This interview with Valley pundit and academic Steve Blank, published on Friday in The Atlantic, made for depressing reading, as did a guest post I read on TechCrunch last night. The takeaway from both is that social media is now where the money is in San Francisco, so Silicon Valley has stopped investing and innovating in traditional technology – i.e., in silicon – and is instead almost exclusively preoccupied with the internet.
Not just the internet, mind. But the same inane kind of social software platform that represents little more than obscenely sticky advertising delivery networks, constructed on a bedrock of exploitation, manipulation and coercion. This is what I was getting at last week when I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg is on course to be the new Rupert Murdoch: Facebook.com is the new FOX News.
If you look at the most successful companies emerging from California, and at where the money is being invested and made, you see that the innovative landscape in Silicon Valley is depressingly barren. There’s really only one company in that neck of the woods doing interesting things with hardware, but, even then, such innovations as they are fêted for have more to do with marketing and cynically seductive design than advancing human civilisation.
In fact, if you cast your eye over the appliances in your apartment, at the cars in the street outside, at your office building or at the railways or even at aeroplanes above your head, you’ll realise that very little has been accomplished in the last twenty-five years by the technology industry that has an impact on our lives not reducible to the delivery of advertising or some minor adjustment to the world wide web.
It is as if we have forgotten what technology was supposed to be for. Thus the greatest engineering minds alive today aren’t making inroads into space travel or medicinal research – though some of those things are going on – but rather into manipulating the addictions and desires of ordinary people in order to sell them things they do not want. In such high regard do we now hold the web that the syphilitic zombie industry of internet venture capital is now being propped up with public money.
NASA’s budget as a percentage of Federal spending has always been preposterously low. Currently, it languishes just above 0.5 per cent, as President Obama prioritises socialist healthcare programming over scientific progress. Worse, what’s left of the organisation that first put a man on the moon has been tainted by climate change alarmists and hysterical computer modellers intent on terrifying us all about the threat of “runaway global climate chaos”.
Much the same has happened to the UK’s Met Office, which has rebranded itself a “weather and climate change” outfit. One would have imagined that an organisation mostly famous for its hilariously inaccurate meteorological predictions might have been better advised to double down on weather and not wade in to the latest trendy political fad, but no.
In other words, in recent decades, technology has become both trivialised and absurdly politicised, to its detriment and to all our shame.
Predictions about future technological progress that look preposterous to us now, such as those in the Back To The Future movies or Tomorrow’s World, need not have become as comical as they have done. One engineer has estimated that, with today’s technology, a version of the USS Enterprise could be built within twenty years. But to find the political will to embark on even modest advances of this apparently futuristic nature, we have to travel some time into the past.
We have to travel, for example, back to Nazi Germany, where, during World War II, German scientists created a working jet pack called the Himmelstürmer for use on the battlefield. And it is back in those halcyon days of technological progress that we discover the reason why innovation in technology has stagnated.
Almost all significant technological advance stems either from war or from sex – from fornicating or from fighting. Consider almost any object in the home, office or wider world that has produced a truly transformative effect on the way we live and you will discover that its core components are derived either from advances made in military technology or innovation that can be traced to pornographic content.
We will not dwell too long on pornography, save to say that content processing, delivery and formats have been dictated by the needs of the porn industry, which continues to lead the charge in content production and monetisation. The Betamax-VHS war is the best known example of this, but technologists can point to a hundred other examples where porn studios have led the way.
Years, perhaps decades, before recording studios realised that record sale revenues would be supplanted by “live experiences”, the pornography industry was experimenting with giving away its digital content in the hope that punters would fork out for non-replicable experiences in the real world. They look like oracles now: one record executive I spoke to recently recalled a meeting in which he pleaded with his colleages to “look at what the smut barons are doing and copy, copy copy”.
Let’s set pornography aside, because it isn’t just business models. Military technology is present in almost every household appliance, every car – in fact, every vehicle of any kind – every computer, microwave oven, refrigerator and lightbulb. And yet: where have the great advances been in the last twenty years? How have the lives of average housewives been revolutionised as they were in the 1950s and 1960s?
More to the point, where is my jet pack? My hover car? My camouflage car chassis? Because this technology already exists today. Why haven’t such technologies, which have in some cases existed for decades already, been productised and commercialised? The science is out there, but the commercial will and bravery from investors to transform scientific breakthroughs into marketable products seems entirely absent.
Even those breakthroughs of which we ought to be proud come to ignoble ends. The fastest commercial aeroplane ever built now languishes, humiliated, in half a dozen aircraft hangers in the US and Europe. Fighter jets packed with bleeding-edge technology are being cancelled all over the world. The trickle-down effect of military innovation has stopped.
This, not to put too fine a point on it, is why we need a good world war. Without it, the internet industry, which enjoys hubristically calling itself the “technology” industry in apparent ignorance of the great discoveries that are happening in the best universities in Europe, America and China, will solidify its undeserved position as the place progress is being made.
Great conflict breeds great innovation, and that innovation filters down into every home, school and hospital. Advances are made by military and university scientists that come to profoundly improve the quality of our lives and bring colossal efficiencies to mundane activities.
The skirmishes in the Middle East are evidently insufficient. To puncture the egos of Silicon Valley sociopaths who flatter themselves to imagine they are refashioning the world with every fresh batch of sharing tools, badges and user interface improvements, and for the sake of general human progress, someone needs to invade someone, pronto. Because I don’t know about you, but I am getting utterly sick of every new geolocated food app being heralded as the Second Coming.
I want my jet pack.