Sputnik vs. Atlas Shrugged

I spent a delightful few days in Aspen with Amy, my uncle Charlie, and his wife Cindy.  My first computer experience was at a Frito-Lay office in Dallas when I was 10 where Charlie sat me down in front of a terminal with a green screen, fired up an APL interpreter, gave me a big book called APL: A Programming Language, and then left me alone for the next five hours.  Over the years Charlie and I have worked together on a variety of things, most recently when I was a major investor in his previous company, The Feld Group (acquired by EDS in January 2004). 

We covered a wide range of topics over a dozen meals and several long walks together (neither of us are skiers).  One theme that we kept revisiting was the current decline of the United States in the world order (ahem – China, India anyone?)  I’ve been rolling around the idea of living in a country equivalent to post-Edwardian England (e.g. we peaked, life can still be great, but we aren’t at the top of the mountain anymore) since a rollicking dinner with Pat Kenealy a few months ago and have started to get comfortable with the idea.

While I accept that the United States can’t be the unambiguous leader of the world (if you disagree with that statement, read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat again), the future of the United States as defined by Atlas Shrugged is profoundly unappealing.  On the heals of yet another piece of empirical evidence that our government is trying their hardest to emulate the moochers in Atlas Shrugged (e.g. “Oops – yes – we were spying on you – a lot – even more than we said we were – but it’s for your own good”), it’s hard not to be just a little bit discouraged.

As someone who has been playing in the sandbox of entrepreneurship and innovation his entire adult life, I’ve never really thought much about the need for a catalyst for our country since I have always been immersed in a zone of endless overstimulation.  However, as I get older and watch many of my venture brethren hop on airplanes to Beijing, Shanghai, and Mumbai, I’ve been thinking about the United States’ place in the next wave of innovation.  As the Web 2.0 meme finally starts to fade (or maybe it’s just that 2005 is coming to an end), I’ve been waiting for something to replace it, just to see if anyone had any new non-China/India innovation juice.

While sitting at the St. Regis in Aspen the other day having a hot apple cider, Charlie said something simple, but completely profound. “We need another Sputnik.”  I hadn’t been born yet when the Sputnik Crisis happened, but as a kid I was fascinated with space (like most nerd-boys) and it always stuck in my mind how Sputnik focused and rallied the United States around innovation.

I don’t know what the next Sputnik is for the United States, but I’m keeping my eyes open for it.

  • I’ve had many similar thoughts, although the Sputnik angle hadn’t entered in. Wasn’t 9/11 a Sputnik class event, without a Sputik-class response?

  • I agree 9/11 was a Sputnik-caliber event. The effort that directly lifts the Sputnik/Apollo metaphor is the Apollo Alliance (http://www.apolloalliance.org/). It’s relatively partisan whereas there are other efforts such as the economic development entity in the Northwest called Climate Solutions (www.climatesolutions.org). The encouraging thing is that there are alliances forming that cross political boundaries such as those I outlined in this post — http://chasesmartenergy.blogspot.com/2005/05/politics-makes-strange-bedfellows.html that bring together everything from defense hawks to green groups. If Kerry had a political clue, he would have used an Apollo Alliance-like approach to giving something for people to rally around.

    I have another blog (http://chasesmartenergy.blogspot.com/) where I post occasionally that has a number of developments in the so-called “Smart Energy” arena. The thing I like about this sector as compared to other clean/green energy/technology plays is that lessons from the I.T. industry can be applied here vs. other segements where I don’t feel like I have much value to add.

  • Paul


  • Chip

    I have enjoyed reading your blog over the last few months. I have especially enjoyed your highly educational comments on VC funding.

    Your uncle’s comment hit a note with me. My thinking was along the same lines is: “another Russia”

    From the Olympics (who can get excited about beating the Uzbekistan Olympic team) to a unifying military strategy, the U.S. rises to do its best against a clear, common enemy. The U.S. before and after it

  • Chip,

    I don’t know if I buy that “the U.S. rises to do its best against a clear, common enemy.” I think we do great letting people do what they want to do, and not uniting behind some grand purpose.

  • Sputnick as a rallying point was great, the fact that it was our cold war rival that launched it brought it home. The global energy game should be our new rallying cry. The government should make it clear to everyone what would happen if we stopped sending hundreds of billions of dollars out every year on foreign oil. If we could lead the world in a real energy alternative not only would it unleash our industry again but we could lead the world for the next century with this technology. So it is not an enemy we need but a rallying goal. Sputnick led to the race to the moon. 9/11 and the gas prices of this summer should lead to clean, cheap abundant energy based on US technology.

  • Be careful not to focus on Sputnick itself, but rather the leadership that energized the reaction to Sputnick. Sputnick was just a catalyst. The real question is, do we have leadership that is capable of rallying the country around a cause? My fear is that we don’t, and won’t ever.

    9/11 could have been such a catalyst, but unfortunately I think key people used it as an opportunity to fulfill their own agendas rather than lead towards a greater good.

  • Brad,

    I am confused by something you tossed off in this post. You said, “As the Web 2.0 meme finally starts to fade…” First, Web 2.0 as a meme I think is right, but I don’t sense that it is fading. Actually it feels to me as if we are very much still at the beginning. I would expect the only thing that would end this period/style in Web innovation [that is now commonly referred to as Web 2.0] is a backward slide into another investment/acquisition/innovation slowdown. So, that brings me to my question. I’m curious…in your view if Web 2.0 was a menaingful concept and period, what signs show it’s current “fade” and what will mark it’s demise?

  • Dan – I should clarify my “meme fading” comment. For about six months in 2005, the dominant “meme” was “Web 2.0”. It became a moniker for much of the innovation going on in and around the Internet. Once the mainstream media picked it up, it was time for the meme to start to fade and for the innovators to start digging down to the next level. Whatever Web 2.0 represent(s)(ed) is irrelevent (at least to me) – there is clearly a lot of new and exciting stuff going on around software / Internet / consumer services. This is all goodness, but referring to it as Web 2.0 is overly simplistic and – in my opinion – a cheap and easy way for people to describe what they are doing (e.g. it’s easier to say “I’m doing a Web 2.0 thing than to actually describe the unique characteristics of the thing you are up to.” So – I’m glad the meme is fading (e.g. people are talking about more specific things), but this has nothing to do with the “demise” or “lack of activity” around new innovation.

  • Web 2.0 i overrated but that is what people want is the easy way to voice their opinions.

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