Tag Archives: 2001 a space odyssey


Wednesday will be the 1st of January 2014. This may seem trivially obvious, but in thinking about it, I find this date astonishing.

I was born in 1972. (Yes, this is going to be one of those essays.) The world at the time was divided among two major powers and a number of nations that wished just to be left alone. That latter group is still with us, but Russia and the United States are struggling. When I was born, we were almost done with landing on the Moon. Now, we’ve dropped our ambitions to low orbit, figuring that robot probes are a sufficient substitute for human footprints. We communicate at a much more rapid pace, but whether what we say is said as well or with as much meaning is something our judges in centuries to come must decide.


Much like Dr. Heywood Floyd, we can see images of each other saying inane things while rushing to somewhere else, though most of us cannot do that from a space station.

My conception of the future came in large part from watching reruns of Star Trek. It is a strange thing to realize that I am now living in a world of instantaneous communication with all points, of computers that store the libraries of all time and talk to each other, of virtual images that seem more real than the physical world. The technological change over the last four decades has been enormous. When we did land on the Moon, the computer on board the lander had less computational power than a desk calculator today and much less than the typical cell phone.


But more than the new gadgets, there is also the wonder of living in the third millennium.


That always felt far away until the changeover in 2001 (not 2000!), but now the years rush on without so many zeroes to look forward to. After all, the end of the world as we know it didn’t come, so we’re back to living day to day until the next promise of a revolution. Certainly, we’re not making regular trips to the Moon and have only vague prospects of bases and colonists living there any time soon.

Of course, much of my mind lives in the past, anyway. I teach World Literature I–that’s the beginning of writing to 1650 C.E., and yes, that’s crazy–so many days I can honestly quote the line from Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez” that I’ve seen nothing later than the fifteenth century today. Or since I write westerns, I’m often wandering the lands to the left of the Mississippi with my character, Henry Dowland.


So what does the change to the new year mean to me? It’s an excuse to stay up late, drink something spirited (however willing or otherwise), and feel waves of nostalgia. In other words, a typical day.

You Never Created a Job. . .

How many times have we heard someone say, “X doesn’t deserve to lead because he’s never created a job”? Such a comment gets used also in relation to government in general and to academia. Let’s consider two cases:

1. NASA and the Military space program

It’s an old observation that our space program has created much of the technology that is a part of our modern lives. We can debate some details, but think about the communication that’s possible now. Consider how it’s possible to know exactly where we are by consulting a single gadget. The most obvious contribution is the way in which space has been opened up. This is the result of the national programs of America, Russia, and others.

These days, private companies are taking advantage of these technologies to provide products and services. Remember that space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? A corporate transportation company carried Dr. Floyd into space and to the Moon, and he used a service that looked a lot like Skype to talk to his daughter. All of that is likely in the near future, and the companies that will provide it will have got the underlying technology from scholars and the government.

2. The Internet

And I ain’t talking Al Gore here. The Internet is the creation of DARPA, the military’s research agency, and universities. Since you’re here reading this article on-line, I don’t have to explain the value of their work, nor must I tell you about the many jobs that exist because of it. Jeff Bezos is a smart person, but he’d still be moving paper around in a hedge fund firm if it weren’t for the Ivory Tower and the Gummit.

What do we learn here? Some technologies require decades to mature. Private companies or corporations can’t spend that long and that much money to develop them. Schools and governments have the time. If we deny them the money, we shut off a great deal of potential. At the same time, having established the field, the government especially needs to open it up for everyone to participate and to get out of the way. SOPA and attempts to ban types of content between consenting adults are examples of not letting go.

We can spend our society’s money in many ways. Promoting science and technology has clear, if long term rewards. A society that wishes to thrive must do this.