The Technological Revolution: America's Place

William 0. Baker

Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Leadership Forum

October 1987


Science for the People

Amid the surface surge in popular science in journals, electronic media and the social rounds, lies a deeper issue. It is the peoples science—the understanding about science and technology and their uses which compose, indeed, enable, so much of modern life. This doesn't make the headlines like: “black hole darkens,” “genes spliced into atoms,” “water discovered in hydrates.” For one thing, the peoples science is where science eventually becomes technology and engineering. There, it serves people materially, just as in its primary form science enhances understanding and widens vision and serves people spiritually. But serving materially gets complicated by economics and emotions, in health, and food, and freedom through national security. So journalists and media makers, with their time and space pressures, find it hard to dig in and to see what the underlying science and discovery mean, by the time the vaccine is out or the fuel is doubling in cost and scarcity, or nuclear missile treaties demand new verification, to support freedom in Europe.

But these very living conditions are the essence of the peoples science and technology, in the developed and even developing world nowadays.


Components of Modern Technology

The reason for this bold presumption is largely in the historic circumstances of the 20th Century condition. This is often now nicknamed the Information and Communication Age, the Computer Age. It also is a particular joining of all our civilization with science and engineering. Such conditions, including derivatives such as national security concerns (especially missiles and nuclear weapons) led us also to the Space Age. These derivatives, in turn, including some of the superb ventures in space of human outreach, have given new and unprecedented worldwide emphasis to mentality.

But the heroes of science and technology in industry and beyond, and even of space navigation and biological and ecological endeavors like the Green Revolution depend principally on learning. True, they need all the other basic virtues of diligence, strength, stability, commitment, energy—but knowledge is the essence of their actions. That is: knowledge organized, accumulated, refined, worthy, by historic exercise of scholarship. This adds up to be: education.

But then even more widely and generally our livelihood, our workforce, our gross national product are coming from what is called the service industries. These involve the handling of information, the spread into commerce and industry of the very processes of informing and communicating which are indeed the essence of education of all kinds anyway. So the new functions of mentality are pervading both ordinary and extraordinary affairs. Especially, these functions involve the work life of the individual—sense of identify, worthiness, role of citizenship in our democracy.

Leading this, and perhaps the basis for it, have been the science and technology of electromagnetic, acoustic and optical waves, of electronic and now photonic signals. For it has been found, in the century of the invention of the telephone by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and in the somewhat longer period of the telegraph, that the output of thought, the human expression in voice and vision, can be approximated (in volume and speed, even enhanced) by electrical analog waves and digital pulses. These, nature has let us put into the machines of this century. For such communication and computer systems are truly the wheels for knowledge transport, and the engines of organizing societies, nations, economies, and resource.

In the creation of this era, one has been privileged to participate through responsibilities for the organization wherein Brattain, Bardeen and Shockley discovered the transistor, Schawlow and Townes the laser, Stibitz the electrical digital computer, and Shannon the information theoretic base which asserts that all knowledge can be completely encoded in achievable digital form. So one knows that this creation has itself required new levels of excellence in generations of students and research and development exponents. But even more than that, it has generated a milieu of the meaning of knowledge, of the possibilities of learning, which is right on track with what we have said is basic to capacity for excellence in living.


Revolutionary Aspects of Technological Society

Now mindful of this growing base of learning and knowing: how close nowadays are knowing something, a prime potential of the individual, and doing something, the main responsibility of industry in our western society?

A cautious answer is: they are getting closer, but they are still not very close. Yet in the world we are going to help to shape, they will be closer, by near, (one should say rather than “by far”) than ever known up until now. That is to say that what we all do in living—like talking, and eating, and thinking, and drinking—and even working—includes much more knowledge, much more information about the world of nature as well as human kind, than ever dreamt of when we started in this century. And knowledge is increasingly ours to have and to use. But this capability is new enough so that it really hasn't been much used.

Doing things has come from manual skills, from the great traditions of crafts, of agriculture, of animal husbandry, of masonry, and eventually of mining and manufacturing, although also knowing some techniques became important in those frontiers for civilization. Altogether, and including modern agriculture, these activities comprise much of the non-service industries. But knowing why, and understanding how, these doings, taken for granted in modern working life, actually are new indeed. This newness portends great change—such as in ancient and crucial refining of metals from their planetary form of oxides and sulfides, refining by chemical reduction. For this old are may soon be revolutionized by direct ion plasma dissociation. If so this will merely remind us that our millennia of prideful designations of civilization—as the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, Steel Age, and maybe even the Gold Age—eras that were achieved by atmospherically dismal smelting and refining—were but crude prologues to what knowledge could do. Ah so, you may say, but if knowledge is so great, will it sell in South Succotash? Will it play in Peoria? And anyway how do you get it? And if so, is it any fun?


