One Nation, Left Behind

My sister lives in Phoenix, Arizona. This time of the year it’s damn hot. Sometimes it’s 110 degrees. Luckily my sister lives in an apartment that came completely wired to the electrical grid. At no effort on her part, except to work and pay the bill, she can turn on the AC and is able to sleep in what would otherwise be an unreasonable temperature.

Modern life in America is a miracle we often take for granted. But it doesn’t stop with electricity.

Did you know that in my house, at no extra effort on my part, I can make a phone call? This is incredibly handy, especially if it’s my mother’s birthday. Even better, if there’s an emergency, I can dial 911 and instantly be transferred to an operator who’ll send an ambulance.

Again, I did nothing to make this happen. It’s just a part of American life.

As a matter of fact, our nation is one of the few where most people, even the lower class, have access to electricity, roads, hospitals and telephones. Yet this state of commonwealth is not one of mere happenstance. The phones and electrical wires didn’t just install themselves to houses across the nation. In 1910 there were 5.8 million telephone lines in the nation. By 1948, the 30 millionth phone was connected in the United States and by 1980 there were 175 million telephone subscribers.

The same story can be told about electricity. Already in the late 1800’s, cities had begun to install electricity to make life easier for those who could afford it. But by 1910, only about 10% of the farms had electricity. By 1945, after various legislative acts, almost 50% were wired up. Today, 95% of our rural areas have electricity, and more than 50% of the power lines installed rurally were funded by government programs.

Both the phone and electricity were revolutionary. They modernized our nation and gave us opportunities we never thought possible. Access to telephone and electricity, as well as other utilities like sanitation, roads and airports, have made our nation worthy of admiration.

In each case, when the technologies were invented, only the rich and powerful, or those living in cities who could afford the fees, had the opportunity to use them. It was only with legislation that both the telephone and electricity became affordable to the average American. While both were funded and created by the elite, it was our government that made sure that eventually, each of us would have the ability to turn on the AC when it’s hot, or call 911 when there’s an emergency. In short, our government worked for the people, laying down the infrastructure needed to build the next generation of our great nation.

Here we stand, yet again, at a technological crossroads. The digital revolution has changed the entire playing field. This time, we quickly attempted to get everyone online, and almost 78% of our households have internet access. This is incredible, given that it only took about ten years. The rate of implementation seems to be speeding up.

But is it enough?

For us to truly realize the full potential of the digital revolution, and all the technology that goes with it, we need more than just bandwidth to our houses. To have Smart Houses, Cars and Cities, we’ll need major investments in housing, the electrical grid and our roads. We can’t have self-driving cars unless a coordinated effort is made to install our roads and highways with the proper technologies to do such a thing. We can’t move to all electric cars until we organize ourselves to have charging stations, like gas stations, in every town and city across America. We can’t utilize green technologies such as wind and solar without major upgrades to our electrical grid and American houses.

It seems that the technology we need to create a greener, cleaner and more convenient world has been already been invented. The time has come to roll it out to the population at large. Similar to the way our government invested in the electrical grid, airports, roads and telephony, we need our leaders to now fund upgrades to all of those systems, and then some. It’s the only way we’ll continue to grow and be a nation of opportunity.

Yet I don’t see our politicians funding anything of the sort. Contrary to the work done in the 1920’s and 1930’s to regulate telephone and electricity, our current government is ready to sell the internet off to the highest bidder. Rather than a New Deal that would upgrade our roads and electrical grids to be ready for Smart Cars and Smart Houses, money is being pulled from state budgets in order to cover an ever growing debt. This is a very different group of politicians than those who funded the last technological era of our country. Rather than working for the people, our government now spends about 20% of its budget on the military, compared to 3% for transportation and infrastructure. Add another measly 2% that goes towards science and technology and it’s not hard to see that improving our society to meet the digital age is pretty low on the priority list of those in Washington.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a fan of big government. I’m a fan of efficient government for the people. An inter-state project like the implementation of driver-less cars is a perfect example of how a federal government could serve the people. The militarization of our police force with left-over technologies the Armed Forces isn’t using, not such a good thing.

And while we’re on the subject of the Armed Forces, it seems not all technological advancement is being neglected by Washington. Designing drones to accurately kill others in remote locations is a high priority for our legislators. So are robots used to install land mines. But spend a little more money upgrading the information highway and our roadways so that they can work together seamlessly?

Forget it.

Which makes me wonder, will we be a nation left behind this time? Will Germany, Singapore and South Africa have driverless, electric cars before we do? Will Japan and South Korea install green Smart Grids that power their Smart Houses using solar energy collecting windows, while Washington continues to stalemate on any advancements in this area?

The chances are high. Very high.

Unless Silicon Valley can figure this one out, it’s likely we’ll find pockets of America that move forward in technological advancement, while others are left with nothing but their AC and telephones. On the surface that might seem okay, but history has shown us that when the majority of our citizens have access to the basic utilities needed to be a part of modern society, we all benefit.

Those left behind tend to riot. The new era will be no exception.