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What Would the Wright Brothers Think?

What a difference a century makes. No, not in technological innovation, but in technological pessimism. As David McCullough writes in his new history of the Wright brothers, their discovery was met with near universal excitement and optimism, even in the face of setbacks, some of them fatal. Today, a century later, innovation and innovators are more often met with skepticism, approbation, and opposition.

Case in point is from Joe Nocera’s op-ed in The New York Times about Google’s driverless car effort, as part of its Google X project. Nocera relates how John Simpson, head of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, bought a few shares of Google stock so he can go to their board meeting to berate Google executives for developing an autonomous vehicle. Simpson noted that Google’s cars have been involved in 11 accidents (although all have been minor and none of them caused by the AV car itself). He also warned that the Google car would steal our privacy. In other words, he berated Google for trying to innovate what could well be one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the 21st century. Indeed, as I wrote for the Milken Institute journal, full AV deployment in the U.S. would generate over 1 trillion dollars a year in savings, in part by dramatically reduced traffic fatalities.

With benefits like that you’d think any group with the name “Consumer Watchdog” would be at the Google board meeting asking Google to go even faster, since all drivers are also consumers. But not these days. Too many consumer groups and their allies in opposition have interpreted their mandate to help consumers as one of stopping technological innovation.

Compare that to a century ago. The Wright brothers crashed their airplanes more times than the Google car has been hit and no one complained. Even after the first aircraft fatality in history – during a test flight by Orville Wright at Fort Meyers, right across the Potomac from DC, when Orville was seriously injured and his passenger, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was killed – the response was not to blame or sue the Wrights or even to doubt the future. Rather it was to praise the brothers for taking risks and urging them to keep going forward.

And when Wilbur made his first public flights in France, the media didn’t write stories with the headline “new flying machine innovation poses serious privacy risk as planes can fly over our backyards”, or “new flying machine already having crashed multiple times will kill tens of thousands over the next century.” No, they wrote headlines like “a triumph,” “Wright’s Aeroplane Ascends Like a Bird,” and “Marvelous Performance.” The Queen of Italy, who was present at one test flight represented both elite and mass opinion when she wrote to Wilbur Wright “You have let me witness one of the most astonishing spectacles I have ever seen.” Indeed, the French government bestowed the Legion of Honor on the brothers. Today, innovators at the cutting edge are more likely to have bestowed on them an investigation from the Federal Trade Commission.

So let’s put the fear and opposition aside. If you can’t say anything positive about innovation and innovators, don’t say anything at all.

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