Global Competition Derived from Technology

For if we are closing the gap between knowing and doing, we ought to be able to do something with knowing, which is to say with knowledge. We report today that that is the way things are going. But it is also upsetting to find that to compete worldwide in doing such as making steel and television sets and automobiles and pharmaceuticals, you have to know at least as much as the people in Europe and Asia. And they, for instance, have found out that knowing pays. These factors that are shaping the future turn up in interesting forms. Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr reported recently at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania that people not only (surprisingly?) want to work in America, but they may even want to work harder. They went on to say, however, that management doesn't understand this, so more knowledge at the top would help. In fact about 52% of the work force was thought to have a strong work ethic, with about 21% what is called a “commitment” (means working on committees?). The crucial factor is that more knowledge is needed now, and will be in the times ahead, for knowing what you are doing, which is the new requirement for a 73% work ethic. The Penn conference also contained the necessary (and inevitable) input of an economist. In this case, it was Professor Lester Thurow from MIT. He said it didn't make any difference what a nation had in resources, energy facilities, climate, or anything else as long as it possessed “a highly motivated work force.” With that Professor Thurow opined, “you'll make it.” He did go on to remark however that it made a difference what the highly motivated work force worked on. And so he ran into the knowledge goal once more, without specific references to the general conclusions of Professor Robert Reich in his recent volume, “The Next American Frontier.” There Reich notes “Since the 19601s, the American economy has been slowly unraveling.” Once more, viewed in perspective, the issue seems to have been not knowing what we are doing. For instance, in iron and steel with a peak employment of 952,000 in 1957, the changes in design and work habits accompanied a decline to ≈ 500,000 in 1988, despite a vastly expanded total economy. Similarly, in the classic field of automobile manufacture, a maximum of 1.02 million employed was reached in 1978, down to ≈ 700,000 in 1988. In the chemical industry, a peak of 1978 has preceded a steady decline as well. In 1972, about 2.3 percent of the American market was filled by foreign goods and services, whereas in 1988 the figure was ≈ 10% and headed upward.

And so the familiar story goes, with productivity following a similar sinking trend—although currently some recovery.


Human Resources for America's Place in the World

Ironically this accent on knowing and learning, especially in part in industry, is happening during an Age of Knowledge. Ways of exerting mentality are better than any we have ever had before. So by now we should be sure that closing the gap between knowing and doing is what education is about. In view of that wouldn't you expect that our nation would have gone after good education at all stages, but particularly in the basics of literacy and logic mathematics. Certainly world competition kept pointing that way. We had, however, wondered about whether this had happened. So the Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell, and the President asked us about six years ago to form a National Commission on Excellence in Education, to find out whether we had made ready for the future, in a world which has discovered that knowledge works—in commerce and industry as well as in science and philosophy.

Probably you have heard something of our findings and recommendations, presented to the President on April 26, 1983 and entitled “A Nation at Risk, the Imperatives for Educational Reform.” What may interest us today is the overall cast of our results. For we have established that in the home, in the minds and spirits of the students, in the schools, and to a certain degree in the colleges and universities (although there we were vastly more comforted), in these basic beings of our society, we have not chosen to know what we were doing. This shows up primarily and concretely in technologic terms, whether in factories, ecologic effects or public health. We put it that way because it is inconceivable if we had know, had realized the negligence and mediocrity with which we were equipping our youth, we surely would have struggled to change, and to correct the many simple errors and deficiencies with which our present primary and secondary school systems are afflicted. So let us consider for a few minutes more what we found.

The conventional and appropriate mission for a report on excellence in American education would be to show how a suitably renowned system of public and private education, with ever widening access for all citizens, could be further enhanced. For instance, special attention should be given to the gifted and talented, on whose abilities so much of the new frontiers in the arts, sciences and humanities, as well as new skills and economy must depend. But actually our enterprise has required an emphasis difference than the familiar one expressed in such countless reports on education at all levels.

That familiar emphasis is to plead for better students, better teaching, better books, better salaries, better methods, better boards of education. All these things are worthy and desired. And in fact, our nationwide hearings and extensive testimonies have further affirmed a wide variety of endeavors and improvements spread through every state and district in the Union. of course, some of these are late, some are unfunded, and many are misunderstood. But nevertheless, we were struck by the high sense of responsibility and the multitude of initiatives throughout our nation. We were fortunate in having access through our own Commission to many convincing examples of such efforts, illustrated, for instance by “Student Guide to Academic Excellence” and its derived activities pursued by the Albuquerque public schools in New Mexico. Other examples included public advice through the press for the kind of curricula that must be mastered in pre-college education in order to succeed in higher education, as propagated by the University of Utah.

