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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