And all the science, I don’t understand

Posted on Thursday, October 04, 2018

Just a relatively short comment inspired by the recent White House 5G launch where FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “Time is of the essence” referring to 5G.

“Time is of the essence,” Pai said. “We are not alone in our pursuit of 5G. The U.S. is in the lead, thanks to our private sector as well as the work of the FCC, this Administration, and Congress. But China, South Korea, and many other countries are eager to claim this mantle.”

The quote comes from the version of the story but it was widely reprinted.

Whether he meant to leave this impression or not, I was reminded of President Kennedy’s challenge to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Just before this statement he had said…

“Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”

That is, ‘time is of the essence’ and a technological achievement was considered critical to the geopolitical rivalry that reigned at the time. As a later commentary said, the moon shot served as a proxy for war. The United States ability to accomplish it was a major moment in the fight for technological leadership. It would be hard to say there was a direct connection between Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” and the fall of the Berlin Wall some 20 years later, but it might have kept some countries from going over to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The analogies with military technology were obvious, and better to be with the gang who has the bigger sticks.

But apart from a few rocks, going to the Moon accomplished nothing. Yes, the technology required to get there gave us some consumer products (Velcro), and as above, some military technology benefits, but the Moon proved barren (which, frankly, was known already) and there has never been a reason to go back. There are rumors the Chinese are thinking about doing it but that would, again, be a kind of bravura gesture to show they had the military technology to cause trouble on Earth.

Going to the Moon became a demonstration of the power of setting a simple goal and the definition of a grand project that ultimately went nowhere.

I certainly hope the same is not true of 5G – a grand project, full of grand gestures, a bravura display of technology that ultimately goes nowhere.

Pai’s turning it into a geopolitical competition does not make me feel comfortable.

(Title reference: From Elton John / Bernie Taupin’s Rocket Man from the 1972 Honky Chateau album. President Trump’s use of the term to belittle North Korean leader Kim Jong Un creates an unfortunate reference for a good song. The connection is perhaps too obvious but since the narrator questions what he is doing – It’s just my job, five days a week – I thought it particularly appropriate.)

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