27 January 2011

The Problem with a "Sputnik Moment"

In the State of the Union address earlier this week President Obama invoked the notion of a "our generation's Sputnik moment."  I don't think that the symbolism works for several reasons.

First, Sputinik was a thing, a technology, that everyone could see as a tiny dot of light zipping across the sky at night. One day it did not exist and the next day it did. It did not take a great imagination to imagine that dot of light falling to Earth with a nuclear warhead attached. Sputnik was tangible, a discrete event that embodied both the symbolic and real fears of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was indeed a unique moment that transformed U.S. politics in an instant.

Today's "moment" just doesn't compare for at least several reasons. First, there is no single thing out there, no technology that we can all see, fear and develop a shared understanding about. The technologies of everyday life are not, for the most part, threats, but rather the source of information, freedom, jobs, health and other good things. When an American charges his smart phone, I seriously doubt that he worries about whether the power source is built with technologies that may originate overseas. Second, a single enemy that threatened apocalyptic annihilation would tend to focus the mind. Today it is not even clear what the nature of our competition is with other countries, as we are bound together in a globalized world. Trade imbalances, patent applications and technology transfer hardly have the same mind-focusing quality as a nuclear war.

But these are fairly wonky criticisms.  At the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri, writing from the perspective of the Millennial generation offers a more fundamental and irreverent critique:
As far as I can understand it, [Sputnik] seems to have been something that Soviet Russia launched into space.

Apparently, thanks to the impetus that Sputnik gave us the last time, an entire generation of Americans committed to developing expertise in engineering, math, science, and technology that would enable us to convincingly fake a moon landing on a soundstage somewhere in 1969. This gave added emphasis to the Cold War. Given my advanced youth, I also missed the Cold War. I am accustomed to wars that are hot and distant, like certain men.

To people like me, the idea that there was ever just one team lined up across the field from us is a novel one. But this was the condition of Sputnik. Lyndon B. Johnson aide George Reedy exclaimed: "It really doesn't matter whether the satellite has any military value. The important thing is that the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the universe has started."

So I couldn't help wondering: Could we ever have a Sputnik moment?

Frontiers? We live on them. In 1969, things were still analog. You didn't have to discard your devices after a few months because Steve Jobs had decided that light purple was the new purple. Now, if something is lasting, we look down on it. "The only thing that lasts these days are dead armadillos and those seasonal breads in the glass case at Starbucks," we point out. Ephemeral is the new permanent. We have the collective memory -- and persistent desire to mate with anything in sight -- of Viagra-addled mayflies.

This comes with many boons. Thanks to our insistence on living on the bubble of the present moment, our world is rife with unnatural wonders - iPhones, iPads, Clouds, memes, videos of cats in Japan stuffing themselves into boxes. When I have a sore throat, I can go online and describe my symptoms, and strangers from across the globe (or the part of the globe that follows me on Twitter, at any rate) can suggest that I drink blueberry syrup and hot toddies! This is the stuff!

Everyone admits that the world has shrunk. But this shrinkage has also closed the window for Sputnik moments.
She concludes:
But -- especially in the very fields President Obama was urging us to become competitive -- there isn't the same U. S. versus them imperative. Scientists across the world share resources, data, and equipment - applying to spend nights gathering data through radio telescopes in South America, or posting their findings online. They float together in the bowels of the International Space Station -- then post updates on Twitter. Our scientists don't innovate because "the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the Universe has started." They innovate because our species is racing, in unison, to be faster, better, more efficient, and maybe someday it will slip the bonds of the solar system.
From a policy perspective, with its renewed focus on innovation the Obama Administration is certainly moving in an effective direction.  However, it needs to apply a bit of innovation to the narrative that it is using to characterize what it is up to -- a "Sputnik moment" isn't it.


  1. There also seems to be a fixation with fast trains like China's. I've been to Shanghai- very few people use it. Its too hard to get to, too expensive, and when all is said and done doesn't really save any time. But it is shiny and looks cool -seems reason enough to spend billions.

  2. Pat, think again about fast trains. I have used them in France and Spain, and they do work. One of the big pluses is taking them at a station in the middle of a town and arriving at another station in the middle of another town: all told, faster than going to the airport to take a flight (plus going to town from the airport). In Japan they provide mass commuting and most people use them (though the trains use to be insanely crowded).

  3. Trains and Japan and Europe work because they have extensive local train networks that feed into the high speed lines.

    If Obama gets his way with his train boodoggle the US will have a high speed system that forces most people to drive to stations and pay for parking. They will then need to rent a car at their destination.

    This will undermine the economics and keep people going to the airports for longer trips and driving themselves for shorter trips.

  4. I've always wondered why American cities do not have local train networks like in Europe. Perhaps the Obama fast trains would spur investment in those small networks as a secondary effect. Possibly not a bad thing in terms of lower gasoline use and lower highway traffic (to the benefit of those choosing to drive).

  5. Hector M. said... 4

    "I've always wondered why American cities do not have local train networks like in Europe"

    Population density.

    Europe has 18 cities with more then 1 million population. The US has 9 cities with more then 1 million.

    The distance between the two largest cities in the US, New York and LA is 2400 miles. The distance between the two largest cities in Europe, London and Berlin is 600 miles.

    There is also history
    Europe had 10 cities with a population of 1 million in 1900.

    The US only had 3 cities with a population of 1 million in 1900. New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

    New York and Chicago have reasonable mass transit systems. I've never been to Philadelphia so I can't say.

  6. Philadelphia has a pretty good light rail system, although maybe I'm biased because my daughter, who lives in a suburb of Philly, is within easy walking distance of a train station that will get you into the center of the city a lot faster and with less hassle than a car.

    Of course then again, the last time we went to a Phillies game, we drove because the time before when we went by train, the train to get home was more than an hour late.

  7. Does she really mean this:....Americans committed to developing expertise in engineering, math, science, and technology that would enable us to convincingly "fake" a moon landing on a soundstage somewhere in 1969.

  8. I was ten at the Sputnik moment and remember it well. American was well on its way towards technology orientation. Since the end of WWII the communist threat seem to be growing everywhere. Eastern Europe, China, etc went communist. The USSR openly threatened western democracy. The soviets got the a A bomb and then the H bomb. Oh and by the way American education was falling behind. Sputnik was the final straw. I think todays threats pale by comparison. Instead of aspiring to go to the moon we are offered re launching 19th century technology the trains.

  9. I love Steven Johnson's account of how the idea of what came to be known as GPS was essentially started by some guys at the Applied Physics Lab at John Hopkins having coffee and chatting about how the soviets had just launched sputnik.

    Haven't read his book yet, but his TED talk was good: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from.html

  10. Hector-- Europe uses its rail for passengers while we use most of our capacity for freight. Freight is a much better use for rail.

  11. It is funny that countries were self-immolating themselves with imaginations of 'communism' and this was percieved as a threat, in the US.

  12. You could not see Sputnik without a pretty good telescope, you could see Echo (ask your dad maybe) a very clever propaganda satellite the US put up.

    In any case the major effects of Sputnik in the US were a huge push in education support and missile development and the election of JFK. The secondary effect was development of microelectronics because the US did not have the lift capacity of the Russians.