By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
As I wander through the world of broadband, I frequently worry that for every step forward, we take one step back. As I’ve written about previously, we seem to be at an inflection point where we see the potential value of broadband, but putting it into reality seems to be more ephemeral.
Especially here in the U.S., we seem to be “talking the talk” more than we’re “walking the walk.” The confluence of certain events recently has underscored my ongoing concern even more recently.
Event No. 1: Cable television seems to be running Apollo 13 more frequently. This story, directed by Ron Howard, is the one that gave us the timeless phrase, “Failure is not an option.” It tells the story of the failed 1970 moon mission that, when crippled by an explosion in space, relied on the startling ingenuity of other astronauts and NASA engineers working together to complete the most distant rescue ever attempted. There’s no question, based on recent technological advancements, that we haven’t lost that ingenuity. But I worry that we’ve lost that can-do attitude.
Event No. 2: In early July, the European Commission and Japan announced six research projects aimed at redefining internet architectures. The goal, it noted was “to increase the efficiency of networks in carrying data” by creating the technology that would enable speeds up to 5000 times faster than today’s average European broadband speed (100Gbps compared to 19.7Mbps). That sounds like the kind of can-do attitude that America used to have – back in 1970.
Event No. 3: Also in July, the Intelligent Community Forum, which annually highlights cities making great progress toward connectivity, released a report entitled “Community as Canvas: The Power Of Culture In The Emergence Of Intelligent Communities.” The report discussed culture as art, culture as heritage, and culture as attitude. When asked about the concept of culture, ICF Executive Director Robert Bell told me, “The more we do this work, the more we find it’s about people. Intelligent communities are successful when they bring constituencies together and get them to collaborate.”
Can We Apply Can-Do to Broadband?
So I asked Bell (also, coincidentally, a fan of Apollo 13) if, in light of the ICF report and the joint EU-Japan announcement, the U.S. could still muster a can-do spirit. Bell replied, “I share your dismay,” he admitted. “We are in the paradise the founding fathers dreamed of, so why are we only talking about why we can’t afford to do anything?”
But he also maintains a long historical view, providing a refreshing perspective on a perplexing problem. “Don’t forget that in the run-up to World War II, the U.S. was considered to be asleep at the wheel. The Japanese thought so little of us that they attacked us. But we can also respond very quickly.”
Bell believes there are two trends afoot currently. First, he believes it takes ten years for a society to start thinking about and then making up our mind about big issues. Second, and more pervasive, “the rate of technological change has been so enormous, it has far outpaced our politics – so much so that they’re way out of whack right now.” He believes that time will eventually align our aspirations and our capabilities.
The Impact of Technology on Culture
He applies this historical perspective not only to the impact of culture on technology, but to the impact of technology on culture. We’re concerned about technology degrading human contact, with everyone staring into a handheld screen instead of interacting with the world around them.
“Whenever something new happens, it always looks a little bizarre and uncomfortable,” says Bell. “People are trying to figure out how technology fits into their lives.” The smartphone addiction we’re worrying about now, he maintains, is no different than the Internet addiction we worried about twenty years ago.
To complicate matters, though, today’s technology replaces its preceding technology even faster than the differential of Model Ts versus horses. “We use these technologies to do everything faster, cheaper, and better,” says Bell. “No wonder we can’t up [emotionally].”
Furthermore, he adds, “We tend to see the bad stuff first.” When Henry Ford commercialized the Model T, people blamed it for the breakdown of social order, because young men no longer had to court young women under the watchful eyes of her parents. Today, that concern seems more than antiquated.
As the old adage goes, this too shall pass. We will eventually figure out broadband and connectivity and we’ll look back and laugh (hopefully) at our current gyrations. Bell maintains, “We’ll always be able to work that stuff out.” Failure may be an option along the way, but the end result has always been success.