🚀 Faster, Please! Week in Review+ #11
Pandemic education loss; the emerging space economy; why we retreat from progress; 5 Quick Questions for Adrian Wooldridge on meritocracy and Cameron Wiese on New World's Fairs
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So much Substack goodness this week, as you will see below. I covered a wide range of subjects in the essays, Q&As, and micro reads on Monday and Thursday (or sometimes Friday), as well as a paywall-free issue on Wednesday. Enjoy the summaries, recaps, as well as a bit of new content (usually)!
In This Issue
— We're not going to remedy massive education loss from the pandemic (May 9, 2022)
— America is starting a New Space Age. And it's a problem that many Americans don't know about it. (May 11, 2022)
— Why we retreat from progress (May 13, 2022)
Best of 5 Quick Questions:
— Journalist and author Adrian Wooldridge on capitalism and meritocracy
— Entrepreneur Cameron Wiese on a New World’s Fair
⭐ Bonus: Two extra questions for Cameron Wiese
👎 We're not going to remedy massive education loss from the pandemic | In the new NBER working paper “The Consequences of Remote and Hybrid Instruction During the Pandemic,” researchers compared student achievement during the pandemic period to the comparable pre-pandemic period. The results: High-poverty schools were more likely to go remote, and they suffered larger declines when they did so. These headline results are hardly shocking. One of the strongest and most persistent findings of modern economics is that schooling does something important to help children become high-functioning adults, including as workers in an advanced, globalized economy. So the most shocking finding in that paper is the estimate of what it would take to recover from pandemic-era educational losses: “We estimate that high-poverty districts that went remote in 2020-21 will need to spend nearly all of their federal aid on academic recovery to help students recover from pandemic-related achievement losses.” But that’s not going to happen.
🚀 America is starting a New Space Age. And it's a problem that many Americans don't know about it. | The media seem way more concerned with the Billionaire Space Race — frequently portrayed as mere vanity space tourism — than all the other cool space stuff happening right now. For instance: Things seem to be proceeding apace with the final commissioning and tweaking of NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, launched last Christmas Day. Later this year, NASA’s DART (short for double asteroid redirection test) will run a planetary defense experiment by smashing into an asteroid in an attempt to slightly change its orbit around a bigger asteroid. What’s more, the space economy may be moving beyond just the satellite industry. Blue Origin, the space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is teaming up with other firms to build a space station in Earth orbit that would serve as a sort of office park to “generate new discoveries, new products, new forms of entertainment and global awareness of Earth’s fragility and interconnectedness,” as Blue Origin puts it. This Citi graphic is pretty thrilling:
🔙 Why we retreat from progress | Americans in 2022 do not zoom between mile-high Manhattan skyscrapers in the comfort of our autonomous flying cars. We are not a multi-planetary species where robust 150-year-olds possessing 150-plus IQs spend retirement zipping among space colonies. You will not find intelligent apes chauffeuring us to the airport before we board our 90-minute, sub-orbital hypersonic flight from New York to Paris. Hurricanes are not diverted from coastal cities by bureaucrats at regional weather command centers. And we sure haven’t figured out how to vaccinate against any and all viruses. I mean, we’re not even doing nuclear fission much right now. … Progress is hard. So it’s even more frustrating when we retreat from the progress we’ve made — whether it’s from space, nuclear energy, supersonic commercial flight, or new vaccines. It’s my hope that recent advances across a variety of fields — AI, reusable rockets, CRISPR, nuclear fusion — mean we’re experiencing the beginning of Up Wing 3.0. And I further hope it’s the Long Up Wing. But achieving an extended era of progress will mean tackling all the reasons those other periods ended too early.
This is fun: In his 1962 book, Profiles of the Future, author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke helpfully created a timeline of what he thought might happen and when it might happen, seen below. (A caveat from Clarke: “The chart, of course, is not to be taken too seriously.”)
Best of 5 Quick Questions
▶ Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in America (co-authored with Alan Greenspan) and his most recent, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World. Since economic dynamism, pro-progress culture, and leveraging America's human capital are all recurring themes here at Faster, Please!, I followed up with Adrian to get more of his thoughts on those topics for newsletter subscribers.
How can public policy help us take full advantage of people's innate talents by identifying and lifting up "lost Einsteins"?
