Elon Musk’s blowpipe and the future of these United States
August 13, 2013
I’ve long been of the opinion that the 20th century has been generally one gargantuan, bloody distraction in the history of the planet. The 18th and 19th laid the bases for the 21st. And here’s another example. The technology that Elon Musk, America’s Innovation Laureate, is proposing for his elevated high-high-speed trains is essentially the same as that which delivered bleus (telegrams) to fashionable districts of Paris in the 19th century (something I remember learning from Proust). That same technology charmingly connected every sales desk with the “counting house” of the most fashionable store in my boyhood Edinburgh – and, more prosaically, does the job today in America’s drive-through banks.
I have yet to meet Mr. Musk; what fascinates about him is his interest in the side of innovation abandoned by those who have retreated from the macro to the micro. Engineering for the wide world not the world wide web of cat pics. As readers of these newsletters know, I am not without digital enthusiasm, and have embraced social media, which is slowly gaining traction and in due time will effect vast shifts in the non-digital world of corporations and governments. That’s why I spend time on Twitter (@nigelcameron), and have blogged about this technology’s role in driving and enabling innovative disruption throughout the economy and our social and cultural life. But. The Musk genius is giving us rockets and electric cars and now, it would seem, the second millennium equivalent of a blowpipe. (Better name, if I may propose it, than Hyperloop.)
But I’m here in Washington, where yesterday as Mr. Musk was making his presentation I was making yet another Metro trip in which the escalators at both ends were out of service. This is where the Acela, the premium east coast rail service, is famous as the world’s slowest fast train. And where I have this week a series of meetings on Capitol Hill, which always puts one in mind of the radical contrast between the generally decent, hard-working, smart people who run our government in all branches (staff especially, but pols too) – and the sluggish, backward-facing, short-term political culture that their efforts produce. It’s no surprise to me that we have growing and essentially extra-political discontent (to which I have elsewhere given the name “Exopolitics”), manifest in everything from the Occupy movement to the Tea Party to the revolt over SOPA and, most recently, the rising trans-political anger over the revelations of NSA intrusion into our private communications.
What’s clear is that if we are to have integrated, far-sighted leadership that will propel this nation into a second century of global hegemony, some things really have to change.
First, Mr. Musk’s mentality needs to catch on here. He starts with the future. He works backwards. When, rarely, Washington has done it that way (NASA and the moonshot) it has, well, made all the difference.
Second, that will happen only if two of its conditions can be put in place: The emergence of visionary leaders who naturally think – and act – in the political arena as Mr. Musk has in the world of engineering entrepreneurship. And the emergence of a powerful political support structure for that way of thinking. I see two potential components in the latter: the Exopolitics referred to above, and a Damascus Road conversion of our major (especially technology) companies’ approach to the policy community – in which they determine to drive long-term thinking (and, ahem, thereby long-term value) and transform Washington’s political culture to effect it, instead of endlessly playing defense by hiring short-term lobbyists to protect their turf. (All they need to do is build alignment between their own strategy, R and D, and government relations shops. Sigh.)
Third, our innovation visionaries, like Mr. Musk, need to get serious about Washington. Jeff Bezos’ intervention to buy/save the Washington Post may or may not prove salient to that seriousness. The same can be said for the FWD.USeffort led by Mark Zuckerberg to press for immigration reform. Whether these are straws in the wind or merely the ad hoc efforts of the billionaire class that they seem to be, time will tell. But we don’t have much of it left.
What’s your take?