Gary J. Beach

Finding our next Sputnik

By Gary J. Beach
October 26, 2008
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I REMEMBER the evening star-gazing walks as if they were yesterday. But they weren't. It was 51 years ago this fall when my father would take my brothers and me outside after dinner to look skyward to see the basketball-sized Soviet satellite Sputnik streak majestically in the heavens on a northwest-to-southeast course.

Washington's reaction to Sputnik ("traveling companion" in Russian) was hardly paternal. Sputnik hurt America's pride, but the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile that launched the satellite into space threatened America's national security. President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress responded forcefully in 1957 by quadrupling funds for the National Science Foundation, creating NASA, and, as an unintended national consequence, ushering in 30 years of American domination of the global information-technology industry.

Five years after Eisenhower's actions, an American MIT professor named J.C.R. Licklider wrote an essay where he envisioned an "intergalactic computer network." Seven years later, thanks to American computer scientists Bob Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Larry Roberts, and Vint Cerf, the "intergalactic computer network" became the Internet.

During this era, Americans led other information-technology inventions. Kenneth Olsen founded Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation that made the minicomputer a global staple of corporate computer networks. American Ed Roberts invented the Altair 8800, the first microcomputer, and other Americans like MIT graduate Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet, still the standard for enterprise networks.

American-led IT invention, however, hit a digital wall around 1990, and most of the world's leading tech inventions since then have been by non-Americans.

The WorldwideWeb, acclaimed by many as the most important human invention since the printing press, was invented in 1991 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British citizen. Three Canadian computer science majors at McGill University invented the concept of Internet search in 1990, six years before Google came to market. Linux, the world's leading open source software derivative, was invented in 1991 by Lars Torvald, a Finnish scientist.

Marc Andreesen, the University of Illinois at Urbana student who conceived the popular Internet browser Netscape in 1994, stands atop a short list of truly important post-1990 American-led IT invention.

Some might say who cares who invented what, as long as it works!

And that might be OK if it weren't for the haunting theory of an obscure 20th-century Japanese historian/physicist named Mitsutomo Yuasa. In 1962, Yuasa wrote an essay entitled "The Shifting Center of Scientific Activity in the West." The 43-page essay presented compelling data that claimed every 80 to 100 years the "center" of scientific activity in the West shifted from one country to another.

Yuasa starts his analysis in 15th-century Italy, which led, according to Yuasa, world science from 1540 to 1610. Yuasa's "centers" then shift to England (1660-1730), France (1770-1830), Germany (1810-1920), and finally to the United States (1920-present).

Yuasa's theory predicts America's pivotal shift period will be 2000-2020. The evidence cited here suggests the shift is well underway.

Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, in warning Arab oil ministers in the 1970s about shifts in the oil business, said "the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stones." Likewise, America's unchallenged global leadership of the information technology age didn't end because of the lack of information, or technology. It ended because Americans lost interest in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Perception is reality. Fifty years ago, American engineers and scientists were plastic-pocket-protector gods. In today's Facebook era, they are geeks with horn-rimmed glasses.

Yuasa's nearly 500-year-old shift theory is proving out again. The United States will never again be the unquestioned leader in information technology. And that's OK.

America has, at most, 12 years to figure out what the coming "shift" is and prepare for it. If we don't, our nation will suffer significant economic, social, and national-security repercussions for decades to come.

We need to find our 21st-century Sputnik, and we need to find it fast.

Gary J. Beach is publisher emeritus of CIO Magazine.

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