With more than 200 reader comments submitted already it is clear that my column from earlier this week about America’s next frontier is a hot topic. I asked readers to tell me what they thought would be (should be) our next area of national expansion and the responses ranged from single words to essays and I learned a lot from all of them. But this is such a fertile and complex topic that no one reader (or even one columnist — me) can be expected to encompass it all in a single session, but we can try and will, right here, right now.
What our next frontier clearly isn’t is any single industry. Nanotechnology and biotechnology and alternative energy technologies are all important, true, but none of them constitute a frontier any more than saddles or buffalo or Winchester repeating rifles constituted the American west of the 19th century. These industries may be tools, components or enablers of future frontiers, but they don’t constitute the frontier, itself. Nor does the Internet, where you are reading this.
Industries or technologies or media can’t define a new frontier because they haven’t in a long time fostered migration, which is a key component of any frontier. A frontier is, after all, a place, a line of demarcation, the interface between here and there. And while it’s true that there is some implied line of demarcation, I guess, between people who use the Internet and those who don’t, they typically live on the same streets and few people move specifically to get better Internet service. If they did we’d all live in Korea.
There are technology waves that one might be tempted to identify as frontiers, but even these are not. The best one that comes to mind is NASA’s Apollo Program of the 1960s. Just look at the advances in electronics, materials, structures, and information technology that sprang from landing a dozen men on the Moon! Those advances led directly to many of the technologies we have today and they can be linked back to specific NASA requirements, which confirms government’s role as a funder of research, but doesn’t in itself make the Apollo program anything like a frontier.
It’s an odd connection to make, perhaps, but I think frontiers have a lot in common with movie scripts or novels. If you take a scriptwriting class you’ll learn that at the heart of every movie, whether it is comedy, tragedy, or even documentary, is someone with an unfulfilled need. My child has been kidnapped and must be found; we must destroy this enemy military installation; I need money and only know how to steal cars; I want revenge; I want love; I want redemption; I want the survival of my people: the meerkats are in danger! Same with frontiers, which are breached and expanded by people who like what’s out there more than they like what’s in here.
One thing about frontiers is they are optimistic. There is risk in braving a frontier or we wouldn’t so easily use the verb “braving.” Yet we do brave frontiers and for good reasons: 1) the potential rewards are huge, and; 2) we feel up to the task.
Where one reader said the next frontier is hope, they weren’t far off.
Let’s take this a step further. Why are frontier’s optimistic? In large part it is because to even be called a frontier in the sense we’ve been using the word a lot of people have to be successful there. Taming the Wild West wasn’t the lore of thousands of books and movies and TV shows because we failed at it but because we succeeded. The California Gold Rush was a rush because people found gold, not because they didn’t. And when there is an expectation of success, it gets a lot easier to say “yes.”
We see this from time to time, too, in speculative bubbles. Remember Alan Greenspan’s mention of “irrational exuberance” describing the last decade’s housing bubble. Remember the dot-com IPOs of the 1990s which were based, in retrospect, on nothing but an unlikely potential for success seemingly built of Super Bowl commercials. Those times were crazy yet we didn’t feel crazy, we felt excited. But those weren’t frontiers any more than was landing on the Moon.
Optimism is not in great abundance these days so irrational exuberance isn’t either. In fact it is a lack of hope that may well keep us from even attempting the next frontiers at all. Pessimism, it turns out, is a powerful force. Remember when the term liberal used to mean something good and conservative meant stodgy? Today pessimism has corporations hoarding cash in case they need it, stunting growth in the process and guaranteeing they’ll need it. See, we were right!
Sure you were.
From a structural standpoint, here’s my view of what is getting between us as a people and the next frontier. Humans are a species divided along social fault lines into four groups:
1) The players — people who are tasked to solve the problems of society in order to keep the system alive — scouts, guides, buffalo hunters, scientists, and startup founders.
2) The observers — people who for one reason or another have the time and willingness to make it a habit to know as much as they can about what is going on but have no direct connection to the players. Most of my readers are in this category.
3) The entrops — people who are actually bringing the whole system down either through greedy parasitic removal of necessary resources or because they feel society cannot be repaired and the only hope is to crash the system so it can all begin again. Only in their minds we’ll rebuild the system “the right way” this time. They use terms like “starve the beast.”
4) Everybody else, which is to say the consumers who actually pay the freight.
The only one of these groups capable of doing real harm to the system — to society — is the entrops. As entrops infiltrate the other divisions the system begins to falter. At some entrop infiltration level the system will collapse. Look at the paralysis in Washington.
The final frontier is the domain of human soul, discovering a way to inspire the human race with hope of a better tomorrow and to even transform entrops into hopefuls. Hope defeats entropy.
