Recently, a bright young colleague of mine alerted me to a meeting of the minds at a top technology institution. The event was to be a discussion of breakthrough research and innovative ideas that are flying under the radar. So I joined the online conference just in time to hear a web feed of CIA computer analyst turned whistleblower Edward Snowden giving a rather unremarkable account of the authoritarian state of things here in the land of the free.
It wasn’t that what he said wasn’t true. It was just that it has been true since the onset of the Cold War. In fact, for the most part, it’s true everywhere in the developed world. Given the omnipresent internet and that candy bar-sized supercomputer in your pocket that lets your service provider connect you to everyone and everything, you would have to be disarmingly naive to believe otherwise.
It is the old hub and spoke system run amuck. Forget Big Brother. Your credit card company, cyber crooks and a whole host of peddlers and illusionists know exactly where you are and what you are doing. It sucks, but it’s the bargain you made to participate in the complexity of the modern world. And our legal system and law enforcement agencies lack the resources and capabilities to untangle this all-encompassing web.
At this conference, I watched a host of brilliant and brave young speakers present dazzling solutions for circumnavigating the stultifying and oppressive tactics of large scale institutions: governments, corporations and ideologically-based organizations. And yes, even universities. There is real irony in the fact that the very institutions that brought my generation together are now the ones keeping us apart.
But what I found alarming was the conspicuous absence of the idea of progress in the presentations. The conference seemed to be only focused on making things not happen. It was all about fighting pervasive surveillance, intellectual property laws and the incestuous relationship between corporate and military interests and the media.
Perhaps I missed the point of this forum. Maybe it was just a gathering to socialize a litany of complaints against powerful forces, or something darker, such as a global conspiracy. Either way, this was a reactionary response to reactionary forces. If this conference was any indication, the greater conversation has shifted from a way to move forward together to a way to move apart from each other. It locks us in the static state of the present. Each playing defense to the other’s offense.
For good or evil, large scale innovations can create a shared sense of destiny in communities and cultures: massive civil engineering projects, fashions -- like the shoes and haircut stylings of rock-n-roll -- and impossible moon launches. Railing against the machine with no substitute for the common cause inadvertently replaces the collective “us” with the triumphant “me.” While they desire different ends, the means by which they pursue them are the same for both the righteous revolutionaries and the stalwart incumbents.
Where is today’s sense of destiny? What is the moon launch for this new generation of brilliant and capable young people?
We could fix the environment we wrecked. Cure the big diseases we couldn’t. Make education equitable and affordable in ways we didn’t. While the days of epic innovations may be best left in the past, it will take more than tiny houses, smaller cars and little grievances to create what must be created now.
Sometimes the best way to fight the Man is simply to ignore him altogether and move on to something better and new. Innovation is the only way forward.
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.