The Big and the Small of It

Posted in 2012 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Photo courtesy of Flickr user trawin.

While studying criminology in college I became captivated by a concept called the Broken Windows Theory (new window). At its most basic level it taught me that small changes can make a big difference. Especially when trying to affect change in communities suffering from cultural deterioration and entrenched social disorder, the major effects of minor actions, like fixing broken windows and painting over graffiti, can be profound. In fact, I started to see how major projects could become major social and cultural disturbances that did more harm than good, like many of the urban renewal projects in the mid-1900s that swept through poor neighborhoods demolishing housing developments and devastating communities.
Additionally, I came to realize how many feats in urban development were mostly politically motivated, an achievement that politicians could use to advance their careers or leave their legacy, but that in actuality were largely unnecessary. While cities raised millions of dollars to fix problems through massive change, trying to overhaul complete neighborhoods and redesign entire infrastructure systems, many times simply adding strategically placed speed bumps and street lights could be just as effective.
But recently, my mind was opened to the cultural necessity of large-scale projects and the need for politicians to support funding for them, no matter whether their support is politically motivated or motivated by the common good. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Earlier this year he was promoting his new book, Space Chronicles. In it he argues that our failure to adequately fund the space program, arguably our most large-scale endeavor yet, has detrimental cultural ramifications. In an interview on The Daily Show, Tyson argued that during the 1960s the United States’ Space Program did more than get us to the moon, “It galvanized us all to dream about tomorrow, to think about the homes of tomorrow, the cities of tomorrow…That was a cultural mindset that the space program brought upon us….Not only does that stoke the ambitions of kids in the pipeline, it shifts the mindset of the nation.” He’s right. We have forgotten how important the cultural reactions are to these kinds of grand projects, as evidenced by the reduction in federal support of science and technology over the last decade.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (new window) Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Neil deGrasse Tyson (new window) (new window)
Daily Show Full Episodes (new window) Political Humor & Satire Blog (new window) The Daily Show on Facebook (new window)

Especially in a time of recession and stagnation, as we slowly come to terms with the fact that low-skill labor is not going to return to this country in large numbers, we need spectacular adventures and awesome enterprises to restimulate our creativity and to refocus us on being leaders in the industries of the future. While on the Real Time with Bill Maher, Tyson made a compelling argument for the economic necessity of these types of large-scale projects. During the 1960s, the Space Program, Tyson said “…transformed the culture of America in that decade to be one of innovation and discovery….And when you innovate you are responsible for birthing entire new economies that drive your nation’s wealth. During that decade there were no jobs going overseas because they didn’t know how to do what it is we were innovating.”
These kinds of large and complex undertakings inspire us as a human race to work harder and think bigger. From the telegram to the continental railroad, and from outer space to the Internet, these accomplishments not only achieved the goal of increasing human efficiency and connection, but also changed our opinion of what was possible. The good news is that we have opportunities to support these types of projects. NASA is working on the James Webb Space Telescope, which aims to show us the first galaxies to have formed in the early universe and reveal more about our direct connection to our vast galaxial network. Another group of American scientists have built a giant laser with the hopes of achieving controlled nuclear fusion, bestowing on us a potential source of limitless energy. But just like the space program they face funding issues. Known as the National Ignition Facility, the laser project may soon lose its federal funding for not having achieved its goal on time and the NASA Telescope has already had federal funding capped. We all know we face huge financial hurdles as a country, but I have a strong suspicion that we are underestimating the necessity of these types of investments to get us back on track.
I continue to see the virtue in simple actions and think they are often better than complicated ones. And I worry that if the idea of improvement is tied to the notion of having to start from scratch it will deter a lot of good work from being done. However, I now see that the major effects of major actions can be just as effective as minor actions. In both scenarios we just need to focus on what matters most in order to achieve our goal. It is severely short sighted to decrease federal investment in long-term projects whose effect on hope and possibility could in fact help us in the short term. Fixing a broken window can be the right response to maintain cultural cohesion and social order, but to encourage a culture of hope and innovation, we need to shoot for the moon.