This Week in Geopolitics

The Irony of High Tech

June 19, 2017

Technology is a major foundation of national power. Its uses are obvious. But the path from innovation to obsolescence is frequently less obvious.

Technologies that define an era usually come from a major geopolitical power. Roman engineering, for example, helped shape the Mediterranean world. British technology created and sustained the industrial revolution. These empires could absorb the cost of innovation because they had the money to do so and because they knew it would only reinforce their power. And because technologies are meant to reinforce power, even the most benign were invented for military purposes.

The Origins of the iPhone

Consider the iPhone, an invention of Apple, the genius of Steve Jobs, and a helpful, hip, and harmless product. Or so it would seem.

The centerpiece of the iPhone, as is the case with so many electronics today, is the microprocessor. The microprocessor was the fruit of the labor of a variety of scientists and engineers who were sponsored by the US government, which needed a lightweight computer for missiles, aircraft, and other systems. The technology quickly found use in the F-14 fighter aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

Fast forward to 1985. General Dynamics, known at the time as GTE, helped the US Army create an advanced network for a device invented some 12 years earlier. The device was the cellphone, which would face its first true test in Operation Desert Storm. The Army needed a reliable wireless communications system that could be easily deployed, and the cellphone fit the bill.

Many of the iPhone’s accessories and ancillary functions were developed for similar purposes. The idea of digital photography was developed by the National Reconnaissance Office, which needed a better way to produce photographs taken by their satellites. (Chemical photography required developing, and that meant that the film had to be ejected by the satellite and caught by an aircraft in the air.) The NRO, therefore, developed a digital camera that could stream pictures back to earth. The descendants of this camera—this tool of spycraft—are found in every iPhone.

Maps and location services—a fixture on every iPhone—likewise have military forebears. GPS was originally meant to accurately guide the systems and vehicles of the armed forces, not Uber drivers. The satellites that make GPS possible, even today, are operated by the US Air Force.

And then there is the Internet, which is available literally at our fingertips. It was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, more commonly known as DARPA.

The more recent generations of iPhones, meanwhile, feature voice recognition software. SIRI, as we’ve come to know her, was originally a DARPA-funded project of SRI International, an American research institute.

The Mature and the Obsolete

A few points follow. The first and most obvious is that the iPhone, an icon of innovation, is actually a composite of older technologies; only SIRI was invented this century. To its credit, Apple updated those technologies, fused them into a single platform, and turned that platform into a brilliantly packaged and marketed product. Still, what is called “high tech” is frequently an older innovation updated for modern use. It’s evolutionary, but it isn’t revolutionary.

Second, the military is a primary source of innovation in our society. The 50 or so years the Cold War was fought, for example, was a heyday of technological growth. The technology needed to support global war—in space, in the air, on the sea, under the sea, and on land—required unbound creativity. In this regard, the United States, with its intellectual and financial resources, had the advantage. But the public is either unaware of or indifferent to the fact that much of the technology we now consider peaceful was designed to allow the US to wage global thermonuclear war.

Third, we are reminded not just of the age of technologies but of their maturity. Maturity is different from obsolescence. The microprocessor cannot be considered cutting edge—it was put to practical use before 1970. But neither can it be considered obsolete—it is still widely used. It has become a foundation of society even though it is no longer being radically innovated. The same could be said of the automobile and the internal combustion engine. It was incredibly useful and would be sold for more than a century, but the basic innovations were in place around 1970, and the industry mostly became about marketing thereafter. The microprocessor has a bright future, but its heroic days are behind it.

The greatest innovations follow this loose pattern: A handful of scientists create possibilities, which are later developed for military use before being sold in consumer markets. Governments, which are responsible for national defense, typically underwrite the research; private industry, which eventually benefits from it, is too risk averse. Put differently, the private sector builds off the foundation created by the government.

As well the government should underwrite this research: New generations of technology are needed to raise productivity. If the model that has been in place since before World War II continues, then another generation of entrepreneurs will take advantage of military research and development, deploy it, and announce how much they dislike government interference in their work. Selling products is important, but we need to understand the role that war plays in consumer products. For the pacifists who love technology, and the libertarians who love it at least as much, there is a deep irony at work.

George Friedman
George Friedman

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fallingman7@gmail.com

June 20, 2017, 4:15 p.m.

