A few months ago I read Curtis White’s 2003 book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think For Themselves.
White, an English professor at Illinois State University, is both
academic and sarcastic, and had written a wonderfully scathing attack
on our society’s near-complete dearth of imaginative thought and
slavish love of all things high-tech. In the book he calls technology
not merely “the real moving force in the political imagination,” but
also “the moving force behind all expressions of the American
imagination.” It is the only part of society that has any real
innovation, White wrote, but that’s hardly something to cheer.
“Technology is the God that worships itself,” White wrote. “So
powerful have the assumptions of national technophilia become that they
have achieved the self-evidence of nature… It has reached a point where
to be technophobic (or simply technically maladroit) is not to risk
mere irrelevance or incompetence; it is to risk isolation. The
community of man now sits at personalized consoles, our famous Global
Village. Our fateful paradox: to live in this community, you have to be
Technology has brought many wonderful things to modern society like
life-saving drugs, instant telecomuncation and Gilligan’s Island DVD
boxed sets, but anyone who has watched CNN drool over Steve Jobs’ latest gadget
as if it was going to revolutionize human history has to admit that
White has a point. That’s why it’s been humorous to watch Governor
Linda Lingle bask so publicly in the glory of technology, endlessly
regurgitating sloppy thinking and hollow cliches in the name of
replacing the Islands’ dependence on land development with high-tech
“Innovation is a dynamic process,” a fact sheet on her 2007 Initiatives tells us. “Innovation leads to sustainability.”
The first sentence is akin to saying “The sun is hot”—few people
will debate you on that one. But the second sentence is worse than mere
nonsense; it’s an assertion—and a thin, completely unsubstantiated one
at that—passed off as a fact. But since politicians rarely expect
people to think about the words that emanate from their mouths, her
desire to string high-sounding, ultimately meaningless jargon together
into a political proposal is understandable.
Of course, the local media has lapped it all up. “Lingle outlines
initiatives to revamp economy,” reported the Honolulu Advertiser on
Jan. 31. The same day, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin headlined that
“Lingle makes case for high-tech state.” But nobody caught Lingle’s
pitch so gallantly uncritical as The Maui News editorial page, which
has long been one of her biggest fans.
“What the state and county need are innovations, new ways of
thinking,” read the Feb. 3 editorial. “That’s why Gov. Lingle’s plans
should be supported.”
All hail innovation! Vive la Innovation! Innovation uber alles!
Of course, innovation by itself isn’t necessarily a good thing. Iraq
is one of the most hyper-innovative places on the planet right now, as
any Walter Reed patient will tell you. There Sunni insurgents and
Shiite death squads are feverishly discovering new ways to attach cell
phones to mine detonators or chlorine tanks to high explosives.
Politicians talking about the necessity of innovation is nothing
new. In fact, it’s not even a partisan issue. Democrats like House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are pushing it hard—because high
tech companies want handouts, and are willing to write big campaign
“If you wanted to find the missing urgency and passion that the
Democrats should have focused on Katrina and urban poverty,” wrote Mike
Davis in the January 2007 issue of the New Left Review, “it was evident
last year in the rousing speeches that Pelosi and other leading
Democrats delivered in tech hubs like Emeryville, Mountain Ville,
Raleigh and Redmond.”
According to Davis, high-tech firms want research credits, patent
reforms and alternative energy subsidies. It’s what Ralph Nader likes
to call “corporate welfare.”
“Since the first days of the Clinton Administration, seducing the
software and biotech sectors and their allied venture capitalists
(along with deepening already profound ties to entertainment and media
industries) has been the Democrats’ equivalent of the Republican’s K Street Project,”
wrote Davis. “Now, with Al Gore sitting on the boards of Google and
Apple, and Pelosi plotting virtual futures with Google founders Larry
Page and Sergey Brin, the Millenium has arrived.”
Ironically, Lingle actually started off in a more or less rational
manner. “We need to focus on developing our people, recognizing that
our future economic success and sustainability depends upon innovation
and new ideas that will enable us to create more high-paying quality
jobs that capitalize on people’s skills and talents,” she said in a
Jan. 12 press release. While there’s a lot to question about that
sentence—most notably, how does sustainability depend on
innovation?—the basic premise, that higher skilled jobs lead to better
quality of life, is economically sound.
But then Lingle goes off track a few paragraphs later: “Our goal is
to create a citizenry that will help make Hawai`i competitive and
successful in the global economy.”
Nations—and certainly not states—do not “compete” in the “global
economy.” Unlike corporations, which do compete, government entities
don’t need to worry about market share or profit margins. In fact, the
economist Paul Krugman, who also writes a column in The New York Times,
ridiculed the notion that nations compete more than a dozen years ago.