At the moment, America’s elite universities use two techniques to recruit “lost Einsteins”: affirmative action to find talent among historically marginalized populations and free tuition for poorer students. Both have severe limitations: affirmative action is based on race rather than class despite the fact that race is an imperfect measure of poverty; and, so far at least, free tuition hasn’t substantially increased applications from poorer students. I think we need to start earlier in the life-cycle: build a bridge between elite universities and poorer children by creating elite schools like New York’s Stuyvesant; provide free-places in private schools for scholarship boys and girls; and expand gifted education programs for poorer children, starting at pre-school. The problem is a supply chain problem that needs to be fixed at the beginning of the supply chain rather than just a university admissions problem.
▶ Cameron Wiese wants World’s Fairs to again become what they were for most of the 20th century: globally important events that inspired attendees to imagine and invent a better future. (I’ve commented on this issue previously in this newsletter.) As Wiese wrote in a wonderful essay not long ago: “[World’s Fairs] promoted a collective vision for a better world — reminding us how connected we were and how far we could go if only we went together.” Wiese is executive director of World Fair Co., a private effort to revive and reimagine the World's Fairs here in America, and host of the Build the Future podcast.
Why are World's Fairs still relevant in the digital age? Can't we just do "exhibits" on YouTube or in the metaverse, especially since so many innovations today are in software?
In the planning of every World's Fair, there were skeptics who insisted that the day of the Fairs was over. But time and again, this has been proven untrue. Expo 2020 in Dubai drew 24 million guests from around the world, and Shanghai in 2010 hosted 73 million. And if the past two years have taught us anything, it's that humans crave real, in-person experiences, which is why we're seeing so much enthusiasm for the return of music festivals, sports games, and theme parks. It speaks volumes that when given the opportunity to go fully digital, people overwhelmingly demanded the return of in-person experiences.
To be fair, past and even current models of the Fair, which did and do rely on exhibits, are losing relevance in the digital age. When it comes to pure information sharing, digital tools have an effectiveness and scale that in-person Fairs can't compete with. But that's why we're doing things differently, and actually leveraging the advantages of the digital age to our benefit. We're combining these technologies with in-person experiences to create a product that's more than the sum of its parts. This will not only show up in the Fair's physical design, but also in remotely-accessible versions of the Fair that can reach kids around the globe.
And this approach actually creates a lot of value for digital and software innovations. Even impactful software can often feel abstract, and removed from people's lives. By providing real-world experiences where guests can see these innovations being applied, the Fair can connect people with technology and foster an understanding of how it improves their lives. With our model, guests will get a life experience that they share with their friends and family; where they taste things they've never tasted, touch things they've never touched, hear things they've never heard, and find themselves immersed in a story about the future that is enabled by technology.
⭐ Bonus: Two extra questions for Cameron Wiese
Where did your fascination with World's Fairs and techno-optimistic futurism come from?
The techno-optimistic futurism first hit me when I was 10 years old during my first trip to Disneyland. I explored this discreet building in Tomorrowland called the Innoventions Dream Home.
Inside this building, I found myself enamored by all of the technology: a talking kitchen, a 3D printer, an augmented reality mirror, ASIMO the little Honda robot, a piano that played itself, and touchscreens all over the walls. Mind you, this was in 2005 and I was coming from a small town north of Seattle, so I'd only seen things like this in movies. Being able to touch, feel, see, and ultimately experience these technologies in the real world showed me how incredible the future could be and inspired me to be a part of building it.
On the Fair side of things, I grew up outside of Seattle and have always loved the Space Needle — a remnant of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair — so the Fairs were always on my radar. The fascination didn't manifest, though, until I took a road trip early on in the pandemic. I was driving down the freeway, listening to the Walt Disney biography when it mentioned the work Walt was doing with the 1964 New York World's Fair. Something clicked and I asked myself one simple question that changed everything: What happened to the World's Fairs?
I've been obsessed since.
Is there a recent work in pop culture (film, TV show, video game, novel, etc.) that you would point to as an example of the abundance/pro-progress vision?
One of the few examples I can point to that gets close to this vision is Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry For The Future. Even though this book isn't explicitly abundance driven, it does do a good job of providing an optimistic (though complicated) path toward a better future.
That said, this question highlights an important, but often overlooked problem: that we lack compelling stories that promote exciting, abundant, and pro-progress visions of the future. This matters because the stories we tell about the future deeply influence how we view it and what we build.
Thanks for reading this far! Just a quick note for first-time visitors and free subscribers. In my twice-weekly issues for paid subscribers, I typically also include a short, sharp Q&A with an interesting thinker, in addition to a long-read essay. Here are some recent examples of those interviews: