…Apollo was not seen only as a victory for one of two antagonistic ideologies. Rather, the strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology. From his perch in Lausanne, Switzerland, the writer Vladimir Nabokov cabled the New York Times, ”Treading the soil of the moon, palpating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event, feeling in the pit of one’s stomach the separation from terra—these form the most romantic sensation an explorer has ever known.”
To contemporaries, the Apollo program occurred in the context of a long series of technological triumphs. The first half of the century produced the assembly line and the airplane, penicillin and a vaccine for tuberculosis; in the middle years of the century, polio was on its way to being eradicated; and by 1979 smallpox would be eliminated. More, the progress seemed to possess what Alvin Toffler dubbed an “accelerative thrust" in Future Shock, published in 1970. The adjectival swagger is pardonable: for decades, technology had been increasing the maximum speed of human travel. During most of history, we could go no faster than a horse or a boat with a sail; by the First World War, automobiles and trains could propel us at more than 100 miles an hour. Every decade thereafter, cars and planes sped humans faster. By 1961, a rocket-powered X-15 had beenpiloted to more than 4,000 miles per hour; in 1969, the crew of Apollo 10 flew at 25,000. Wasn’t it the very time to explore the galaxy—”to blow this great blue, white, green planet or to be blown from it,” as Saul Bellow wrote in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (also 1970)
Since Apollo 17's flight in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. No one has traveled faster than the crew of Apollo 10. (Since the last flight of the supersonic Concorde in 2003, civilian travel has become slower.) Blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated, too, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.
I remember sitting in my family’s living room in Berkeley, California, watching the liftoff of Apollo 17. I was five; my mother admonished me not to stare at the fiery exhaust of the Saturn 5 rocket. I vaguely knew that this was the last of the moon missions—but I was absolutely certain that there would be Mars colonies in my lifetime. What happened?
That something happened to humanity’s capacity to solve big problems is a commonplace. Recently, however, the complaint has developed a new stridency among Silicon Valley’s investors and entrepreneurs, although it is usually expressed a little differently: people say there is a paucity of real innovations. Instead, they worry, technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys.
The motto of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm started by Peter Thiel, a cofounder of PayPal, is “We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters.” Founders Fund matters, because it is the investment arm of what is known locally as the “PayPal Mafia,” currently the dominant faction in Silicon Valley, which remains the most important area on the planet for technological innovation. (Other members include Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors; Reid Hoffman, executive chairman of LinkedIn; and Keith Rabois, chief operating officer of the mobile payments company Square.) Thiel is caustic: last year he told the New Yorker that he didn’t consider the iPhone a technological breakthrough. “Compare [it] with the Apollo program,” he said.The Internet is “a net plus—but not a big one.” Twitter gives 500 people “job security for the next decade,” but “what value does it create for the entire economy?” And so on. Max Levchin, another cofounder of PayPal, says, “I feel like we should be aiming higher. The founders of a number of startups I encounter have no real intent of getting anywhere huge … There’s an awful lot of effort being expended that is just never going to result in meaningful, disruptive innovation.”
But Silicon Valley’s explanation of why there are no disruptive innovations is parochial and reductive: the markets—in particular, the incentives that venture capital provides entrepreneurs—are to blame. According to Founders Fund’s manifesto, “What Happened to the Future?,” written by Bruce Gibney, a partner at the firm: “In the late 1990s, venture portfolios began to reflect a different sort of future … Venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems … VC has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances.” Computers and communications technologies advanced because they were well and properly funded, Gibney argues. But what seemed futuristic at the time of Apollo 11 ”remains futuristic, in part because these technologies never received the sustained funding lavished on the electronics industries.”
The argument, of course, is wildly hypocritical. PayPal’s capos made their fortunes in public stock offerings and acquisitions of companies that did more or less trivial things. Levchin’s last startup, Slide, was a Founders Fund investment: it was acquired by Google in 2010 for about $200 million and shuttered earlier this year. It developed Facebook widgets such as SuperPoke and FunWall.
But the real difficulty with Silicon Valley’s explanation is that it is insufficient to the case. The argument that venture capitalists lost their appetite for risky but potentially important technologies clarifies what’s wrong with venture capitaland tells us why half of all funds have provided flat or negative returns for the last decade. It also usefully explains how a collapse in nerve reduced the scope of the companies that got funded: with the exception of Google (which wants to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”), the ambitions of startups founded in the last 15 years do seem derisory compared with those of companies like Intel, Apple, and Microsoft, founded from the 1960s to the late 1970s. (Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, promised to “put a computer in every home and on every desktop,” and Apple’s Steve Jobs said he wanted to make the “best computers in the world.”) But the Valley’s explanation conflates all of technology with the technologies that venture capitalists like: traditionally, as Gibney concedes, digital technologies. Even during the years when VCs were most risk-happy, they preferred investments that required little capital and offered an exit within eight to 10 years. The venture capital business has always struggled to invest profitably in technologies, such as biotechnology and energy, whose capital requirements are large and whose development is uncertain and lengthy; and VCs have never funded the development of technologies that are meant to solve big problems and possess no obvious, immediate economic value. The account is a partial explanation that forces us to ask: putting aside the personal-computer revolution, if we once did big things but do so no longer, then what changed?
Silicon Valley’s explanation has this fault, too: it doesn’t tell us what should be done to encourage technologists to solve big problems, beyond asking venture capitalists to make better investments. (Founders Fund promises to “run the experiment” and “invest in smart people solving difficult problems, often difficult scientific or engineering problems.”) Levchin, Thiel, and Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, had planned a book, to be titled The Blueprint, that would “explain where the world’s innovation has gone.” Originally intendedto be released in March of this year, it has been indefinitely postponed, according to Levchin, because the authors could not agree on a set of prescriptions.
Let’s stipulate that venture-backed entrepreneurialism is essential to the development and commercialization of technological innovations. But it is not sufficient by itself to solve big problems, nor could its relative sickliness by itself undo our capacity for collective action through technology.