“In reality, there is almost nothing to our fixation with national
competitiveness, or its central idea—that every country is like a giant
corporation, slugging it out against rivals in global markets,” he
wrote on Mar. 7, 1994. “The U.S. and Japan are simply not competitors
in the same way that, say, Ford competes with Toyota. Any country’s
standard of living depends almost entirely on its own domestic
performance, and not on how it performs relative to other countries.
That’s not just my view; it’s what most economists think.”
This is a major problem considering that Lingle talks of building a
new Hawai`i that will “compete” in the “global economy” so often that
you’d think she was collecting royalties.
Lingle’s Jan. 22 State of the State Address contained a great deal
more of the same. “The Future Begins Today,” was her title, which makes
less sense the more you think about it. “It is important for us to have
a concrete, shared understanding of where we want to go,” she said.
“Without this common vision, it will be too easy to get off track and
stumble on our pathway to the future.”
As though “we” can wind up someplace other than “the future.”
“Are we just going to tread water and hope we can somehow sustain
our standard of living by doing the same things we have done in the
past?” she asked near the end of the speech. “Or are we going to be
true to the heritage of innovation left to us by our ancestors and
embrace the new economy by making certain our citizens have the
education and training they need to compete with anyone, anywhere,
But then she said something that would be megalomaniacal, were it not nonsensical: “I want to lead us down the path of innovation because it is the path of hope and opportunity.”
The problem isn’t that Lingle is merely spouting nonsense. Her
rhetoric may be meaningless, but she’s also proposing actual
legislation that’s anything but.
“First among the principles is providing the education and training
our citizens need to compete with the best and the brightest from
around the world,” Lingle said during her Jan. 22 State of the State
Address. “Because that is, above all, what it will take for us to
Lingle then proposed a “workforce development plan” that “emphasizes the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math skills.”
For all her talk of innovation, this is a very old idea indeed. In
1957, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first
artificial satellite, U.S. government officials freaked out, terrified
that our students were “falling behind” the Russian kids in their
rigorous Soviet education modules, or whatever they had for schools. So
they started a well-publicized, well-funded crash program to teach
American kids science, technology, engineering and math—a course of
study that, at least in theory, never abated.
But no matter. Taking a cue from inventor Dean Kamen, Lingle spent part of her State of the State Address telling us that robots are the future.
“I recently returned from New Hampshire where I participated in the
annual kick-off for an extra-curricular, teenage robotics competition
program that teaches STEM skills, known as the FIRST Robotics
Competition,” she said. “Dean is a passionate advocate for teaching
America’s students STEM skills through FIRST Robotics Competitions that
combine the excitement of sports with science and technology to create
what he calls ‘a unique varsity sport for the mind.’”
Most of Lingle’s proposed initiatives amount to little more than
corporate welfare. In fact, she acknowledged as much when she testified
before the House Committee on Labor and Public Employment on Jan. 30.
Gone was her empty rhetoric about the state competing in the global
economy, replaced with something a bit more practical.
“House Bill 1280 was introduced as a measure to help Hawaii’s
companies and workers remain competitive in the global market of
changing technology in business and industry,” she said, according to a
written statement of her remarks obtained from Representative Bob Nakasone’s office.
Indeed, Lingle’s remarks show the real “competition”—the battle
between states to cut deals with private industry. “We saw [this]
happen in the recent move of Hoku Scientific to Idaho,” Lingle told the committee. “Among other incentives, Hoku Scientific received from Idaho more than a million dollars in workforce training funds.”
Lingle’s answer? Give state taxpayer dollars to private industry for
research, so they don’t have to spend their own money. Hence she wants
to “Support a private sector-led life sciences and biotech research
facility.” Lingle wants to build a “Music Enterprise Learning
Experience”(MELE)–which is apparently some kind of training center for
what she calls “the development of Hawai`i’s music industry.” And she
wants to develop what she calls a “digital media center to act as a
catalyst, incubator and aggregator for the development of a local film
and digital media sector.”
Lingle also asked for a “$100 million professional managed Hawai`i
Innovation Fund to provide capital for promising emerging companies.”
Who manages? And what’s the criteria for “promising”?
That fund is still alive, though senators have already deleted the
$100 million figure. As for the rest of her bills, it’s a mixed bag. On
Feb. 24, a House committee deferred HB 1280, putting it on hold
indefinitely, but the Senate Ways and Means Committee is looking over
SB 1366, the Senate counterpart.
