21 November 2008

Coming to Terms with a Paradigm Shift

We've all heard about it. Read about it in history books. When events and people and ideas so extraordinary present themselves that the very way that we look at the world gets turned on its head. We've also read of the people who failed to embrace the change and clung desperately to the status quo, only to be left behind. Those who have seen the end of civilization in everything from women's suffrage, cheap, reliable birth control, and equal rights, to television, rock music, and TV dinners . We feel sorry for these people, but realize their efforts to impose threats of moral and religious wrath or the unraveling of the social fabric are as futile as trying to hold back water.

We've all read about it, but not everyone has experienced it.

Ideas have revolutionized our world. Think printing press. Automobile. Electricity. Mass agriculture. Antibiotics. Mass computing. Some were integrated into society easily, naturally, and with little fanfare. Others may have seemed more entertainment or curiosity but became integral to an evolving human environment. Others still, were so valuable that their widespread acquisition and use were hailed as birthright.

In the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, scientists and engineers were hailed as national heroes. The innovations that came out of places like NASA and Bell Labs motivated a generation of young men (and fewer women) to cash in their GI Bills and pursue undergraduate degrees in great numbers. Possibly seeking escape from the cold war, or possibly motivated by it, this country created a cadre of highly educated, optimistic , and young upstarts like the minds behind Microsoft and Apple. And then something happened.

The point moved from professional success and innovation to acquiring all the trappings of wealth and comfort of the "middle class". The pursuit of paper replaced the pursuit of durable goods. There was no vision for the future of America other than making more money. The 80s were hailed as the most decadent decade. Wealth was the objective. Wealth at any cost. And wealth was to be achieved not through innovation and ideas, but through business. More specifically, through Wall Street.

The trappings of a sound economy, for reasons that I surely don't understand, were able to sustain the two and a half decades of rape and plunder perpetrated by the MBAs of the world. Money was diverted from research and development to chasing more and more paper. To building up false armies against non-existent enemies in space. Our sense of entitlement lacked any sense of humility. Our ability to waste money was without peer. Our inability to see the shadow we cast was extraordinary. At a time when science was coming up with ideas that would revolutionize the way we look at the world, we couldn't see past the tips of our collective noses.

My father was a chemist and an extraordinary man. If there is one thing though, that I thank my father for it was instilling in me a sense of personal responsibility and the idea that ideas are fascinating things. When my father would talk about his work, sometimes he would just sparkle. I didn't understand it at the time. His work as a chemist really didn't interest me. But the idea that ideas were fascinating did.

I am a scientist. Well, at least I am training to be a scientist. I am surrounded by brilliant people with plausible ideas just begging for money to give them a try. Money cannot be found. In today's world, we are all feeling the pinch. But the thing that concerns me more is that in the days when money flowed like water, when the economy was at its height, when the average American had cash to burn on hot tubs and dinners out and pet chinchillas, research dollars for new ideas could not be found. For decades, a few insightful individuals have decried the end of innovation. I think our failure to hear their cries have landed us squarely in the place we are now.

The exciting thing is that everything has changed. The bad thing is that everything has changed.

Taken individually, bits and pieces of the economy seem an overwhelming mess. The Big Three automakers coming to Washington with their hands out. The house of cards that is Wall Street already benefitting from the largess of an old-school government bent on keeping the status quo.

They might as well be trying to hold back water.

I predict that now is a time when everything comes together to change the way we look at the world. To change the way we approach the future. Now. It's right now.

With a h/t to Dickens, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

Change is not going to come without pain. Change isn't going to be great for everyone in the short term. And those who only have the short term on which to live are going to be hurt the most. Those who are reluctant to change under the best of circumstances are going to be particularly hard hit now. I know people *cough*Alvin*cough, who can't be motivated to get up off their couch for virtually any reason. They are comfortable where they are. They were happy with the way things were. Those people are going to feel mighty uncomfortable for a very long time. Some of them will get left behind. I can't change that anymore than I can hold back water.

At the beginning of this year, I had a retirement fund worth nearly $30K. I believe it is worth about $9K now. My IRA is worthless. I honestly am not that concerned about it. After all, 30K wasn't enough to worry about. I wasn't going to be able to consider retirement on the strength of that account anyway. My brother, on the other hand, is pissed as hell at the devaluation of his retirment fund. He believed he DID have the funds to consider a comfortable retirement on the basis of his investments.

