Engineer the Future

by Noble Brown

Western
Civilization is a society adrift.

We are
completely untethered from our past, and we are sailing aimlessly toward an
uncertain future.

It was not
always this way. 

***

On December
17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilber Wright completed
the first controlled, sustained, and powered flight of a heavier-than-air
aircraft. 

On July 20,
1969, less than 66 years later, Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the
moon.

Imagine, if
you will, the generation born in or about 1895. 
These men and women, had they survived to the age of 75, would have
witnessed the end of the Victorian Era, the rise of the automobile, two World
Wars, and more rapid technological innovation than anyone else in history,
before or since. 

This is a
lifespan that began with less than ten miles of paved roads, total, in all of
America, and ended with daily intercontinental commercial air traffic and men
in space.

Contrast the
66 years between the Wright Brothers and Armstrong’s one small step, and the 50
years or so since we last left low Earth orbit (think about that – when we last
went to the moon was the last time a human being even went as far as leaving
Earth’s gravity).

What have we
done?

***

As a child
born in the mid-1970s, I was still raised with the belief that a fantastic
future lay ahead.  I grew up thinking
that by now, we’d have flying cars, robot butlers, and hoverboards.  Disease wouldn’t exist.  Teleporters would take us to cities on the
moon, and maybe Mars.  Lost and ailing
limbs would be replaced with Six Million Dollar bionic improvements. 

What’s better
now than what we had in the 1980’s?  We
have the Internet.  We have
smartphones.  These are incremental
improvements over the mainframes and radios of 40 years ago.  The concepts are the same.  Dumb terminals connecting to a central
computer.  Useless if they’re
disconnected.  In a way, we’ve regressed
from the personal computer since the turn of this century.  You wouldn’t imagine using a device without
an Internet connection today. 

Certainly
we’re not as advanced as we all assumed we would be by now.  The 20th century catapulted us
from candlelight and steam engines to lasers and nuclear power.

And then we
just stopped inventing cool shit.

We reached the
moon.

And then we
quit.

***

Buzz Aldrin
and Neil Armstrong were both born in 1930. 
They grew up in the Great Depression, witnessed World War 2, and fought
in the Korean War.  Before they were 40,
they’d been to the moon and back.  It was
arguably their parent’s generation that had made that happen.  The erstwhile “Greatest Generation.”  The Einsteins.  The Oppenheimers.  The Turings. 
The Fermis.  The Von Brauns.  Even the Kings, and the Tolkiens. 

Where have
they gone?  What did the Baby Boomers
spend their lives doing following the toil of their parents?

***

I’m
fact-checking this article as I write it using the Internet, from a wireless
connection in a cigar lounge.  One might
call that progress, but I could just as easily do this with an electric
typewriter and a set of encyclopedias. 

Unfortunately,
that’s not an option.  Britannica stopped
printing their signature Encyclopaedia in 2010. 
Millenials will have no written version of their history if the lights ever
go out for good.  And since the Y2K
scare, there are more people who believe in that sort of dystopian future than
an optimistic one where we have self-drying jackets and shoes that lace
themselves. 

We’re content
with that now.  We’re fine if the
nanotechnology we dream of only exists in movies, and we’re not really sure we
still want that robot butler, because he’s just as likely to turn out like the
Terminator and try to plug us into the Matrix. 

Inventing
intelligent robots is a bad idea, because we’re resigned to them being better
than we are.  Exploring space is a bad
idea because the aliens we might encounter are likely to enslave us and plunder
our natural resources.  Flying cars and
lightsabers are a bad idea, because, honestly, how would we ever regulate those
things and keep them out of the hands of the terrorists?

We’re
scared.  We’re timid.  We’re complacent.  We’re lazy.

And we’re
content.  Life is easy.  Don’t try too hard.  Because unlike that generation that suffered
the Great Depression, none of us since have had to work much to stay fat and
happy.

***

If there’s one
thing we’ve mastered since the Space Age, it’s marketing and consumerism.  The Western nations of the first world have raised
generations of children weaned on mass media and all the subversive marketing
that pays for it.  We’re told what to eat
and how to live, even if it is sedentary and toxic. 

And this is
what the rest of the world aspires to.

