September 13, 2013
An artist's conception of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space. (JPL-Caltech/Reuters) An artist’s conception of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space. (JPL-Caltech/Reuters)

The darkness of the world today in its many failings and sufferings is sometimes so heavy you can feel like Ishmael at the beginning of “Moby Dick,” “growing grim about the mouth,”  “pausing before coffin warehouses” and “bringing up the rear of every funeral…” The ennui comes from observing a political system that seems to be shrinking in its capacity at a time when the need for it to function in the face of multiple crises is expanding. From climate to jobs, the future is slipping away from us. But if we can’t take  to the sea to relieve our “hypos,” perhaps we can find relief into two seemingly unrelated pieces of news this week.

The first is a report that Voyager 1, launched in 1977 to explore our solar system, is now poised, at 11.7 billion miles from Earth, to exit it and probe interstellar space, boldly going where no man has gone before. And consider that the spacecraft’s computers have one-240,000th of the memory of a low-end iPhone. Or that some of the engineers that launched the project, as young men and women, are still with it, today looking through tri-focals as an even older engineer coaxes a little more room from the original 8-track data recorders to save images from the dark and cold region beyond our solar system. Next stop: a dwarf star, 40,000 years from now.

The other is a report on something called “the Internet of things” which is the next big thing. A new report from the Progressive Policy Institute touts the hope that the growing interconnection of data offers our economy a way out of its rut. I admit to not fully comprehending the “Internet of things” or the “Internet of everything” as it is also known, but it is basically this: the Internet has grown dramatically more useful as more and more people have connected to it, speeding massive gains in productivity. This “network” effect is now operating not just among people who are connected, but between people and “things;” and between objects themselves. For example, your cellphone can program many of your home’s basic functions like heating and cooling, lights, security and when to warm your oven. Sensors in your car can communicate with sensors in the highway that relay information to an automated traffic center that then suggests an alternate route back to your car. This new frontier of connectivity will create huge social benefits in energy, medicine and more basic daily life. And it will also, in the opinion of PPI and others, drive our economy to a higher standard of living as we experience the kind of productivity gains we witnessed during the dawn of the Internet age in the late 1990’s.

So what does the low-tech Voyager mission have to do with with the high-tech Internet of things and why do the stories provide a respite from the bleakness of the moment? You may have your own conclusions, but it reminds me of humankind’s enduring potential. We have an unquenchable thirst to explore, to seek and to find knowledge. The people behind Voyager were innovators, but their strength wasn’t technology, it was vision, passion and perseverance. The Internet of things is all about technology, but technology that allows a great new interconnected platform to better harness and harvest innovation for all.

When Ishmael reflects on his decision to take to the sea, he imagines the Fates having a variety of possible choices for him: “grand contested election for the presidency of the United States; whaling voyage by one Ishmael; bloody battle in Afghanistan.” Ishmael took the whaling voyage, believing it was pre-ordained, despite the illusion of personal choice. But no matter, “the voyage was welcome, the great flood-gates of the wonderful world swung open…” Most of what we political types contemplate are elections, wars and others disasters.  Every now and then, it’s good to take a different kind of voyage.