by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume X, No. XXIX

This Week's Clue: The Failure of American Technology

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This Week's Clue: The Failure of American Technology
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
Best of the Week
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of July 17, 2006

In the last six years America has gone from being the technology leader to being a technology laggard.

There are many reasons for this:

  • Technology is no longer a popular field of study.
  • Government privacy policies discourage Always-On development.
  • Telephone and cable duopolies restrict Internet growth.
  • China now controls our hardware market.
  • The hottest new innovations, pharmaceuticals and nanotech, cost more to develop.

All these problems can be easily fixed. And we retain many strengths. I recently saw a story from Europe complaining of how open source projects are moving to the U.S. at the behest of their venture capital investors. American universities continue to innovate, including my own alma mater.

But the biggest problem remains the first, technology education.

When I started in this business over 20 years ago most of the people I met were close to my age, and that was good. Now they're still close to my age, and that's not as good. Nothing against you old codgers (me, I'm eternally youthful) but the fact is you need a good mix of ages to succeed, just as on a ball team.

Most scientists accomplish their greatest breakthroughs before age 30, and afterward plow ground similar to where they have already been. This is true in most fields. A young mind can jump out of the box more easily than an old one, because they haven't built their own box yet. Once you do build a box, you're boxed-in.

This doesn't mean you only build with young people. Young people often don't know how to get to market. They don't know how to build the infrastructures necessary for success. They don't see the historical failure points and avoid them naturally, the way older people do.

Still, it hurts for our technology workforce to be so old. Neither of my kids have any interest in technology, except as users. My son plays learning games on his PC all day, but shows no interest in how they're designed. My daughter is more interested in art and animals and the physical world than in anything related to the world of abstract ideas.

Where are young people today? A lot of them are in the military. Or they're trying to get slots in corporate America. Instead of trying to build a new world they're trying to fit into the old one.

This isn't true in India, or China, or even Brazil. There I see young people launching new companies, trying new things, getting heavily involved in technology at ever-younger ages.

Mainly because they're encouraged to do so.

Our kids aren't, and this is a growing problem. We can easily fix our privacy policies, and our antitrust law. We have the capital needed to make the expense of nanotech a strategic advantage. But we need America's best young minds to desire change, demand change, and create change, or else change will continue to come slowly.

Sure, Washington deserves some blame. But we deserve some, too, as individuals. We trail badly in math skills, especialy in the crucial middle school years, and as a result the kids who aren't heading to elite schools in this country are headed nowhere.

Some of this will change naturally as policies change. A government policy that encourages technological innovation and excitement is going to attract a lot of bright young minds. This was true in the 1960s, and it was true in the 1990s. Big projects lead to big innovations, and we're going to need big projects in order to save the world for the future.

But we can do more, as individuals, right now, to get ready for these changes:

  • We need simple, fun, interactive courses that teach young people programming basics.
  • We need programs that make science and math fun, especially for middle school kids.
  • We need contests that will validate the work of geeks, which can start on a local level.

The best thing going for us right now, as I've said many times, is US First, the robotics competition launched by Dean Kamen. But we can do more. We need to build alumni groups of First kids. We need to extend the program more forcefully down to middle schools. We need to have challenges in other areas of technology as well - Internet technology and biotechnology and environmental technology.

The time has come, in other words, to teach, to mentor, and to pass on what we know so our children can save this wretched Earth from the mess we have made of it.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I have made a big decision. I have moved my main blog, formerly called Mooreslore, to under the name Dana Blankenhorn. (Hey, that's MY name.) The blog is written in Typepad and is also available at

I'm continuing to produce a special blog on Open Sourcefor ZDNet. I am pleased to say it has grown into a real money-maker. I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for Voic.Us, which aims to become a political "super-site" and offer mobile marketing services. Please visit that blog as well.

You are encouraged to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Best of the Week

Jacob Lieberman

Back when I was a New York Conservative, in the 1960s (I was, really) the words Jacob Javits drew a shudder from my friends.

The 1966 Game: Who's Wolfman Jack Now?

Limbaugh, like Wolfman Jack, began his career long before today's era of Republican Excess, but no one represents it more thoroughly, from his words to his lifestyle.

When Will Google Fight?

What I mean is for Google to unleash its dark fiber.


As Glenn Greenwald writes, networks of ultra-rightist cells are beginning to spread their hatred and violence into the conservative mainstream, much as the Filibusters infiltrated Southern politics 150 years ago.

Libertarian Democrat? Or Open Source Democrat?

What Washington doesn't get about these people (despite Kos' constant harping on it) is the process by which the Netroots works. It's not Kos giving orders and people following.

Sales Follow Technology

Before the Internet it was impossible to put niche products before the public. Books that might sell in the 10s, or songs that might sell in the hundreds of copies, were simply not available. Now they are.

Dump the Silo: Free the Bits

Since everyone is selling bits, all they really need are incentives to sell more. And since there's no shortage of bits, there is no longer an excuse for content regulation. Put the power to censor at the edge, alongside the power to explore.

Wanker of the Day

Leo Hindery

Signs of Crisis

Because in every crack-up there is a chance, a real chance, that this time American democracy will not survive, that the defeated will not go quietly, that they will consider their cause more worthy than the nation's existance, and bring the temple down on all our heads.

The Greatest Game Ever Played

This game, this kind of game, happens every day, at every level. But you've got to wait through a lot of crap to find it. It's the waiting for it that makes it beautiful

Generation After Generation

There is a grand exception to the generational theory of history. This is an issue that spans generations.



Cottingham Speaks: Is Anyone Listening?

Barnes Tries Again on Voter ID

Endorsement Time

No Special Session: Gay Marriage Amendment Upheld

VoterID Back in Murphy's Court

Konop Goes Cable on Price

Cox-Martin vs. Taylor-Hecht

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Water War

Air Wars Get Serious

A Conservative 4th

Do Republicans Have a McKinney Problem?

Privatized Cities

VoterID Requirement for Primary Day

Georgia's Kos Commits

Oxendine Endorses Cagle

ZDNet Open Source

MyStack is the Competitive Way to Play Open Source

Microsoft to Support ODF With Plug-In

Does it Matter Where Open Source Firms are Based?

SCO Case Will End with a Whimper

Open Source Academics Moves Ahead

Is Myhrvold Now a Blast from the Past?


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Simon Phipps, with my apologies.

Clueless is Joe Lieberman although his anger shows he's starting to get history's message.

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