Did We Stop Dreaming Big in the 1970s?

An audiophile and a cinephile could surely make the case that some of the best music and movies came from the 1970s. No need to get started on the lists.

But the decade is rarely considered an acme of innovation. For good reason. It wasn’t. And yet, the anniversary of the Voyager I and Voyager II launches — 40 years ago this summer — is an excellent reminder that the 70s was indeed an era of incredible scientific endeavor and technological accomplishments. The two spacecraft have generated mega-buckets of data and photographs that have led to our growing knowledge of the universe and our place in it. The program has been a glorious success on a scientific and a human scale, providing inspiration to both the mind and the soul of anyone who has paid attention to the probes’ findings.

This anniversary year we have been blessed with loads of stories and tributes, including a beautiful animated short, an in-depth update on the team that continues to monitor the probes, and the well-received documentary The Farthest — which tells the story of “one of mankind’s greatest achievements”.

When you begin to digest the goals (“to reach beyond previously unapproachable limits of time, space, and thought”), the efforts, and the success of the Voyager program, you can’t help but look around and compare them to tech strides made in our present day. Yes, we have smartphones. But we also have these:

These were, respectively, makers of a cutting-edge juicer, a fitness tracker , a used car shopping app, an app for finding other apps, an app for buying food, a valet parking app, and a chat app.

Do these moth-like attempts at innovation mean we stopped dreaming big in the 1970s?

No. These firms don’t represent the breadth of innovation these days. And yet, they might typify what we now consider innovation. Yes, Silicon Valley — still the presumptive fortress of our wises and richest — will call these firms the necessary dreck in our hyper-efficient capitalist system, the lambs who first “disrupt” markets only to be mauled and consumed in the forest by the smarter, faster, hungrier wolves.

That might be true. But Silicon Valley mavens still willingly invested their(?) money in these products. And these tech companies put that money and their own brains to work to remove what are at worst inconveniences mainly related to shopping and which are — despite proclamations that their technology “changes everything” — inconveniences for only the thinnest slice of the global consumer market.

This points to a severe lack of imagination among the money and engineering classes, and — not that we need another reminder (healthcare as a business, the subprime mortgage industry) — they again highlight that the free market is not as efficient, rational, or innovative as advertised. This is in fact the flip side to the business world’s inconvenient truth, namely that most business titans believe in free markets in name alone and are instead madly in love with corporate socialism: public risk, private rewards.

Certainly there are remedies. Start by getting a grip and toning down the marketing rhetoric. Admit that helping people buy more stuff is not revolutionary. Dream bigger. And enough with the charades that “greed is good” = innovation (hello, more chat apps), and that business is the Wild West, where you go it alone and the only thing holding back your success is government regulation.

Some might argue that the likes of Elon Musk prove that private enterprise is all that’s needed for the big dreams, the big projects. Sure, he is at least aiming high. But his plan for Mars migration is another form of environmental cop-out and the jury remains out on his business acumen. Most importantly, although he is by all accounts a first-rate engineer, remember that his companies are standing on the shoulders of innovations born out of government research — and his car company was founded with a loan from the U.S. government.

The point is that dreaming and doing is not an “either government or free enterprise” proposition. It is a collaboration. The problem is that in the government and especially the corporate realms the dreams have been downgraded (hello, juicers) and the politic rhetoric has intensified.

The tangible benefits of the space program, had at a reasonable cost, should be enough to silence those who tsk tsk further collaboration. But the lesson of Voyager is that in our endeavors we must also be driven by the intangible, soul-stirring benefits. And 40 years after the Voyager dream was made a reality, the program and its ongoing payoff should again be an example to business, science, government, artists, and all people.

Happy anniversary Voyager. While you were an example of our better angels, our current innovation cycle is lacking.


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