A Sputnik moment?

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an Internet connection…The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world… This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011

A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space: the replica is stored in the National Air and Space Museum.

Last night, President Obama offered a State of the Union Address that reprised one of his favorite themes — the pathway to renewed American greatness lies in improved science and technology. I have a lot to say about the Address, and I’ll explore President Obama’s 5-point plan — Fostering innovation, Improving education, Rebuilding infrastructure, Reducing barriers to business investment, and Closing deficit by freezing government spending — over the next few days.

But this morning, my mind keeps circling back to the contention that innovations in science and technology will pull the US out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I am particularly struck by President Obama’s assertion that this is a “Sputnik moment.”

The current historical moment is very, very different from the one in which Sputnik was launched. The Soviets fired Sputnik in 1957, an extremely prosperous year for the United States: production, employment, and income attained record levels. The unemployment rate hovered around 4%. Inequality was the social norm: women and men of color had been forced back to the “normalcy” of second-class citizenship after gains made during WWII were rolled back by the politics of fear and a culture of conformity.

Today, while Wall Street profits and payoffs may be skyrocketing once again, most of us are facing lower incomes and more employment insecurity. We have an official unemployment rate of around 9.4%, but if you count those who are employed part-time but looking for full-time work, or who have become dispirited and given up looking altogether, the rate is closer to 17%. And those of us who benefited from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s are certainly not going back to 1950s “normalcy” without a fight.

So why see this as a similar historical moment? Why the blind hope that a rocket or a computer or a nanobot can fix all of the nation’s troubles? The idea that science and technology will magically solve our problems sometime in the future is dangerous, because it keeps us from dealing with the very real economic, social, and political challenges we face in the now.

In my book, I wrote about the kind of dissociative thinking we can get caught in when we decide that science and technology will magically save us:

The continued emphasis on the development of science and technology as the route to greater prosperity and equality for all Americans is a familiar but dangerously underexamined species of magical thinking.

In psychology, magical thinking is the belief that merely thinking about an event in the external world can cause it to occur, a delusion often present in very young children and schizophrenics. Many of us in the United States have engaged in a massive, collective, consensual hallucination about the power of technology, particularly information technology (IT), to “level the playing field,” create broad-based economic and social equality, and nurture transparency and accountability in democratic governance.

This magical thinking has its root in an incomplete picture of the impacts of IT and technology-driven economic development schemes in our communities, a myopia shaped by race, class, and gender inequality. This shortsightedness in turn skews our policy responses to issues of high-tech equity and, in many cases, creates policies and institutions that deepen inequality rather than alleviate it.

We need to expand and clarify our vision of equity in an information age. Massive investment in science and technology without simultaneous investment in a more just society is an investment in increasing political and economic inequality. If robust democracy, broadly shared prosperity, human rights, and equity are important to us as a society, we must reject our magical thinking and look with clear and courageous eyes at the real world of IT, our shared technological present.

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