Third-world
nations wish they had access to unlimited calories and smartphones and Amazon
Prime.  That’s how you know you’ve
arrived; when you have a digital refrigerator that knows when you’re running
low on high-fructose beverages and orders more for you.   

Meanwhile, our
educational system is more concerned with producing politically-correct
standardized test-takers than it is in creating thinkers.  So now we’re docile and compliant; dutiful
slaves to a system designed to only advance at a safe, incremental pace, giving
us convenience in exchange for our freedom and privacy.

Forty years
ago, voluntarily wire-tapping yourself would have seemed an absurd notion.  Now our “smart” devices that make life so
easy are routinely recording terabytes of data on everything that we eat,
watch, say, and do. 

Your life is
fully documented on the “cloud,” and you’re OK with this, because social media
is a fun way to interact with people while not having to leave your house, and
that Amazon Echo will gladly play music and movies for you if you ask it.

***

History is
marginalized in our educational system. 
It is rarely included in any standardized testing, and as we know,
testing is all public schools seem designed to teach.  In fact, the subject of history doesn’t
typically stand alone at all; it’s lumped under the heading of “social
studies,” a title that diminishes historical emphasis and subversively suggests
that the study of socialism is the true objective. 

Schools aren’t
alone in this attempt to erase the vital legacy of the West.  Popular media spends more time apologizing
for it than exalting it.  The great
progress of the Elizabethan and Victorian Eras is treated as a time of villainy
rather than a time when science and technology and intellectual enlightenment
took great surges forward.

Why?

Why the self-hatred?

Of all the
world’s great empires, Britain’s was arguably the least brutal.  We aren’t demanding apologies from the
descendants of Mongolia, Persia, Japan, or the Aztecs.  Western empires did more to advance mankind
to a better future than all others, and yet the societies they’ve produced now
treat them with scorn, and wish only to revise their histories negatively.

Perhaps it is
part of a grand conspiracy.  An
ideological plot to wreck the West from the inside out. 

Or perhaps
it’s simpler than that.

We loathe the
generations that came before us, because we know we’ve done nothing to measure
up to their example.  And rather than
rise to the standard they established, we find it easier to tear them down.

This would help
explain why we’ve given up on a better future. 

Because we’re
not even able to make a better now, compared to what came before us.

***

Part of the
problem is that we’ve lost our sense of wonder and imagination.  It was so easy in the days of Christopher
Columbus, when there were unexplored edges on every map just begging to be
discovered.  Lewis and Clark had a wild
and untamed continent to march across. 
Magellan knew the world was round, but nobody had managed to sail it all
at once. 

Of course,
there’s plenty left to explore.  There’s
a whole lot at the bottom of the ocean. 
We’ve barely scratched the surface of our own planet – nobody really knows what’s more than a few
miles below the bedrock.  And space?  Well, there’s a TON of space left to check
out.

But is there
anything to conquer?  Is there any
treasure to be found?

Perhaps that’s
the problem.  We lack incentive.  We don’t see the value.

Space
exploration is dangerous and expensive. 
So was naval travel 600 years ago, but there was at least the prospect
of opening new trade routes or bringing home a precious cargo or establishing a
profitable new colony for king and country.

America
planted a flag on the moon, and brought back some rocks.  But we haven’t returned.  Because it’s a high-risk, high-cost venture,
and there’s nothing else there for us. 
We didn’t find anything valuable up there, and we can’t colonize it (at
least not yet).

James Cameron
funded an exploration of the wreckage of the Titanic at the bottom of a small
part of the ocean, but he got a good movie out of it.  Nobody gets excited about exploring a place
that you can’t live in or take any treasure from.

But what of
the other challenges set before mankind? 

Nanotechnology
could make manufacturing obsolete.

Fusion could
make the energy industry obsolete.

Robotics could
make labor obsolete.

Bionics could
make medicine obsolete.

And that’s the
problem.

Great progress
is disruptive, and the status quo is now represented by global multinational
corporate cabals that influence every level of government, media, and the
marketplace. 

If you create
something truly disruptive, you risk upsetting an establishment that can
utterly destroy you in any number of ways.

It’s easier,
and safer, for smart people to make a living within the system than it is for
them to cultivate the ideas to upset it.

