Josh Bolinger onThe End of Big Ideas?
Has America lost its ambition for big ideas?
Sometimes it seems like we have. I think of massive accomplishments like the mission to the moon, the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, and it seems like in our society today, you couldn’t even get ideas like this off the drawing board, let alone accomplished, especially not in the relatively short time frames that took these projects from idea to functionality. And these were all projects that were begun with a specific goal in mind, specific outcomes to be accomplished.
The idea of pure research is almost dead in America today. The people who, at the turn of the 20th century, developed electron theory in laboratories all over the western world, had no idea of mobile telephones, flatscreen TVs, the internet, or personal computing. They were simply out to discover, and they changed our world. They knew they were on to something big, something important, but if you had sat any of them down and asked for a cost-benefit presentation to justify their work, I think they would have been hard-pressed to tell a modern, corporate board of directors how an electron was going to improve their stock options.
In so many places, I see a looting culture – rather than a culture of investment – prevalent in our society. Companies are run on a quarter-to-quarter basis. Short-term strategies for the quickest profit and the biggest bonuses are the way business is done, with very little investment in long-term innovation and real value creation. We’ve become a society of widgets. Small ideas, over-thought and brought to market through a sea of red tape, produced in the cheapest possible way, and priced to the absolute maximum the market will bear.
Even in science, with research grants, the idea of pure research, discovery for its own sake, is dismissed contemptuously, and voices in our government push daily for a grant process that judges research spending from day one with the question, “will this turn a profit?” I doubt anyone would question the value of electricity, but if Benjamin Franklin had to go through a modern approval process, he would still be arguing design specs and cost estimates for his kite.
The science-fiction humorist Douglas Adams once portrayed a shipload of castaways from a modern world stranded on a primitive planet. Having decided that in order to rebuild society, they would need to invent fire, they then proceeded to assemble a marketing team to do research on what people wanted from fire. “How do people want to interact with fire,” they asked. “What color should it be?”
If America wants to continue as a great nation, as a world leader in innovation and discovery, we as a people are going to have to get back to thinking big. Widgets are nice, but so is a space program. Viagra is nice, too. Just maybe not as nice as wiping out polio.