But now, the main thrust and preoccupation of this Commission on excellence have taken a different turn. It is a turn that happens also to be the major concern of our national Administration, of our Federal government, of our economy and our free society. It is, that the United States no longer has its mid-Century position of world economic dominance and decisive security. Right now our people are eagerly, soberly, even nervously expecting widespread Federal and independent enterprise counteractions to severe domestic and international hazards. These may threaten our lives and living more than any since the nineteenth century. However, the most promising resistance to this decline lies in one primary set of expectations. This we found is yet unarticulated into the will and energy of our population and its institutions. It is, that now and in the future, citizens of the USA must demand levels of learning, of literacy, of the ability to read, write and count that are beyond what our total diverse population presently can do.

This reflects a different world from that of the historic American successes in agrarian pursuits, in the establishment of manufacturing industry, in the exploitation of abundance resources, in the hard work and keen skills of the builders and makers. These, still needed, are no longer enough. It's not just that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently and have government subsidies for development and export, or that the South Koreans have built the planet's most efficient steel mill or that American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being displaced by German products. It's rather that this signifies a redistribution of human capability which will not be countered through trade agreements, shutdown of unprofitable plants, greater welfare payments, inflation of the currency, of numerous other measures which are being tried. Rather, it is that new levels of training and learning are spreading throughout the world, as surely and vigorously as synthetic fertilizers, drugs to combat malaria, and blue jeans have diffused globally.

Primary Potentials for America's Technical/Social Future

But America does have a few special strengths left. One derives from the circumstances that the spread of industry and technology throughout the rest of the world demands in the society using them new levels of organization and information handling, new speeds of communication and data transfer. This is seemingly the only way that the immensely complicated social and cultural variety around the earth can coordinate enough (with finance markets, transport, etc.) to move into and era beyond family garden plots and nomadic animal husbandry. The discovery of the digital electrical computer and its implementing agents, the transistor and integrated circuitry, the capital equipment of printers and copiers and terminal gear, and above all the human intelligence and training to organize knowledge for action, have become the major new resources in America. They can provide along with finance and administrative skills, major and necessary organizing capabilities for the inevitable although shaky industrialization of the rest of the world. In doing so, they can provide many new careers and satisfy lives for our citizens, and they will also need to be used to support new levels of skills on our farms, in our factories, and in other more conventional parts of our own economy.

Now this can all happen under one overriding condition. It is that beginning now, our oncoming generations of workers and those ready for retraining and continuing education must exercise, not merely learn but also exercise, levels of literacy which in an earlier day in America were considered somewhat of a luxury, or at least of a capacity required only for higher education or specialized skills in a restricted part of the population. Our study accents that that's all changed now. For reasons and in ways that are explicated in other parts of this program, Americans must shift their expectations for pre-college education drastically and immediately. This requires a mobilization of every local element—school boards, faculty, students and above all families and parents.

Most fortunately, as we said before, our school systems so have initiatives and skills which can be relatively quickly applied if activated by full public demand. But so compelling is the need—literally a need to make it so that our children and even ourselves will be able to have jobs and learn in the rest of this century and beyond—that we must generate also new ways to learn. This must happen even while applying assiduously and with new energy those which have served so well in earlier parts of the century.

Namely, let us step beyond the familiar methodology and constraints of our massive public education while preserving its values and political balances. Let us take full advantage of the wisdom and counsel of the teachers and administrators (from whom we have learned through good examples on this Commission), and operate in selected schools and areas by engineering trials of the best ways to teach and to learn, rather than only those which have arisen through the necessarily complex political systems of the last two or three decades. Not only have we failed to use the modern age's techniques of research and development to improve learning and teaching, but we also have not widely applied the special schemes that wise superintendents and teachers have already worked out. For instance, in the diverse population of the Albuquerque, New Mexico schools noted above, the current SAT verbal score averages out at 478 with a hefty 520 for math, in comparison to national averages of 426 and 467 respectively.

These are but indicators of what can be done with ingenious communications and efforts at improving the present processes. We should activate forthwith in appropriate experimental cases the best of the findings about learning enhancement, no matter what rigid practices or even more stiff prejudices inhibit the effort. is it not bizarre that the world's primary enterprise (US public and private education) devoted to knowledge lags seriously in the application of new knowledge to its own doings?

