Why We Need Another Sputnik Moment
Every time there is a colossal security breach, technical meltdown or controversial update, we are reminded yet again that the gap between the business and IT sides of corporations is widening. This is not the fault of individual business people, IT people or the media, but rather the effects of demographic shifts that jeopardize American leadership in technology.
Interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as the STEM fields, has flatlined or declined over the past 15 years. According to data published by the nonprofit Direct Employers, in the 1999-2000 school year just 3.1 percent of college degrees conferred were in computer science and IT. In the 2009-2010 academic year, the number dropped to 2.4 percent. Overall, STEM majors accounted for 9.22 percent of graduates in 2000 and 9.17 percent in 2010.
In the near future, the most qualified STEM graduates will not be U.S. citizens. A 2013 brief from the National Foundation for American Policy found that international students account for a majority of electrical engineering graduate students at 87 percent of U.S. universities and a majority of computer-science graduate students at 76 percent of universities.
According to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. ranked 23rd worldwide in science and 30th in mathematics. Meanwhile, 59 percent of milllennials surveyed in a recent poll said that technology “makes users less human.”
We need another Sputnik moment but not for its national security impact; surely there’s enough tension with Moscow already. We need to reshape corporate and political America from a weaving, speeding van that's repeatedly caught by black ice into a hot new Tesla that reads the road and outmaneuvers all the digital challenges and failures that otherwise breed unfounded fear, mistrust and distaste for technology.
What Sputnik accomplished. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit around Earth. Viewers around the world caught a streak of light passing over the night sky, and radio stations played the steady “beep, beep” of the satellite emitting radio pulses.
The American reaction was swift: It led to the birth of the Advanced Research Projects Agency; the launch of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1; the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which established NASA and the National Defense Education Act, which provided $1 billion for 40,000 student loans, 40,000 scholarships and 1,500 graduate fellowships in the STEM fields.
A true Sputnik moment is one that mobilizes a society to achieve a common goal.
Have we had any Sputnik moments lately? The answer is no, but maybe we could have. The Target breach compromised more than 40 million credit and debit cards. The cost for Target hit $61 million while banks collectively lost $200 million in the fray. Sure, it fomented mistrust among consumers, a protracted blame game and initiatives to improve U.S. credit card technology, namely by switching from magnetic stripe cards to chip and PIN formats.
The hackers used a modified version of off-the-shelf malware known as BlackPOS, “a crude but effective crimeware” sold on cybercrime forums for as little as $1,800, according to Brian Krebs of Krebs on Security.
Yet, Bloomberg reports, six months before the attack Target began installing a $1.6 million malware detection tool that is developed by the digital security firm FireEye and used by organizations such as the CIA and the Pentagon. A team in Bangalore monitored for malware 24/7, so on Nov. 30 when the hackers started laying their trap, the Bangalore team received an alert from FireEye and notified the security team in Minneapolis. It didn’t respond to the alert.
In other words, Target was running the Ferrari of anti-malware software and blew off its warnings. Why? Until further investigation to reveals the true story, we can only speculate.
The Target breach was an outside attack on U.S. consumers, enterprises and financial institutions, conducted by a hacker from Odessa, Ukraine. This is a transnational crime only possible in world built on the flourish of technology.
Yet, what credit do we give to those that detect and prevent attacks? What does the average, nontechnical American really understand about the IT systems that enable their digital civilization?
The business and IT gap is growing. We need a Sputnik moment to catalyze a national response to declining tech education for young Americans at a time when science, math and engineering are considered uncool in the uncompromising eye of pop culture. Sometimes our society celebrates mischievous hackers in movies like Swordfish and The Italian Job and occasionally the nerdy, good guy hackers who help buff action heroes in films like Die Hard 4. But the common image of American tech and science genius is that shown in The Big Bang Theory, a series in which four scientists are so socially inept that they need a failed actress living across the hall to guide them through life.
The notion that anything technical is for nerds produces apathy. The thinking is akin to this: If I can’t understand it or do anything about the dangers in the digital world, why should I care? Why should we get involved?
Our digital divide is no longer a conflict between departments. Increasingly, it’s a demographic divide between people who speak the language of IT and people who do not.
We cannot sustain a fragmenting divide between an elite technorati and nontechnical majority. We have to close that gap; we need a common language and we will not accomplish that feat until we have our Sputnik moment. We cannot sustain a postmodern society without a postmodern workforce.
Technology makes us human. For starters, we cannot seek to scapegoat and vilify one man or woman at Target.
Today, there is no such thing as an IT failure. There’s only a business failure. I hope our education system, media, government and businesses can reach that conclusion.
Technology is here, but few of us command it. Technology defines our species, but milllennials say it dehumanizes us.
Unlike other primates, we evolve our use of tools and we do it rapidly. When you turn your back on technology, you turn your back on something that makes us human.
Those who don’t seek to understand technology are at risk of being harmed by its side effects. Ignoring science as a culture reduces our humanity and, compared to other cultures and nation states, makes us as Americans less competitive.