“… We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

— President  John F. Kennedy, 12 September 1962

I’ve been reading EE Times for almost thirty years. In all this time, the oddest phenomenon I’ve observed in the comment sections of EE Times are the outbursts of livid outrage over a reporter’s occasional — and usually timid — attempt to discuss the political implications of a technology topic.

The righteous engineers who spew these flames justify their indignation by insisting that a publication dedicated to technology ought not venture into politics, nor should EE Times’ editors force their worldly opinions onto the cloistered scientists who constitute EE Times’ faithful readership. Inevitably, these complaints focus on what their authors deem the “liberal” bias of EE Times' reporters.

If I’ve learned anything about EE Times readers, it’s that they’re not the apolitical empiricists they crack themselves up to be, and that they are largely allied with a conservatism that borders on reaction. One of my shocks was learning how many EE Times readers, all holders of multiple degrees from America’s most prestigious polytechnic schools, deny the theory of evolution. Clearly, in the 21st century, an engineer who prefers Biblical fables to Darwin’s widely accepted theory is taking a position not scientific but political.

As I’ve observed these science mavens who protest the invasion of politics into their professional periodicals, I remembered President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962, when he brazenly marshaled all the forces of U.S. technology to the nakedly political goal of beating the Soviet Union to the moon.

John F. Kennedy speaks at Rice University (Source: NASA)
John F. Kennedy speaks at Rice University (Source: NASA)

In one of the most stirring passages in that extraordinary speech, JFK said, “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

Nexus of technology and politics
Never more clearly has a leader expressed the nexus of technology and politics. Kennedy’s speech was brief. He didn’t point out that technology has always been an element of America’s political culture, from the engineering of the Erie Canal to the agricultural revolution triggered by Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, to the government’s vital support for America’s rail network and then the interstate highway system — all the way down to the creation of the Internet by DARPA and the FCC’s struggle with the issue of net neutrality.

For at least a decade, Washington has struggled with the politics of the Web. The Internet has welcomed (or seduced) billions of world citizens into a myriad of technologies they can neither see nor understand. At the same time, the Internet has become a gateway for myriad cyber-predators to (lawfully) infiltrate and manipulate the personal lives, secret passions and financial affairs of those billion citizens. That’s politics, Peabody.

As JFK demonstrated, America’s political fortunes have oft been fostered by leaders who grasp the importance of technology. Indeed, in his Houston speech, President Kennedy foresaw the impact of Moore’s Law three years before anyone had ever heard of Gordon Moore. JFK said that “… this nation’s own scientific manpower is doubling every twelve years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.”

He went on with a warning we could well heed today: “This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers.”

In this sentence, Kennedy, a Democrat, echoed fears expressed by his Republican predecessor Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address. Eisenhower’s most famous speech foresaw the awesome and perilous trust the U.S. government had invested in a “military-industrial complex” whose political influence wields the power to turn technology into a threat against American democracy.

Today, besides the military-industrial complex, America faces a digital-industrial complex that imperils democracy not with ships, tanks and bombs, but with an unfettered onslaught of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, lies and incitement to hatred. We’ve entered an age of surveillance unprecedented in history — although foreshadowed by intrusive government forebears that include the Gestapo, the KGB, Stasi and the Kempeitai.

No one can deny that the abuse of the Internet both by foreign invaders and domestic monopolists is a political crisis spawned in technology and dependent on the brilliance of a global and largely apolitical engineering community.

I don’t mean to overstate the problem. The cooperation of government regulators and the high-tech community can — and will, I hope — find a middle ground that facilitates the protection of personal privacy and thwarts intrusions into our democratic process by digital criminals. But that’s exactly the point. Politics and technology intersect not just in social media and space travel, but in our every sphere of life.

The scientist who scorns the impact, the importance of politics in his professional, business — and personal — life is as intellectually remiss as he or she would be by denouncing, well… Darwin.

 – David Benjamin is an author and publisher who contributes regularly to EE Times, usually from the Luddite point of view. More information on his work is available at www.lastkidbooks.com