Google Is Building the Future, and the New York Times Is Depressed
Here’s a not-so-trick question: if technologically-gifted and offered the chance to develop those talents at Google or the federal government, which would you choose? The question is almost rhetorical it’s so simple.
Working at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA allows the talented to develop ideas with some of the world’s greatest minds in concert with some of the cushiest corporate perks ever conceived. So big is the fight for talent in Silicon Valley that even the area’s chefs are enjoying bidding wars for their services. Google would be a pretty wondrous place to work, and all that’s previously been written ignores the handsome pay; pay that includes equity in one of the 21st century’s greatest growth stories.
The main thing is that talented people logically want to express those talents in the marketplace. The good news is that they’re getting that chance. Thanks to a surge of investor interest in Silicon Valley, companies like Google are, according to Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, “funding the biggest, most world-changing things. They are spending on ideas that, years from now, we may come to see as having altered life for much of the planet.”
Yet despite this happy development, Manjoo is downcast. His concern, if readers can believe it, is that “the American government’s appetite for funding big things — for scientific research and out-of-this-world technology and infrastructure programs — keeps falling.” Manjoo contends that the latter “sets up a looming complication: Technology giants, not the government, are building the artificially intelligent future.”
Let’s unpack Manjoo’s comments.
For one, individuals who work in government don’t have six fingers on each hand, they don’t have blood types different from us civilians, nor does their employ by the federal government cause angelic qualities to magically enter their bodies. To state what is a tautology, individuals who work in government used to not work in government. They’re just like us, though some might reasonably point out that they’re less ambitious and less risk-oriented. More than Manjoo would perhaps like to admit, government work is to some degree an expression of an individual’s personal makeup, including a desire to avoid the risk of job loss that so often defines real world employment. In short, the big thinkers, innovators and risk-takers don’t generally migrate to bureaucracy and pay grades. Why then, would those who do be handed the money of others to pursue “world-changing things”?
Ok, but the frequent reply from those prone to defending government’s role in shaping our technological future is that absent past government investment in research there would be no internet, nor would there be GPS technology that is more and more driving and shaping the “gig economy.” Back in 2013 Allan Sloan laughably contended that if not for federal research there’s “No Arpanet, no Internet. No Internet, no Amazon, no $25 billion personal fortune for Jeff Bezos.” No doubt some who should know better believe that if not for the Air Force, there would be no GPS technology either.
Back to reality, the federal government created primitive and unmarketable versions of the internet and GPS. More important, government didn’t create the internet or GPS as much resources always and everywhere extracted from the private sector led to advances that had no application in the marketplace. Regarding GPS alone, it took years of private investment for navigational advances to reach the consumer in remotely affordable fashion. And then it was entrepreneurial companies like Apple and Samsung that saw the value of inserting GPS into smartphones, only for other bright minds like Travis Kalanick to see the commercial possibilities of GPS technology on the way to Uber. After that, for Sloan and others to suggest that we wouldn’t have GPS or the internet sans government experimentation is as silly as the suggestion that without federal infrastructure spending, we would be traveling by horseback from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Sorry, but the private sector that gifted us with cars and airplanes would surely have divined traffic-free motorways absent government provision of that which is regularly choked.
Getting right to the point, and paraphrasing Sloan, without private sector wealth creation there are no roads, there’s no exciting technology to speak of, and surely no federal investment in same. Only in the New York Times’ newsroom do government jobs simply exist, along with the ability of those in federal employ to spend a lot of money allegedly shaping the future. Missed by Manjoo is that taxpayers have historically gone without to varying degrees so that federal workers could “tinker."
Which brings us to a crucial aspect of technological advance that explains why the federal government’s attempts to shape the future are wholly counterproductive. In the real world, failure, and lots of it, is what makes eventual success possible. As Pixar founder Ed Catmull noted in his essential 2014 book Creativity, Inc., all movies produced inside the northern California studio “suck” at first. Important about what starts out as awful is that Pixar employees race to realize their mistakes. They have no choice but to do so in light of the shareholders they must please. Of course it’s this desire to enrich their owners that forces feverish improvement of that which is initially much less than great.
The above has forever defined technological advance in the real world. Thomas Edison felt he’d had a good day if he’d experimented a great deal, only to err each time. The failure was information crucial to eventual success. More modernly, Jeff Bezos yearns for blockbuster product rollouts like the Echo since the winners fund lots of experimentation that will surely lead to lots of information-producing losers. Government technologists can’t operate in the ways described given the basic truth that failure doesn’t inform their experimentation. Leaving aside the talent deficits inside government bureaucracies, the bigger problem is that the endless inflow of the money of others means that governmental tinkering takes place minus the loss realization without which there can be no victories.
Somehow all of this is lost on Manjoo. His conclusion is that “We would be wise to chip in — or let them take over the future for themselves.” Translated, Manjoo proposes further fleecing of non-governmental workers so that those employed by Leviathan can experiment more. Oh my, wouldn’t we all like free money to do what we want? Actually, not really, but that's another column.
Back once again to reality, if Google and other technologists in the private sector are going to build the future as Manjoo contends, wonderful. Seemingly missed by Manjoo in a column full of misses is that all the life-enhancing advances are logically crafted in the private sector mainly because all capitalistic advance is preceded by the failure that rarely informs the oxymoron that is “government investment.”
Manjoo laments that big technology companies are set to author “the biggest, most world-changing things.” What he doesn't see in his eternal confusion is that he would be stating the obvious whether the federal government invested hundreds of billions each year in technology, or much better, nothing at all.