The deepest irony here is that John Mauldin, who disingenuously professes to be a small government advocate, allows his neocon friend and CIA plant to write how lucky we are to have the war machine and how glorious it is.  I mean, OMG, we simply wouldn’t have any technological progress without it.

I’m guessing that assertion would surprise Thomas Edison.

Seems as if we did just fine in the area of technological advancement prior to WW1.  This is sophistry of the most evil kind.  Just because technological progress in consumer goods has followed the model Friedman has described doesn’t mean that it has to, or that it’s a good thing that it does.

This is just another perversion of the way things would work absent the deadly machinations of the killer “elite.”  Like so many of the deformations we see in modern society, this one is stamped made in DC and is manifestly lunatic ... and yet, Friedman actually defends it..

George, here’s what you’re really saying:  “Hey, I know more than a hundred million people were killed in wars in the last 103 years but look at what we got in return ... this swell hand held gizmo that you can watch cat videos on.  You should be grateful.”

War is not the sine qua non of technological progress, and for you to suggest that it is is reprehensible.

fallingman7@gmail.com

June 20, 2017, 2:14 p.m.

The deepest irony here is that John Mauldin, who disingenuously professes to be a small government advocate, allows his neocon friend and CIA plant to write how lucky we are to have the war machine and how glorious it is.  I mean, OMG, we simply wouldn’t have any technological progress without it.

I’m guessing that assertion would surprise Thomas Edison.

Seems as if we did just fine in the area of technological advancement prior to WW1.  This is sophistry of the most evil kind.  Just because technological progress in consumer goods has followed the model Friedman has described doesn’t mean that it has to, or that it’s a good thing that it does.

This is just another perversion of the way things would work absent the deadly machinations of the killer “elite.”  Like so many of the deformations we see in modern society, this one is stamped made in DC and is manifestly lunatic ... and yet, Friedman actually defends it.

George, here’s what you’re really saying:  “Hey, I know more than a hundred million people were killed in wars in the last 103 years but look at what we got in return ... this swell hand held gizmo that you can watch cat videos on.  You should be grateful.”

War is not the sine qua non of technological progress, and for you to suggest that it is is reprehensible.

bdepree@gmail.com

June 19, 2017, 2:38 p.m.

You seem to be accepting the premise that government is better at funding research than the private sector.  I don’t believe this has been true in most areas of high tech for decades (although some medical friends still believe its true in medicine, but that is perhaps because government has set up so many barriers in that field that only government can in any way expedite the overwhelming red tape.)

Tom Paine

June 19, 2017, 2:37 p.m.

While agreeing with the basic facts one of my favorite writers, George Friedman, I have to add the other side of the discussion (libertarian). Arguably the most important hi-tech machine of all time, the printing press, had no military connection (to my knowledge). There are many other examples. John Mauldin’s commentary this week goes into an article on whether various inventions would have been invented had the person associated with the invention not existed. The answer of course is a resounding “yes.” The same is true of “government” backed or financed inventions. Government changes things by 1) taxing money from people, which people then don’t have as much money for investment, limiting opportunities, or pushing people into less efficient investments to avoid said taxation.
2) Creating crony capitalism with companies who see Government moving into areas causing them to piggyback or to use politics to create special favors
I don’t have time to detail all other than to state it’s easy to “see what’s seen” and much harder to “see what’s unseen.” I’m confident all these great ideas would have come about without government assistance crowding out private enterprise and probably would have been incorporated into the mainstream more quickly.

eric.stubbs@rbc.com

June 19, 2017, 2:07 p.m.

George—I thoroughly enjoy your pieces not only because you are so often right, but also because you are always thought-provoking.  While I’m on board with the theme of your piece, there’s always a yes-but.  In this case, you have no baseline rate for comparison.  In other words, is $1 B spent via military R&D more productive or economically important than $1B spent by, say, Bell Labs?  Xerox PARC?  NIH?  You also have the multitude of civilian R&D efforts to compare to military ones:  early aircraft, cars, cotton gin, steam engine, penicillin, HTML, GPUs (now used for code breaking), MRIs, X-Rays, etc.  How do you compare the efficiency of these spends to military R&D?  Are the current civilian space efforts more efficient than NASA’s? You also have some cases where military R&D impeded potentially productive civilian applications.  Thorium reactors come to mind—nixed by DoE because they had no military applications.  By the way, I would add to your side of the ledger perhaps the most important military development effort:  the interstate highway system.  So my point is that yours is an excellent article but the complexity of the topic suggests that your conclusions may be premature.