Bob Dylan wrote, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”
My corollary is, “When you ain’t got hope, you got nothin’ at all.”
The irony here is that the simple application of hope would almost overnight reverse the structural economic problems of most nations. It’s not that we don’t have enough money but that the money is being controlled by entrops who see no good reason to use it and every reason not to use it. The only thing that will beguile them from hopeless to hopeful is the attraction of a clear and unambiguous new frontier.
What should that new frontier be? It almost doesn’t matter as long as it is big enough to capture the fancy of hundreds of millions of people. Your ideas are just as good or better than mine. But since I have a couple favorites I’ll throw them on the table. I think our next frontier should be a combination of additive manufacturing and autonomous flight.
Additive manufacturing is currently exemplified in 3D printing, where prototype devices emerge from plastic baths, sintered by lasers, only at my little company we make things of titanium. Additive manufacturing is in the middle of a revolution that within a decade will have usable devices appearing in volume and at competitive prices from backyard sheds and sold into local commerce.
We’re talking car factories in every city serving just that city — factories that could make you a 2020 BMW or a 1936 Auburn Speedster, you pick. We’re talking local manufacturing of everything from gutters to semiconductors. Additive manufacturing will change the way things are built and the people who build them.
Now if only everybody had an airplane!
For all but the last century man has functioned strictly in two dimensions, traveling the earth and seas but only marveling at the air. Invention of the airplane changed that a little, yet today less than a quarter of a percent of Americans know how to fly. What if we all could fly? A decade from now we just might.
Technology exists today for people to fly by themselves, quickly, quietly, with little or no pollution, from anywhere to anywhere in any weather, asleep or awake, because the real pilot is a computer. A decade from now, thanks to Mooreʼs Law, this technology will be the price of a car.
What would the world be like if you did not need a road or even a driveway? How would demographics change? Would our crumbling infrastructure still need repair?
Meet George Jetson. He has an electric aerial vehicle that takes him where he needs to go. But he does not fly it; the vehicle flies itself, knowing to the centimeter where it is anywhere on earth, lighting like a dandelion fluff with thirty thousand other such fluffs over a major city, each going its own way yet aware of all the others. This is where transportation is headed.
All of these components exist today — electric aircraft, GPS navigation, autopilots from aerial drones that can do all the work including takeoffs and landings in the dead of night while Mama nurses a sick child in the back seat. Aircraft that come when you whistle for them just like Trigger.
What qualifies autonomous flight as a good frontier is that it fits beautifully in the traditional frontier paradigms of population expansion and steadily increasing property values. American frontiers, as I wrote earlier this week, have long been paid for with free or inexpensive land. 40 acres and a mule, land rushes, railway rights-of-way and all the way back to royal land grants were responsible for populating much of America, taking the value of Manhattan from $40 worth of Dutch trinkets to $1 trillion worth of concrete and steel today. Yet today our property values are out of whack and often decreasing as we urbanize, de-industrialize, turn more and more to corporate agriculture, great swaths of our land going back to the state they were in Revolutionary times.
Reforestation in the American northeast, for example is happening faster than deforestation is happening in the Amazon. Yet we have no reforestation policy (we should — we could probably get carbon credits from it), we’re just neglecting the land.
Here’s a picture taken out my living room window in Santa Rosa.
See that ridge across the valley from me, framed by trees? There’s a rocky peak and to the right of that a shoulder of grass dotted with oak trees. I would like to build a house right there, among the oaks, looking west toward the sunset. Though only about three miles from where I live that spot of land could just as well be on the Moon. There is no road to it, no power, no water (yet) and as such that little patch of land, less than 50 miles from San Francisco, is almost worthless. But if I could build a house up there the view would be amazing, looking all the way south to San Francisco and all the way west to the Pacific. On foggy mornings I’d be above the clouds.
All I’d really need to live and work up there are water, power, and transportation. I could dig a well or maybe harvest water from the coastal fog, I could generate power from solar or wind. These are easily within reach today. But to reach Safeway or Google I’d need to fly. That part is almost here, too.
A large part of the promise of the Internet, circa 1999, was that businesses could operate anywhere. IBM even did a TV commercial about that. Yet businesses for the most part don’t operate just anywhere. They are tied to infrastructure and transportation links. But they might if we replaced 100+ million cars with the same number of aerial bots.
Combined with superior communications we could live and work almost anywhere, our impact on the land would be more dispersed and therefore less. Our infrastructure needs would be dramatically reduced. And we’d have a whole new industry to drive the 21st century just the way automobiles drove the 20th. Now that’s a frontier!