Goldstein: No Signs of Intelligent Life

by Matthew Goldstein | 9/29/15 6:00pm

Google decries villainy in its famous motto, “Don’t be evil,” and Apple stays true to the spirit of its former “Think Different” slogan, but the United States Congress can now do no better than “maybe we won’t shut down this week.” The cavalier way in which our present Congress operates stands in stark contrast to the world of our contemporary science and technology companies, where limits are constantly tested and surpassed. Whereas our legislature is stuck in the past, the visionaries that lead the country’s most promising industry are rocketing into the future.

Two things happened this week that encapsulate the growing efficacy of private technologists as opposed to the thuggish sluggishness of the United States House of Representatives and Senate. First, John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his plans to step down as House speaker at a time when he has increasingly stood out as a moderate voice in a sea of bigoted idiocy. He chose to vacate his office at a time when our government is at severe risk of shutting down because of an apparent disdain for condoms, the pill and a woman’s right to — gasp! — decide what happens to her own body. He has managed at once to fuel the fire of the far right and draw the ire of everyone else. He has simply quit because dealing with his own party proved too difficult.

On the other side of the country, in Menlo Park, California, Mark Zuckerberg held court with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of Facebook’s trademark town hall meetings. Users around the globe were able to tune in and ask Zuckerberg — and Modi — questions about India, Facebook and the intersection of the two. Modi spoke about the influence of social media on his life and on the lives of other Indians. Zuckerberg spoke about the importance of connecting the world to an internet that he has called an “enabler of human rights” and a “force for peace” and later pledged to bring internet access to refugee camps at a United Nations address. While the suits and ties squabbled on the Hill, the flip-flops and hoodies tried to change the world from Silicon Valley.

This is not a pair of standalone events. For much of my recent memory, high tech has done more for the average person than has government. Facebook has launched Internet.org to improve access to the internet worldwide. Tesla, one of the first companies to pay back its entire U.S. Energy Department loan, is developing cars that people want and the planet needs. SpaceX is throttling forward with adventures into the abyss above as NASA is sucked dry of needed funds. It seems that the organizing, motivating force for society today is not the people we have chosen at the polls to lead in the present, but the people who have chosen to lead us into the future.

To succeed in modern American politics, it seems one must lie, cheat and steal without appearing to lie, cheat or steal. To succeed in technology, one must create something useful and continue to advance that creation. Tech and government are both meritocracies, but for completely different reasons. The world is heading in one direction, and it seems the U.S. government never got the memo.

We can, however, vote smarter and better, and begin to invest more heavily in technology and encourage ourselves to explore the wonders of modern science. We can make like the statesmen of ancient Greece and operate as politicians, thinkers and scientists all in one, rather than eschewing common sense for power. The considerable advantage we have as educated students and people can be utilized to advance technology, diplomacy and human decency. We can model ourselves after those who do good in the world.

So while the Republican presidential candidates try to top each other’s buffoonery and bluster and the Democrats present wholly unrealistic plans to save the world, our society’s visionaries push forth with the enduring hope that they can in some small way make life on Earth better. Boehner failed at intra-party diplomacy, while Zuckerberg undertook diplomatic relations with India. As Google worked on self-driving cars, Washington was busy losing $11 billion of our money bailing out General Motors. Leaders in tech give us the hope — if only for a moment — that tomorrow might not be so bad.