Senate Bill 1365, which contains the biotech research facility and
other corporate welfare items cited above, passed out of the Senate
Financial Committee on Mar. 30. Its House counterpart, HB 1279, has
Both House Bill 1268 and Senate Bill 1354—which would push the
science and math skills in our schools—are pending in their respective
Ways and Means Committees. And Senate Bill 1367, which would expand the
state Office of International Affairs and “focus on enhancing Hawai`i’s
leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region,” is pending in Ways and
Means Committee while its House counterpart—HB 1281—has been deferred.
Though largely unsaid by Lingle or the press, much of the innovation
our governor dreams of will benefit the military. What did you think
President Dwight Eisenhower was referring to when he derided the
“military-industrial complex” way back in 1961? Ever since then we’ve
been marching towards a world in which U.S. military power includes the
capability of dropping bombs from low Earth orbit, blinding enemy
soldiers with lasers and dropping Special Forces anywhere on the planet
within an hour’s notice.
Is this Hawai`i’s future? Just another cog in the war machine of the greatest imperial power in history?
Of course, it’s already happened. Defense contractors large (Boeing)
and small (Trex) have offices in the Maui Research & Technology
Center in Kihei. There’s even talk the new telescope proposed for the
Haleakala summit will watch for incoming nuclear missiles.
And in early March, Ambient Micro—also based in Kihei—won a $750,000
contract to design a power source for drone aircraft. “The goal of this
technology is to increase the endurance and survivability of unmanned
aircraft,” Ambient Micro President Scott Weeker said in the Mar. 7,
2007 Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Translated into English, Weeker wants to design a way for the
military to keep its unmanned planes in the air longer, so they can spy
on potential enemies longer and then potentially launch missiles at
them. It’s all about making our military more lethal, and in the long run making sure it’s easier for us to get what we want in the world if we decide to start killing people.
It’s also exactly the kind of “innovation” the Lingle Administration wants to encourage.
“We are pleased to hear about the Ambient Micro contract,” state
Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism Director Ted
Liu said in the same Mar. 7 Star-Bulletin story cited above. “We hope
that this is one of many contracts that will be coming to Hawaii’s
high-tech business community.”
This is where the debate over “innovation” should begin. If Lingle
is going to get her way and move the foundation of our state’s economy
from land to technology, then people should know exactly what that
technology will make possible. MTW
1. I ordered White’s book
from Amazon.com, which didn’t have it in stock—it’s been out of print
probably since 2003—but arranged the sale through a used book store.
The book cost me $5—$2 for the hardbound, first edition book itself and
$3 for shipping. Given the fact that White’s whole point is that
America is destroying culture and creative thought, that kind of price
breakdown actually makes sense.
2. For example, the Jan. 14,
2007 story “Apple drops a bombshell with iPhone,”
3. Nader testifying before
the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee, June 30, 1999: “If
a program involves the government giving more to private companies than
it gets back—that is, where it is engaging in a transaction that cannot
be justified as a fair market value exchange—then it should be
considered corporate welfare.”
4. This was the plan by
disgraced Republicans Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff to co-opt the big
Washington lobbying firms by threatening to lock them out of the
legislative process if they didn’t sack any Democrats they had on the
payroll. Already on the skids following the indictments of Abramoff and
Delay, the November 2006 election of Democratic majorities in both
houses of Congress finally ended the project.
5. For some reason this reminds me of the 1954 movie Conquest of Space,
in which the general leading the first mission to Mars declares that
humanity’s destiny is to “conquer space.” But then he goes insane for
some reason that’s never really explained, transforming from a
goose-stepping military officer into a Bible-thumping Luddite who
denounces human intrusion into space and attempts to make right by
destroying his ship and crew, which happens to include his own son.
6. Lingle euphemistically calls these “STEM Skills.”
7. The Segway guy.
8. Represents Kahului,
Wailuku, Pu`unene, Sprecklesville, Paia; serves as vice-chair of the
House Labor and Public Employment Committee; sells paint.
9. On Mar. 27, Hoku
officials broke ground for a 67-acre, $260 million plant in Pocatello,
Idaho. The plant will make polysilicon, which is used in solar panels.
The groundbreaking was such a big deal that Idaho Governor C. L.
“Butch” Otter and Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase reportedly showed up.
10. Like ridiculously low labor costs.
11. In the April 2002 issue of Wired,
Bruce Sterling vividly describes exactly this scenario in a story
called “Peace is War.” The essay is unsettling not so much because of
the ramifications of an American President being able to bomb nearly
anyone on Earth from space—though there’s that—but because Sterling
thinks it’s such a kick-ass idea.
12. Our inability to stop the killing and mayhem in Iraq notwithstanding.