And we must venture even further into new pathways for learning. After all, the modern pre-college system is only a couple of centuries old, or less, around the world; the shaping and sharpening of human intelligence have proceeded for millennia before. Much of this was by apprenticeship, sometimes even involuntarily. But at least this happened in ways which showed the learner, by rapid feedback, whether anything was being accomplished. Barbaric though it may have seemed, is it perhaps more civilized than the present system of more than a decade in schools, in which the outcome for nearly half of our graduates is uncertain, and maybe often assured inability. They are unable to do those things in reading and writing and understanding and expressing that we earnestly report are utterly essential for living in the present egalitarian society to which we aspire. Further, those of us in industry know that we must train and retrain a major fraction of our new employees. So this nation should find out whether at least the voluntary option of a very broadly-tasked apprenticeship should be offered to the maturing student.

Likewise, we should explore other pathways, such as extended home ventures, which would of course require that the public schools give up their service as day care centers for parents otherwise occupied. Conceivably we could have parent-child mutual learning at home as well. (Such spirited efforts in teaching math are already under way at The Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, in the EQUALS project.) For in our present civilian labor force of over 111,129,000, of which more than 99,093,000 hold jobs for pay, a considerable fraction is poorly informed or equipped to enhance the productivity essential for our world competition. Complacency and self-deception would be the worst and inexcusable refuges of this nation, otherwise the object of much sympathy and respect in the developed and developing world. The Commission on Excellence in Education finds that the single most urgent task of America now is better learning for young and old.

That finding has a basis in the Commission not only from the sophisticated leaders of higher education and pre-college education, but from the industrial components as well. We should repeat our statement at the outset that the expectations for learning must be sharply and persistently raised.


Particular Socioeconomic Qualities of Technological/Revolution

These circumstances have turned our report away from the usual analysis and improvement of a vast and pluralistic educational system, to the issues of national survival and individual life work. These same circumstances have also powerful impact on so many aspects of the Federal Government (to which we make the report) that we can expect a multitude of doubts, interpretations and distractions. Nevertheless, certain prominent agreements already appear. These are hard to relate to the individual's experience, yet they couple directly to our deepest concerns. For instance, productivity has been declining industrially in the USA for 15 years, even though it has still maintained a high level compared to the rest of the world. In the last 20 years, our trade balance for industrial mainstays, such as automobiles, steel, machine tools, and shoes, has gone from zero to negative of about $35 billions. In electrical and components it went from a world market share of about 24 percent 18 years ago, to 17 percent three years ago. Drugs and medicines have gone down from 23 percent to 16 percent world market share, indicative also that in high technology areas we are likewise at hazard.

Further, industries which require the higher skills in both pre-college and college education, such as computers, office equipment, aircraft, optical and medical equipment, drugs, synthetic material, engines, turbines, etc., showed a labor productivity growing six times as fast as US business on the whole. But they likewise represent demands on their workers which are unfilled by so large a part of our young population entering the working ages. Similarly, many studies in the government sector have demonstrated marginal or inadequate capabilities of new generations to handle the informational and mental demands of steadily elaborating systems in national security, health services and other important areas. These new human resources are steadily being matched against the best of other nations, in ways previously unfamiliar to America in peacetime. For example, 20 years ago our foreign trade, in total values of imports and exports, was less than 10 percent of the gross national product, whereas it is now over 25 percent. Indeed, the value of our trade is larger than the entire gross national product of any other country except the USSR and Japan.

Obviously the demands on our skills to compete with our contemporary nations are rapidly intensifying. Our current studies on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency concerning the levels of skill and versatility in the manufacturing force to be used in times of emergency are most sobering. We simply have not brought the learning levels up to the real and essential demands for human ability. The 34 million new entrants into the work force in the last 20 years have especially accented the deficiencies in these learning levels. However, these adults already in the force will constitute over 90 percent of our total human resources in 1990 and over 75 percent of the force in the year 2000, due to demographic changes. About 56 percent of this labor force in 1990 will be from the population segment now aged 25 to 44., and it will need essential retraining and stimulus as well as remedial learning if we are to compete in a world eager for sharing our standard of living. It is claimed that almost 10 percent of the civilian work force is already in a problem drinker category, at an economic cost of over $46 billions a year. There is no doubt that self respect and capability of performance are essential alternatives to ethical and physical decline. More than 23 million functionally illiterate citizens, associated with a million and a half entering the work force each year, must be converted to productive elements through the help, expectations and concerns of their fellow Americans. Industry must join with governments and public programs to achieve this; organized labor has a vast opportunity as well as large responsibility for participating. The Commission insists that action now is urgent, not optional.


