This Is Obama's State of the Future


Last night, President Obama delivered his yearly State of the Union address. Jobs! War! Bipartisanship! Awkward clapping! Sleeping senators! But also, lots of future talk. Below, we break down Obama's claims for America's tech horizon, and what they might mean.

Internet

THE INTERNET! Last night Obama mentioned it a whopping six times, as opposed to a whopping zero in last year's address. Could it be all that The Social Network Oscar buzz? Let's dissect.

Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection.

OK, maybe not literally true (I think logistically I'd have a hard time selling any sort of non-drug products out of my internet-enabled apartment), but Obama is right in that the internet has made any place with ethernet or Wi-Fi a place of business—a shift maybe not as dramatic, but probably as important as the "Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers [that] can now do the same work with 100" the president also cites.

Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do - what America does better than anyone else - is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We're the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It is how we make our living.

The President of the United States just shouted out Facebook in the State of the Union address. Wow. Not particularly surprising, given that social media helped (in part) to push Obama into the White House. But still! Certainly one of those sign of the times moments. Especially poignant when you imagine what presidents of the past mentioned in their addresses—irrigation ditches? Marauding Indians? Steamships? But the above phrasing is also a familiar gloss over the fact that the internet as we know it—the useful internet that's more than just a series of cables between military bases—is owed to the creation of the World Wide Web. Created in Geneva. You know, Switzerland. Yes, America makes some great things thanks to the internet (I think I saw Boehner checking in on Foursquare behind Obama), but America doesn't have any monopoly on internet innovation.

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.

A jab at free market cheerleaders, but a good point. The internet, GPS, the entire space program—all courtesy of Uncle Sam. Even Google was founded with help from a federal grant.

Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do.

Truth. At the end of 2009, the US was ranked 18th in the world for average connection speed, with South Korea at the top. Granted, wiring the continental United States is a bit more challenging than wiring South Korea, but the point stands—large swaths of the country (rural areas in particular) are left in the broadband dark. Which is why...

Within the next five years, we'll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans.

Yikes. This is quite a promise, if by next generation Obama means any sort of 4G, and if by 98% he means anywhere near that number. Obama didn't elaborate on how he plans to blanket the entire country in high speed wireless internet—will it be government subsidized? A private sector rollout?—but five years should be enough time to at least plan something. Still. We're not holding our breath. It's a noble idea, but considering we can't even get reliable 3G service in New York, the prospect of 4G across the Rockies sounds like a vision of the world as seen through the Lady Gaga wonder-glasses, not anything resembling reality.

But let's say Obama is able to call in a networking miracle and cast wireless across the country? What will we do with it?

This isn't about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It's about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It's about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It's about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

Shots fired at AT&T, Barack?! These what-ifs all sound decent (and plausible) with the exception of the firefighter app—I don't want anyone going Ughhhh EDGE only? COME ON outside my apartment while I burn to death. But empowering farmers, digitizing classrooms (when the time is right) and making medicine more accessible—we dig it. And the tech is there, if it's got a wireless spine to prop it up. Which, again, is a big if.

Science

Obama wants a nerdier country. Finally. The importance of making math and science cool again (was it ever?) is a terrific thing to hear coming out of a president's mouth. A geekier country is a better one, we reckon. So how are we going to do it?

We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.

An admirable push (unless you're from Pittsburgh), though not much more than rhetoric. But again! Rhetoric we can believe in! Still, this isn't much of a policy proposal. We'll need some dollars to back up this new pro-nerd initiative, Barry.

We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

Okay, that sounds more promising. But again, no numbers, no stats, no names.

Obama made repeated mention the importance of new fuel sources. But it's a little complicated, because:

Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all.

Why choose! But Obama gets concrete:

At the California Institute of Technology, they're developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they're using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

Projections like "the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015" are always a little dicey (and rarely delivered upon), but again, we applaud the sentiment. Pumping money into these initiatives means avoiding the next BP oil spill.

Wait—uh oh. Here comes another distant promise. Probably the most dubious one of the evening:

By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources.

That's an incredible thing to promise. Luckily, it's 24 years from now, and not something Obama will have to worry about. As president, at least. But the rest of us will. Again, no details were furnished here. So, uh, we're counting on you, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Like the fantastical promise of ubiquitous 4G, don't get too excited about this one—the large majority of the country's juice comes from oil, coal, and other non-renewable (and very dirty) sources.

Trains

High speed rail figured heavily in the address. Why? We suck, is why:

Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a "D."

Ruh roh. But Obama's taking notice, and this will not stand:

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. (Applause.) This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying –- without the pat-down. (Laughter and applause.) As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

Another very long-range projection (so if all goes according to plan almost all of us will have 4G and high speed rail access!) without much detail. And a (too soon?) TSA joke. But Amtrak is a national embarrassment, when compared to the clean, speedy, and efficient rail service that much of, say Western Europe enjoys. Obama is right to make this a priority. Just don't hold your breath on that 25 year number. A national high speed rail line would be massively expensive, and given the fact that Amtrak barely stumbles along its plodding routes with current budgeting, it'd take a quantum (money) leap forward to catch us up with the likes of France or Japan.

So, lofty goals with few details. In other words another State of the Union.

Illustration by Contributing Illustrator Sam Spratt. Follow Sam on Twitter and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.