disney. They got
one too, but only because they were collectively willing to pay for it.
Many people now believe the moonshots were faked. Manned lunar flight
remains prohibitively challenging
today. Was it really achieved 50 years
ago, before microprocessors and Twitter were invented? Yes, but if you hope
to live to see anything as intoxicatingly
implausible as a moon landing was
in 1969, perhaps something to address the challenge posed by climate
change, you will have to pay for it too.
Otherwise—and I’m looking at you
Google—please show some respect for
the inspiringly unprofitable lunacy of
the real moonshot by finding a different name for whatever Astro Teller and
his colleagues are up to. “Research and
development” has a nice ring to it.
1. Bergen M. and Carr, A. Where in the world is Larry
Page? Bloomberg Businessweek, (Sept. 17, 2018).
2. Ceruzzi, P.E. A History of Modern Computing. MIT
Press, Cambridge, MA, 1998, 189.
3. Cowan, R.S. and Hersch, M.H. A Social History of
American Technology (2nd edition). Johns Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2017, 243.
4. Gordon, R.J. The Rise and Fall of American Growth:
The U. S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War.
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016.
5. Haigh, T. How data got its base: Information storage
software in the 1950s and 60s. IEEE Annals of the
History of Computing 31, 4 (Oct.–Dec. 2009), 6–25.
6. Hughes, T.P. Rescuing Prometheus. Pantheon Books,
New York, 1998.
7. Johnson, S.B. The Secret of Apollo: Systems
Management in American and European Space
Programs. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore,
8. Kahn, Jr., E.J. The Problem Solvers: A History of
Arthur D. Little, Inc. Boston, MA, 1986.
9. Kranz, E. Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from
Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster,
New York, 2009.
10. Turner, F. From Counterculture to Cyberculture:
Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise
of Digital Utopianism. University of Chicago Press,
Thomas Haigh ( Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org) is an
Associate Professor of History at the University of
Wisconsin—Milwaukee and Comenius Visiting Professor
for the History of Computing at Siegen University. Read
more at www.tomandmaria.com/tom.
Thanks to Paul Ceruzzi of the National Air and Space
Museum and Matthew Hersch of Harvard University
for checking the discussion of the Apollo program for
historical accuracy and making valuable suggestions.
Copyright held by author.
the recent corporate tax-cut bonanza
this is not a hypothetical question.
Rather than investing in new projects
they purchased their own stock, to return surplus money to shareholders.
In the first quarter of 2018, Alphabet
announced a $8 billion buyback. Cisco
spent $25 billion. Apple more recently
launched a $100 billion stock purchase program. Moves of this kind reflect a belief by management that they
have no untapped opportunities, including new product development, to
make better use of the money. (Thanks
in part to those same tax cuts, the U.S.
government deficit is expected to balloon to approximately $1 trillion dollars this year, forestalling any possibility of new public investment).
The Internet approach of scaling
up incrementally from a working prototype based on the needs of users has
beaten out the centrally planned, all-or-nothing moonshot approach. Investment funds flow to companies with already viable prototypes in hot fields, as
evidenced by the vivid but potentially
baffling news headline “Bird races to
become first scooter unicorn.”j (
Translation: urban scooter rental company
Bird was about to pin down a new round
of venture capital funding valuing it at
more than a billion dollars, making it
a “unicorn.”) Silicon Valley is trying to
stop us from noticing the difference between the Apollo program and scooter
unicorns by draping the heroic rhetoric
j The headline, originally attached to a story
posted by Bloomberg.com on May 29, 2018,
has since been replaced with the less-evocative
title “Sequoia Said to Value Scooter Company
Bird at $1 Billion.”
If you expect to live
to see anything
a moon landing
was in 1969,
you will have
to pay for it too.
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