High Talents to Sustain Technological Revolution

A particular emphasis we wish to make is that the demands and complexities of our modern culture in a free society require that education attend the exercise of genius. We believe the time has passed when sheer talent—mental, spiritual and physical—can be suitably exercised in the absence of education—of training and learning—although this situation has been true only in comparatively recent times. But now, accepting that it is the case, we must and should realize the huge responsibility as well as the vast opportunity that this circumstance puts upon education and its institution. For it embodies the sense that Professor Robert Nisbet of Columbia has treated in his Penrose memorial lecture before the American Philosophical Society on “genius and milieu.” It means education must bring out assured excellence from the indispensable genius of human ability on which our nation must ultimately depend. And this will after all be strongly influenced by those very features of home and schools, of social and psychological environ, that we say are essential for the slow learners, the disadvantaged, the illiterate. This likelihood, by the way, is supported not only by the specific assumptions about the exercise of talent to which we have just referred, but also by the sobering reports such as that in the 20th of May 1982 issue of Nature entitles, “The Great Japanese IQ Increase” and the now notable report in the same issue of Nature by Richard Lynn of the new University of Ulster entitled, “IQ in Japan and the United States.” He shows a growing disparity. Lynn has a sobering and even convincing finding that the main Japanese IQ has not only been rising steadily with respect to its own levels but especially with respect to America, during most of this century. (The early 1988 results on international testing in science and technology, of pre-college youth, affirms America's decline, dramatically). He thoughtfully points out that it is doubtful whether rise of the magnitude noted (more than seven IQ points) can be accounted for by a change in Japanese genetic structure, despite the influence of drastic urbanization, in which between 1930 and 1960 almost 40% of the population moved from the country to cities. Rather he believes it is the result of “environmental improvements.” He demonstrates that the increase in IQ was present among even 6 year olds and therefore could not be attributed solely to formal education, but the total educational-learning milieu is surely a prominent cause. Anderson, in a companion paper, remarks that Lynn's work shows that 10% of the Japanese younger generation will probably have IQ's above 130 in the 1990's whereas only 2% of the American population can be thus categorized.

Everybody can argue henceforth, as they have since the times of Binet, about what IQ means but there is little doubt that this Japanese population is bright and capable. Especially for our message today, it is coming along in an environ in which the really gifted and talented with have exceptional opportunities. We must seek to offer our gifted and talented persons growing up in the last decades of the 20th century the same or better opportunities.

For it is through those few truly superior graduates of our schools and colleges, who carry forward the intellectual and professional genius of our nation, that we can claim excellence and aspire to greatness in our affairs.

And also in this connection we must be mindful of Milton's lines in Paradise Lost: “Consider first, that great or bright infers not excellence.” This does tell us again that excellence means merit, goodness, virtue, superiority—that which is raised, elevated and surpasses. It is not the ordinary dimension of “great” alone or the casual “brightness” of mind or being that assure excellence. It is rather for the individual a sustained height now coupled with education. What can we expect to say today that is new or notable? Education with all of its needs and meanings has not lacked discussion or definitions. We think of all the old one-liners, such as Mark Fischer's that education is “the process of driving a set of prejudices down your throat” or Trader Horn’s: “that education teaches you to walk along” or even the journalist Ambrose Bierce (and journalists on education are not lacking either!) who said education is “that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” But in fact we do believe that this nation, including its Federal Government, can do new things with and for the role of education in recognition and cultivation of those for whom excellence in living and doing is a reality as well as a goal.

For the basic dimension of human action from the mind, which is about forty bits a second in reading, writing, calculating, reasoning, speaking, hearing, is now being related to machines. In them a single chip easily hand-held can do a million bits per second. Larger assemblies of circuits range all the way up to the gigabit processors of megacomputers and to the horizon of sub-pico second logic and memory access of photonics in laser-based machines that are now taking shape. So here we have at least a million, and in one frontier a million million, rise in how the doings of the mind can be aided and augmented. This is in comparison to rocket propulsion that can enhance by about only a thousand times the transport of the body.

So industry representing the working lives and livelihoods of most Americans is only now feeling the dramatic scope of these changes in the part and inevitably in the feelings of the workers. And this change in intimate, personal kinds of work and how they relate to each other and to personal satisfactions and confidence is felt as strongly at management and high executive levels as it is on the shop floor, in the stores or the clerical roles of our people.

Thus we conclude, in examining the implications for America of the science-based technology revolution underway, that socio-human evolution is the central challenge. Unlike earlier eras, such as the Industrial Revolution through energy and machines, the Green Revolution through agriculture and biology, is not mostly seeking and applying man knowledge and invention to old needs. Rather, it is to adapt the information—communication—knowledge epoch to enrich every phase of the human condition. The matter is worthy of attention of the 25th year of CSIS, and it’s leadership Forum.