“You promised me Mars colonies. Instead, I got Facebook.”
– Buzz Aldrin, MIT Tech Review 2012
The Apollo Mission, the controversy surrounding it’s verifiability notwithstanding, remains arguably the most audacious technological project ever undertaken successfully by humankind. A bunch of men from the blue blip managed to fly their way to one oversized rock orbiting them. So it’s understandable when one of the men at the mission’s forefront expresses disappointment over our current technological inclinations.
For context, imagine some of the world’s brightest minds together in a room. They are on a mission that could revolutionize the world, they say; a tool to analyse real-time data streams from smartphones. For what end goal, you ask? To help a certain hundred billion dollar ‘startup’ prevent uninstalls of their mobile app. Disappointing, isn’t it? That is indeed the situation at Silicon Valley, hailed as a global innovation centre. The same goes for numerous tech hubs around the world, including India, trying to emulate the Valley. There’re BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) being thrown around left and right. But are they really all that audacious?
Elon Musk is often put on a pedestal. A young Musk, few million dollars richer courtesy PayPal, decided to pursue ideas which were batshit crazy. Few years and one bankruptcy scare later, technologies from SpaceX and Tesla promise to disrupt space exploration and renewable energy. Before Musk however, India had Chetan Maini pushing to bring electric car to the masses back in early 2000s. Although he wasn’t as successful and his company, Reva, was eventually acquired by Mahindra, his vision was audacious. So is such disruptive innovation bound to come in the form of drops in a stream of approximate nonsense? Or is there a secret sauce waiting to be identified?
Chetan’s case provides for some perspective. While pushing for adoption of electric cars in India, not only did he lack the resources which Musk had in Silicon Valley, he also had to work with the typical Indian entrepreneurial constraints. Bureaucracy, societal pressure, and lack of institutional support; take your pick. Silicon Valley, despite its recent criticism, has for the past decades played a huge role when it comes to large-scale innovation. The fact that its initial history is centred on military research comes as a surprise to many. It was the Second World War, and the US government’s distress over the Germans’ technological progress in fact, which accelerated the region’s growth. Thus, it’s not just technologists but the ecosystem around them which drives innovation.
But the tech ecosystem these days is characterized by traits commonly found in addicts (of both drugs and social media). Narrow-mindedness and lack of empathy accompanied with an itching desire for a quick fix. With the advent of high-speed internet and the innovations it fostered, it has become easier than ever to fail (and rise back up). Accompanied with a culture which rewards quick returns, this has seen less focus being put in to long-term visions. Why even bother when something short-term can help you make big instead?
I might have painted a bleak picture but even the cynic in me realizes that there’s hope. Maybe we can’t solve world hunger and poverty through technology. Or perhaps we haven’t tried that hard yet. Still, there are wonderful innovations happening all around the world. Innovation itself might be stuck in a rut but it’s only a matter of time before it gets out of it.