During our hour “Henry Ford And His World,” we spoke with WIRED’s Bill Wasik, author of the feature article “Welcome To The Programmable World.” He talked about how Google and Tesla are paving the way of innovation and how technological development is related not only to creativity but to environmental responsibility.
Tom Ashbrook: We’re talking about Henry Ford and how, at least in his own mind’s eye, he created the modern age and one could make the case for it. People look around and wonder who in economic terms, industrial terms, technical terms, maybe social terms, if we have an equivalent person out there today? An equivalent company or movement out there today? Do you have it in Silicone Valley in your backyard at WIRED, Bill? Are we remaking Henry Ford’s world right now? Is it up to that scale?
Bill Wasik: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of would-be Henry Fords out here. I think we’re at an interesting hinge point. Ironically, you can look at the automobile, specifically you can look at two different projects in the automotive space. One being the self-driving car, which is being spearheaded by Google, and the other one being in Tesla, which is this very innovative electric car manufacturer that’s headed up by Elon Musk, also here in Silicone Valley. And what I think is fascinating about those two projects is that they sort of represent these two different ways of thinking about the future of technology. And they’re not at all in competition.
But with Google — it’s essentially the end point of the car as a computer. Our cars have become more adn more computerized and essentially the insight with the self-driving car is if the car is totally computerized and it’s networked, then you can put way more cars in the road and avoid traffic jams. You can avoid accidents. You can completely revolutionize the way that we travel. Will it succeed? It’s really way too early to tell, but I would say it’s symbolic of the way that Google and certainly you could nominate Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google as potentially our next Henry Fords, in that they’re sort of taking the information revolution and they are applying it to the ultimate in old-fashioned industrial product, which is the car.
And on the other side you have Elon Musk, who really is this sort of old-fashioned, make raw materials of the world bend to his will. There’s a lot of computerization that helps Tesla do what it does, but at the end of the day, Tesla is basically trying to rethink from the ground up the way that cars are made. It’s a lot about materials, it’s a lot about processes and efficiency. A lot of the same stuff that Henry Ford revolutionized but sort of brought into the 21st century. Again, it’s sort of too early to know if that’s going to succeed. But he’s trying to do the same thing with rockets and private space flight, and if he succeeds I think you can imagine a lot of people trying to follow in his footsteps and essentially say no it’s not too late — in the 21st century we can reinvent the way we make physical products.
So it’s a very interesting time. I don’t think we know who the next Henry Ford will be but I think we are going to learn in the next 10 years about some really big, fundamental projects that will change the course of history.
We’re talking on an epic scale here when you compare it to Ford and everything that ensued from his inventions and his innovations and manufacturing and all the rest, Bill. When you put it up against that, what about the critique of people like the PayPal founder Peter Thiel who said we are not making breakthroughs of that stupendous quality, that we need to change life as we know it these days. What about that critique?
I think that critique is correct on the fundamental level. We like to talk in Silicone Valley — but not just us in Silicone Valley, but everybody likes to look at the smartphones in our pockets and think about the Internet and say, “Oh my gosh, the world has changed so much in the last 50 years.” But you look at 50-year windows any time from the beginning of the industrial revolution until around the 1920 or 1930s — the level of societal transformation was way more disruptive and way more intense.
On some level, I think the defense — and sort of getting back to what Elon Musk is trying to do with Tesla — the defense against that was we had potentially pushed industrial processes as far as they could go, and now we’re dealing with climate change, which is essentially the problem that a lot of that innovation has led up to. And now that we’re aware — if we weren’t worried about emissions, there’s all sorts of stuff that we could do well. Of course, we have the issue of energy prices.
But the point just being that I think on some level Peter Thiel’s question, which is “Can we get beyond just things that are happening on screens to really come up with transformational invention?” winds up being equivalent to the question of “Have we reached a dead end in terms of what we can do with manufacturing, with engine, sort of all these fundamental things about life — have we reached an endpoint of what we can do without killing the planet more than we already have?” I think that in a lot of areas we are trying to answer that question, and a lot is riding on what the answer to it is.