It is time for retooling our thinking about our lives. Idle time is a luxury and perhaps the loss of that is the price we pay for living in such exciting times.

Everything is coming together to demand change. The economy has tanked. The bottom fell out of the paper basket we carried our retirment dollars home in. Our government has tanked on a failed and outdated idea that 20th century oil is the answer to 21st century problems. Our society has failed on the idea that we can squash equality by agreement of the slimmest of majorities.

Say goodbye to Robert Byrd. Say goodbye to Ted Stevens. To John Dingell. To Rush Limbaugh. To stay the course. To Wall Street largess. To MBAs. To outsourced jobs. To calling up American companies and getting decidedly Indian accents. It's a new world.

I predict the reinvestment in American research and development. I predict a reinvestment in America's manufacturing arena. I predict that America, rather than outsource our ideas, our services, and our products will come to embrace those things that are imperative to regain a leadership role as a political and economic powerhouse in the future.

I predict that America will invest in exactly those sorts of technology that hold the greatest promise to our collective future. I think there is no place on earth more capable of leading this change that right here in America. No other place but the world's oldest democracy and the world's youngest visionary could such a revolution take place.

Oh things are gonna change. Its a great time to be alive. Mark my words. Obama is just the tip of the iceberg. This kind of change is going to make the Segway look like a carny trick.

But if America doesn't, if the old guard prevails, the water will find its way downhill. I for one will ride the wave wheverever it leads. Because unless America embraces the best we have to offer, she isn't worthy of it either.


  1. Wow. Hope you're right. It seems, however, that the force is strong with the status quo, at all times in history. And the times for the big changes make the most sense in hindsight.

    We're definitely in the era of a big change, but I have my doubts it is going to come from this economic chaos. Although the average person is indeed hurting, the scale of the problem, with billions being lost, still seems to rest an order of magnitude greater among those more heavily involved in the financial industry, or more approximately, their companies -- after all, bizillionaires might have bunches of money on the market, but they typically also have a reserve stashed away in 'safer' investments... so the huge amounts of money being lost are, it seems to me, for the most part within the arena of money making money off of money, which I think is/was a stupid idea anyway.

    But I could be ass-wrong. I haven't been following the news closely, so what do I know? I'm just always skeptical that a paradigm shift has actually happened, because there've been a number of times when it seemed obvious to me that a tide was changing, and really, it was just... well, it was changing but not dramatically. Not yet. I totally believe change happens, but I think it happens "quickly" in hindsight (again with the hindsight), kind of like how finishing your thesis is hellish, grueling, and slow, but in hindsight, it flew by. (I'm guessing that's how it will be.) =] Or, I've totally lost my mind. Quite possible, that.

  2. So after a week or so of silence, you decided to pop back in on this incredibly poorly written piece of blather. OK, it is what it is. =)

    I guess my point was this economic meltdown appears to be global in nature and a lot more severe than we originally anticipated and I'm damn glad to have a contract virtually guaranteed for the next year and a half. But, it's like a perfect storm. A pretty radical shakeup in the political arena from conservative to progressive, and even more so along generational lines, and now with the energy issues, the housing issues...it's just coalescing. It just seems to me to be that something big HAS to come out of this.

    But I will tell you this...if America drags its feet on this one, other countries won't. We have a great opportunity here. Somehow I think America is somewhat more buffered against collapse, economically speaking, than China or India, or even Iran and Saudi Arabia. The oil industry is built on a house of cards. You think Saudi Arabia and Iran can actually weather $40/barrel oil prices? Not for long, I think. China was built on supplying cheap-ass "luxury goods" to rich Westerners and now that that $$ for luxury is gone, so is China's foundation.

    Christmas is going to be hell this year, but a new day is dawning. If America is smart, it will capitalize on the opportunities here of playing from a position of strength (in terms of academics and research) in a globally weakened economy. I'm more worried about hunger in rural Appalachia and other 3rd world countries. Good thing you are graduating so you can do something about that.

    You haven't lost your mind. You just liquefied it and printed it out as a first draft.