Thursday, February 9, 2017

What's a Picture Worth: Tech Giants, Now and Then

A few weeks ago, President-elect Trump met with the giants of American technology.  Thirteen of the nation's best and brightest were invited to the Trump Tower in New York and gathered around a shiny table to hear the President tell them, "I'm here to help you folks do well."

You can decide for yourself how that will all unfold over the next few months, but what struck me about the meeting was this picture:

Even at this distance, from this angle, you know many of the players.  There's the guy from Amazon.  The guy from Google.  There's the lady from Facebook.  The guy from Apple.  Oh, and there's Peter Thiel, seated at the left hand of the President.  Thiel, the Wall Street Journal reported, helped orchestrate the event, including nixing a number of "monster companies" that wanted to attend.

So, this gang truly is America's tech royalty, as vetted by Peter Thiel.

If you have trouble naming all the players at this historic meeting, including those from the incoming Trump administration, the Wall Street Journal provided this handy scorecard:

 Though you probably know most of these tech giants, here's a brief sketch:
  • Jeff Bezos is the founder of Amazon, the world's largest on-line shopping retailer.
  • Larry Paige is the co-founder of Google, the world's largest online search engine.
  • Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, the world's largest social networking service.
  • Peter Thiel is the co-founder of PayPal, an online payments system.  (There's more, but it's a pretty mixed bag.)
  • Tim Cook is CEO of Apple, a company that designs, develops, and sells consumer electronics, computer software, and online services.
  • Safra Catz is co-CEO of Oracle, a computer technology corporation.
  • Elon Musk is founder or co-founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity.
  • Satya Nadella is CEO of Microsoft, a company that develops, manufactures, and sells computer software and services, consumer electronics, and personal computers.
  • Ginni Rometty is President and CEO of IBM, a company that manufactures and markets computer hardware, middleware, and software, and offers hosting and consulting services.
  • Chuck Robbins is the CEO of Cisco, a company that develops, manufactures, and sells networking hardware and telecommunications equipment.
  • Eric Schmidt is the Chairman of Alphabet, which is mostly Google.
  • Alex Karp is the co-founder and CEO of Planatir, a software and services company that specializes in Big Data.
  • Brian Krzanich is the CEO of Intel, the world's largest semiconductor chip maker.
  • Brad Smith is the President of Microsoft.
While the room lacks some obvious corporate giants, like GM, GE, Walmart, Exxon, and some of our most important pharmaceutical companies, this gathering at Trump Tower is generally representative of the creative, inventive tech-side of American industry in 2017. 

The more I looked at that picture, though, the more I wondered: Where have I seen this before?

Then I remembered.  Of course.  The National Portrait Gallery.  It's called "Men of Progress."

Look closely.  See the resemblance?  It's uncanny.  Except for the missing 25 water bottles--and no women--well, it's practically the same picture.  The men of progress above are discussing the item on the table, a telegraph, the closet thing to magic that mankind had ever invented.  And sitting over them is The Man of Progress, Ben Franklin, much as a poster of Steve Jobs might have been hanging in the Trump Tower conference room had Peter Thiel more time to decorate.

"Men of Progress" was a fiction, of course, a painting done in 1857 by Christian Schussele designed to portray the American scientists and inventors who had "altered the course of contemporary civilization."  All of them were alive at the time.  They just hadn't been summoned to Buchanan Tower by President James Buchanan.

Who are these giants who walked the earth in 1857?
  • William Thomas Green Morton was the first to publicly demonstrate surgical anesthesia.
  • James Bogardus developed cast-iron construction, leading to steel-frame construction and the modern skyscraper.
  • Samuel Colt used interchangeable parts and assembly lines to build revolvers and forever change American manufacturing.
  • Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanical reaper and the blueprint of the modern corporation.
  • Charles Goodyear developed vulcanized rubber.
  • Peter Cooper designed and built the first American steam locomotive.
  • Joseph Saxton invented the hydrometer, supervised the making of machinery for the US Mint, and had charge of the construction of standard weights and measures.
  • Jordan Lawrence Mott was the inventor of the coal burning stove who commissioned the painting.
  • Joseph Henry developed the electromagnet into a practical device, the basis for the telegraph.
  • Eliphalet Nott invented the first stove for anthracite coal.
  • John Ericsson was one of the most influential mechanical engineers ever, designing the U.S. Navy's first screw-propelled steam frigate.
  • Frederick Sickels invented the cut-off valve for steam engines and a steering device for ships.
  • Samuel Morse developed the electric telegraph and Morse code.
  • Henry Burden invented machines that made horseshoes and spikes for the railroad.
  • Richard March Hoe developed and manufactured the first successful rotary printing press.
  • Erastus Brigham Bigelow invented a power loom for carpets.
  • Isaiah Jennings invented a machine for making thimbles and eyelet holes, a threshing machine, a high-pressure steam boiler, a repeating gun, and the friction match.
  • Thomas Blanchard invented the irregular turning lathe, and helped perfect the American system of interchangeable parts.
  • Elias Howe was a pioneer of the sewing machine.
What can we conclude in comparing the two pictures?  Well, it seems the age of the inventor-entrepreneur has clearly passed; only Elon Musk really seems to fit into the mold of the 1857 men of progress, a wildly creative founder who makes stuff.   And, while both groups are impressive, let me make a quick comparative list of their gifts: Online shopping vs. surgical anesthesia. Online search engine vs. cast-iron construction. Online social networking vs. the system of interchangeable parts. Online payments vs. the mechanical reaper and new forms of corporate organization.  Computer software and consumer electronics vs. vulcanized rubber. Computer technology vs. the first American steam locomotive.  Middleware vs. the telegraph.  Big Data vs. the rotary press.

There's no question that these are two very talented groups, but the comparison feels unbalanced, no?  Perhaps we have the wrong people assembled at Trump Tower?  Perhaps we've gathered up the usual suspects without doing the hard work of identifying the real movers and shakers of technology?

Or, maybe, as historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, "Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men"?

Maybe, too, greatness escapes us because we live in a  kind of technology lull, a digital trough from which we overreact to each new iPhone release but lack context for the important stuff that really shapes our world? 

In his monumental The Rise and Fall of American Growth, American economist Robert Gordon argues that the golden age of American growth ended in the 1970s, and that the impact of both the computer and the Internet has been vastly over-hyped.  Where's the productivity?  Where are the real improvements to standards of living and quality of life?  Where's the digital equivalent of rubber, locomotives, the telegraph, the irregular turning lathe, and anesthesia--things that fundamentally changed civilization?

Of course, Gordon has his detractors.  They point out that we're living in a world of additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, CRISPR, new drugs of all kinds, and all sorts of goods and services that can change our lives--and perhaps change mankind.

So here's a possibility, a way to explain the lopsided pictures: We really are just suffering a bit of a technology lull.  Finding a cheap sweater on line, or posting cat pictures, isn't exactly the locomotive or the telegraph.  Even silicon came to Silicon Valley in 1956, and we still have a guy making semiconductors sitting at the "people of progress" table in 2017?

Perhaps the men and women who will have changed our lives most dramatically by 2057, two centuries after "Men of Progress" was painted, may already be alive.  Maybe they're still just kids, waiting to make their mark.  But they're probably already here among us--just not sitting around a table at Trump Tower in 2017.

And then I wonder, will human beings even be sitting for the picture in 2057?  Or will all the seats be filled by robots with chiseled chins?

Stuff of Progress, 2057