A decade ago I spoke before a large and angry crowd.
The country was in the midst of economic turmoil and I was finishing my second term as a Hillsborough County Commissioner, and preparing to run for my third and final term.
I remember the event well because it was on my birthday – and the rowdy room of reveling Tea Party members were not there to sing “Happy Birthday”. Instead they were screaming for my head – on a pike – as I made the case for a 1 cent sales tax for transportation.
“We must build!” I shouted against a torrential force of wind and fury.
Yet all that could be heard were hollers of “You’re fired!” echoing through the chamber that had all the charm of a WWE Steel Cage match.
It was 2010, and America was in the middle of an historic global economic meltdown brought on by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market. Nobody was in the mood for taxes or spending, yet I made the case as best I could to build our way out of the crisis by investing in roads, transit systems, bike paths, and trails.
Today, 10 years later, the person who made the phrase “Your Fired” famous is in the White House and we face an even by greater challenge, this time brought on by a global pandemic. We have faced deadly pandemics before, but this one has threatened to literally shut down the global economy putting at risk the livelihood of millions of people and putting millions more at risk of starvation and death brought on not just by COVID-19, but our clumsy response.
How do we get out of this mess? According to Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz venture capital, author of the seminal 2
011 paper “Why Software is Eating the World”, we build.
Just days ago Mr. Andreessen penned a letter – approximately 10 years after his paper declaring “software is eating the world,” calling upon us to rectify the mistake we have made in recent history by failing to build. “It is,” he declared, “our failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build,” that makes this crisis so deadly.
“We see this,” he continues, “with the things we urgently need but don’t have”; from ventilators and masks to testing kits and other essential PPE. But then Mr. Andreessen drilled even deeper to the core of our problem as a nation. We quit building. While Asia creates modern cities with vast infrastructure systems and healthcare networks capable of managing large populations and dealing with crises like the one we are struggling to manage, America is stuck in the mud. We don’t have the medical infrastructure – from cotton swabs, testing material, common reagents, ventilators, and masks – to therapies or a vaccine.
Mr. Andreessen exposes the crux of our conundrum: our failure to build. Modern cities like that found in Singapore or Tokyo are dealing with this crisis far better than our rust belt metros. We stopped building homes, great transportation systems, expansive universities, or factories because offshoring is “cheaper”. We have ridden on the backs of the greatest generation who faced the Great Depression, fought a horrific world war and then built the most powerful nation on earth. It’s time, argues Marc Andreessen, to build again, and not surprisingly, I whole heartily agree.
Yet it’s what we build that he leaves for us to debate. I urge that we follow the guidance of Wired magazine Founding Editor – now “senior maverick” – Kevin Kelly, whose brilliant books on technology have served as road maps to the future.
In March of 2019, my world was rocked when I read the March edition of Wired in which he described the emergence of a new digital platform of almost unimaginable scope called “Mirror World”, popularized by Yale professor David Gelernter. Kelly wrote of “the next great digital platform” which we will interact with, manipulate, experience as we do the real world. A place where digital copies of every light post, street, home or office – from the coffee maker to the sofa. Where digital avatars line up for NFL football players and digital twins for power plants, power grids and aircraft engines are created.
Kelly continues: “whoever dominates this grand third platform will be among the wealthiest and most powerful people and companies in history … and unleash the prosperity of thousands more companies into its ecosystem.”
The Economist Magazine went further in their February 2020 edition, in which they heralded the $2 trillion tech economy and noted that this Mirror World will bring about a “distinct economy, requiring new markets, Institutions, infrastructure, business and even geopolitical arrangements,” and will require new algorithms, or perhaps old ones reconfigured, to guide Artificial Intelligence platforms themselves using supervised and reinforced learning & enormous simulators that bring us right back to…the Mirror World.
Mirror World, and the new digital economy that it heralds, will require that we build hardware right here in America and train a workforce in the millions to run the systems. Yes, computers can write software, but so must we train a workforce to write, guide and repair these systems. We need a workforce that can assist in teaching the computers or checking their work as well as building the complex cyber security systems that will keep it running and safeguard our country.
It will take an infinite amount of data, more valuable than oil, that runs within newly built 5G networks, stored in massive centralized cloud networks, data pools and emerging edge computing systems. All that must be built and serviced by a new workforce here in America.
Yes, we will still need to build good old-fashioned air conditioning systems, homes, roads and bridges.
But it is time now to dramatically step up our game.
It is time to build a new & robust country far better adept at dealing with the challenges of pandemics which are a natural part of the human condition, but without the societal disruption we now endure.
It is time to build a new and modern society to replace the old one which creaks and groans under the strain of an invisible enemy and will one day certainly face cyber threats built by our enemies at home and abroad.
Marc Andreessen concluded his letter by saying that “our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building.”
“Our forefathers and foremothers,” he wrote, “built roads and trains, farms, factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone….there is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.”
I agree with Mr. Andreessen and – 10 years after facing that angry crowd at a time of duress – return to the theme as we deal with a crisis as big as any we have faced as a nation. America is up to this challenge. We built this nation, often under great duress, and however imperfect its edifice, we must continue to build and make our nation greater for all of our citizens, many whom have toiled at the bottom of the economic rung, holding on for dear life, even as they carry the weight of the crisis, whether it’s producing the personal protective equipment that our medical professionals need to transporting the household goods that help us through this stressful time.
We must build for them, our children and all who yearn for a better future.
It is time to BUILD.