Segan: America Needs a 75-Year Technology Plan
The French railway system makes our poor Amtrak want to hide out in a freight yard somewhere, crying.
Guillaume Pepy, the president of the French railway company SNCF, once explained to me why: To build decent infrastructure, he said, you need to have a 50-, 75-, or 100-year plan.
With Amtrak constantly fighting for its life a year at a time, of course it's going to decay.
What does infrastructure have to do with thinking green? It's all about planning for the future. Green means sustainable, which means looking beyond short-term goals to see where we want to be in 75 years and how to get there.
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Otherwise, our environment and society will end up a lot more like Amtrak than like the French TGV.
Before you start mocking that there's no way we can predict or plan based on a 75-year time frame, think about radios, telephones and highways.
We're still working basically with the radio spectrum regulation system set up in 1927. The system of copper wires that gives our homes last-mile connectivity was set up more than a hundred years ago. Car culture is 100 years old. The national highway system you drive on daily was conceived in 1922.
Long-term plans aren't fixed, of course; They change with the times. But they give us goals and a focus beyond just pillaging resources in search of next-quarter profits.
In a 1907 issue of Broadway Magazine, writers proposed a long-term plan for the Port of New York. They figured that much of New York's wealth comes from its port, and that by the year 2000 the city would have a population of about 15 million, with 19 million in the metro area.
So they proposed moving the port from crowded New York Harbor to a huge new complex on Jamaica Bay.
That's a perfect example of how a 50-year plan can actually pan out. By 2000, New York had 8 million people in the city, but 21 million in the metro area.
And much of the city's position as a world hub came from a huge port on Jamaica Bay: JFK Airport, which grew to its present proportions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Unfortunately, our political and economic systems are not designed for 75-year plans. Increased public ownership of companies, the day-trader stock-market culture and flip-focused investors who want to pump and dump stock make for a society focused on short-term profits.
To execute even one 75-year plan, we need a country of investors in it for the long haul. And in the area of tech, we need not one, but four 75-year plans.
INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN. Thank goodness for the telecoms' frenzy of the late 1990s. The fiber they laid then gave us a leg up into the 21st century. But we need a serious plan for replacing copper and shoring up network backbones for massively more bandwidth-hungry services than we have now.
We need to overbuild the present, because that's just plain building the future. And that goes for physical infrastructure, too: roads, railroads, ports, and airports.
Our world's connectivity isn't just virtual. We're still living off mid-20th-century overbuilding — so how are we preparing for the year 2100?
WIRELESS PLAN. Our radio spectrum is an encrusted agglomeration of technologies built up over the past century. It's time for a real housecleaning: A comprehensive plan for the next 75 years should be globally coordinated, at least across the Western world. Existing users, especially the military, should be relocated. This can't be a half measure: Our future is a wireless future.
TRANSFORMATIVE TECHNOLOGIES PLAN. What technology will change how our society works in the next 75 years, the way the transistor did in the past century? Will it be biotech? Quantum computing?
Let's place some long bets, and approach them from a tech-positive perspective — not with, say, a raft of anti-biotech legislation aimed at keeping the world as similar to its present state as possible.
ENERGY PLAN. We will need tons more energy in the future. We need to find sources with indefinite life spans.
In the "short" (30-year) term, we need to think seriously about greatly increasing our investment in nuclear power. It isn't perfect, but it beats coal and oil.
After that, what do we want our world to look like? Wind farms, hydro power, solar sails? They all have their downsides, but the pluses can be maximized in a 75-year plan.
I have acquaintances who have bought a house in the woods and are learning to farm, to prepare for the coming post-apocalyptic wasteland. I'd prefer not to have to do so.
Instead of preparing for the worst, we need some multi-decade plans — and the fortitude to follow through.
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