Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Too many grasshoppers, too few ants

Posted by metaphorical on 24 December 2006

There’s a nice WSJ article (sub req’d) remembering C. Peter McColough (1922-2006): “Former Xerox CEO Funded Fabled PARC but Failed To Harvest Innovations While He Focused on the Bottom Line, Researchers Departed With Ideas To Build Modern Computing.”

That sums up a pretty large problem these days. No one is investing in the long term future in the United States. By contrast, China is putting money into solar energy, which won’t be cost-effective for another 20 years. It’s investing in green buildings technologies, mass transit systems, and hydro power, which, though it wipes out entire valleys, produces no greenhouse gases.

China has no problem taking the long perspective. It seems to be something that’s just built into its culture. I’m sure its heart was broken when it gave the British a 99-year lease on Hong Kong, but while the west was chortling, “99 years! That’s forever!” the humiliated Chinese leadership was probably saying, “but it’s only for 99 years.”

U.S. culture has impatience baked into its genes. That’s a generally useful perspective, in business at least, but not always. To return to McColough for a moment:

The reasons for Xerox’s inability to take advantage of its own inventions are debated in business schools to this day. Jacob Goldman, Xerox’s chief scientist at the time who founded PARC, blames short-sighted managers unwilling to take chances on small-scale, unproven technologies. “They managed the company quarter to quarter and looked at the bottom line,” Mr. Goldman says. “They weren’t thinking about the future really.”

If business was like that in the 1970s, it’s only more so today. Back then, we at least had Bell Labs and IBM’s vast network of research labs, one of which would create the modern PC as an obscure Florida skunkworks project. If business isn’t going to do fundamental research anymore, that’s okay, or sort of okay, so long as someone does. We have university research. Often it works well, especially in medicine and biotechnologies, but the disconnect between R and D in many other cases is enormous. Moreover, in a dozen ways, the U.S. is slowly surrendering its global academic hegenomy.

At some point, government has to step into the breach. The U.S. Department of Defense created the networking technologies that begat the Internet, and it looks like it’s doing it again with research on software-defined radio. We need more of that.

In fact, a case could be made that government needs to be far more activist in general with respect to business. If impatience is an essential part of our culture, so are friction, controversy, and compromise. The essence of our democracy is the separation of powers that lets legislators tell the executive what it has to do, and the judiciary telling each what they may and may not do. Let’s hope that having a Republican executive and a Democratic Congress will produce some of the same excellent compromises it did during the Nixon administration. In the arts we call that dramatic tension, and it’s needed in business as much as it is in government or a good screenplay.

When government forces business to do the right thing, that’s a solution, not a problem, whether it’s the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act of of 35 years ago, the CAFE mileage requirements, or energy-efficient appliances standards. Or Kyoto. There needs to be creative tension between government and business that forces business to act in ways that are productive even after the next quarterly dividend. Sure, government will make mistakes along the way. A national speed limit of 55 mph comes to mind.

Yet when you hear that “the business of government is business,” know that the next sound will be the U.S. economy shattering into a thousand pieces. It happened in 1929 and it happened in 2001. When we hear people say, “Government is hostile to business,” we can’t think of that as necessarily a bad thing.

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