Dec 26 2005

Sputnik vs. Atlas Shrugged

I spent a delightful few days in Aspen with Amy, my uncle Charlie, and his wife Cindy.  My first computer experience was at a Frito-Lay office in Dallas when I was 10 where Charlie sat me down in front of a terminal with a green screen, fired up an APL interpreter, gave me a big book called APL: A Programming Language, and then left me alone for the next five hours.  Over the years Charlie and I have worked together on a variety of things, most recently when I was a major investor in his previous company, The Feld Group (acquired by EDS in January 2004). 

We covered a wide range of topics over a dozen meals and several long walks together (neither of us are skiers).  One theme that we kept revisiting was the current decline of the United States in the world order (ahem – China, India anyone?)  I’ve been rolling around the idea of living in a country equivalent to post-Edwardian England (e.g. we peaked, life can still be great, but we aren’t at the top of the mountain anymore) since a rollicking dinner with Pat Kenealy a few months ago and have started to get comfortable with the idea.

While I accept that the United States can’t be the unambiguous leader of the world (if you disagree with that statement, read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat again), the future of the United States as defined by Atlas Shrugged is profoundly unappealing.  On the heals of yet another piece of empirical evidence that our government is trying their hardest to emulate the moochers in Atlas Shrugged (e.g. “Oops – yes – we were spying on you – a lot – even more than we said we were – but it’s for your own good”), it’s hard not to be just a little bit discouraged.

As someone who has been playing in the sandbox of entrepreneurship and innovation his entire adult life, I’ve never really thought much about the need for a catalyst for our country since I have always been immersed in a zone of endless overstimulation.  However, as I get older and watch many of my venture brethren hop on airplanes to Beijing, Shanghai, and Mumbai, I’ve been thinking about the United States’ place in the next wave of innovation.  As the Web 2.0 meme finally starts to fade (or maybe it’s just that 2005 is coming to an end), I’ve been waiting for something to replace it, just to see if anyone had any new non-China/India innovation juice.

While sitting at the St. Regis in Aspen the other day having a hot apple cider, Charlie said something simple, but completely profound. “We need another Sputnik.”  I hadn’t been born yet when the Sputnik Crisis happened, but as a kid I was fascinated with space (like most nerd-boys) and it always stuck in my mind how Sputnik focused and rallied the United States around innovation.

I don’t know what the next Sputnik is for the United States, but I’m keeping my eyes open for it.