***

Dwight
Eisenhower saw this coming.  During his
farewell address, he warned us of the dangers of the military industrial
complex.  It turns out the problem was
much bigger than that, but he had the right idea.  The established corporate machine had
infected the government and the script was written. 

It had become
too influential to root out.  Too big to
fail.  Gone were the days of Teddy
Roosevelt the Trustbuster.  Eisenhower’s
own successor was the last President to try to contend with the
establishment.  He got a bullet in the
head for his trouble.

***

There are
still ways to disrupt the establishment, and keep your grey matter where it
belongs.  History shows us how. 

But you have
to be smart about it. Or you have to be lucky.

Martin Luther
was disruptive.  He kicked off the
Reformation.  He spent many years in
hiding for his trouble, and he left most of the heavy lifting to others once he
was done nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in
Wittenberg. 

Socrates was
disruptive.  He was compelled to chug
hemlock for his trouble.

Julius Caesar
was disruptive.  He conquered Gaul and
overtook the Republic.  But he didn’t
choose his friends very carefully.

Galileo was
disruptive.  He spent a decade in prison
for challenging the notion that the sun revolved around the Earth.

Alexander of
Macedon conquered most of the known world by the time he was 30, but was dead
at 32, likely poisoned by a rival.

So how do you
disrupt the establishment and change the world and prosper at the same time?

Western
Civilization, and its great capitalist economic model, have provided the safe
space required for this to happen.

Henry Ford
revolutionized manufacturing a century ago. 
His descendants are still wealthy for it.  The Rockefellers, Carnegies, and other
“robber barons” did much the same.

Bill Gates
revolutionized personal computing.  He’s
comfortably retired, and leverages his fortune to effect positive change
worldwide via his philanthropic efforts.

Steve Jobs
would still be creating wonderful technology had cancer not cut him short.  Howard Hughes was also stricken with injury,
disease, and madness.

Kennedy
enabled NASA and men like Yeager and Armstrong to break everything from the
sound barrier to extraplanetary travel.

It was the
great republics and their embrace of the meritocracy we call capitalism that
facilitated this.

And now it is
fashionable to cry for more socialist government and economic structures. Even
after so many died under the boot of communism in the 20th century.

***

The window of
opportunity is still open.  We still can
engineer a lofty, magnificent future. 

But first, you
have to believe it is possible.

You have to
reject the programming of your primary and secondary education.  You have been raised to be a slave.  A conformist. 
A cog in a machine that allows you no ambition beyond rampant
consumerism.

You have to
become a tireless autodidact.  You have
to teach yourself how to think.  How to
act.  How to succeed.  There are no methodologies written that will
work specifically for you.  None of the
great disruptors in history had any training to prepare them to change the
world.  They figured it out on their own.

You need to
figure it out on your own.

You need to
come up with your own vision.  You need
to ignore everyone who says it is foolish, or reckless, or insane.

Make no
mistake, everyone you know, and everyone you love, will doubt you.  They’re programmed for mediocrity, just as
you are.  You will have to be the
example.  You will have to be the
outlier.

You will have
to be exceptional.

***

Engineering is
not complicated.  It is difficult.  But it is not complicated.

You cultivate
a vision.  You see the endgame.  You identify the problems and obstacles in
the way.

Then you work
backwards.  Write down the steps it will
take to get all the way to the end; to the point where you have changed the
world.

It may be a
decade from now.  It may be five
minutes.  It doesn’t matter.  Map it out.

Then create
the process.

***

There’s a
great deal of material published on processes and efficiencies.  There’s an axiom that the process is more
important than the goal.

This is false.

The goal is
everything.  The endgame is all that
matters.

The process is
important.  But you control the
process.  You should design it.  You should apply it.  And you should change it when it needs to be
changed.

Whatever you
do, do not make a religion of the process.

Your mission
is the goal.  By any means necessary.

Have you
identified your mission?

***

What future do
you want for your children?  Your
grandchildren?  Or just yourself?

What does the
world you want to live in look like?

That should be
your vision.

Take some time
to consider this.

Meditate on
this.

Then decide
upon your mission.

Make it
ambitious.  Make it crazy.  Make it seemingly impossible.

Don’t just let
the future happen to you.

Engineer
it. 

This article appears in Chris Campbell‘s outstanding anthology, “99 Things Every Millenial Man Should Know”

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