Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground

Disruption can produce economic and cultural change in societies but harnessing that energy will be the task of our generation.

Photo by Hasan Almasi.

Like most nerdlings, I grew up watching Star Trek, Next Generation with my family every single week. It was one of the ways we found to spend quality time together but it also it offered a vision of a world that was fundamentally different from the one we inhabited. New York City of the 1990s was a place where class mattered, where “culture” was tangible and ever-present, and one’s social standing was constantly being interrogated. It was a place where the city’s policymakers were making it increasingly more difficult for middle-class families like ours to stay and thrive (Thanks, Giuliani). What started out as family TV night turned into a home-grown exploration into the human condition.

Through TV-magic and radical creativity on the part of the show producers, Star Trek used the theme of technological development to spark our imaginations and expand the horizon of possibility for social evolution, representation, and cultural advancement. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, wanted Star Trek to be a vehicle for socio-cultural critique to challenge the viewer on the cultural issues of sexism, racism, nationalism, and global war. His decision to cast this controversial vision of the world into an uncharted future was a ploy used at the time to limit backlash but it also serves as a kind of level-setting for us now.

From my perspective as a young viewer, Roddenberry’s vision showed us a pathway out, a way to go beyond our own smallness as a species and transcend the pettiness of our prejudices. The show also did what good science fiction writing is known to do, in that it advanced the notion that innovative design and technology function in societies to extend and expand our “special” capacities infinitely. Star Trek asks that we stargaze — to literally look toward the stars, and the symbolism is unmistakable.

The show plays with the idea of human progress and it previews a future where our social culture finally outgrows the strictures placed upon it by class-based society. In the Star Trek universe, there was no middle-class, or a 1%; women held positions of power and, at least in the Next Generation franchise, all the toxic-masculinity was left to the Klingons, who, by the way, have a really good excuse. The show framed all of human history as if it was something that could be transcended and it casts the past as nothing more than our species’ collective attempt to survive its own shortcomings.

It is from this vantage point that I saw how much better things could be but also that human tendency bends toward corruption and myopia, and that among other things, these factors have stunted our social development. In many respects, we are our own worst enemy, our own greatest threat. Now more than at any other time, hardworking families are not seeing their hard work translate into anything that resembles lasting stability. For the strivers, for the middle-class and the social progressives, there is a real despair, a concern that things will suck indefinitely.

There is an oft-cited phrase used in U.S. culture that, similar to the Star Trek odyssey, invokes the stars. “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground,”, Teddy Roosevelt said in an address at Groton School in May of 1904.¹ It refers to one’s ability to be forward-looking and -thinking, while at the same time remaining grounded or tethered to fundamental principles. The “stars” are the strategies and social movements we craft that utterly transform life as we have known it, to include both bloody revolution or the subtle seeding of a novel idea, a way to do things differently. To my mind, the “ground” is a metaphor for the human condition. In other words, the realities of human life, inclusive of our impulse to judgment, tribalism, lust for control, aggression, avarice, etc., this is where our feet lie. On the horizon, however, is a future fundamentally different from our past. As a personal philosophy, these concepts are only realized in one of two ways: through full-on insurgency, or at a minimum, through disruption.

I use this quote from our 26th President because he is known for having stressed the exercise of intelligent forethought, for standing for progressivism and the centrality of human welfare. His time in office also coincided with one of the last major technological development of our era, the Ford Model T. He also famously chaired the Bull Moose party, the namesake of this publication.

Roosevelt would have recognized the hallmark signs of economic transformation, had he lived during this time. The technology-driven transformation of so many sectors of American life is happening every day and in every direction. There is a different future on the horizon and we know that because in the near term we are on a path that already breaks from our most immediate history. Technology and innovative design have created immense disruption across the legacy industries where power is heavily concentrated. We have seen how new business models pioneered by technology firms have created new power centers. Consider the media industry as an example. We see that power relations have shifted, such that traditional media distribution platforms are forcibly being displaced. These industry behemoths are losing ground as they face down competition from video platforms like Vimeo and YouTube, alongside the legions of content creators representing all artistic disciplines.

As a TMT industry (telecommunications, media, and technology) policy professional, I am no different than the scores of technophiles around the country who see the bright and infinite landscape of better possibility in tech development and digital innovation. Having come of age myself at the very dawning of the information age, I wanted to have a hand in bringing about a radical restructuring of global economies, especially here in my home country. As an academic, I focused on technology policy and regulation with the understanding that by my doing so would have the impact of further destabilizing traditional power centers, while simultaneously opening up new pathways of opportunity outside of having been born male, white and wealthy. In a practical sense, working on technology, telecoms and Internet policy issues was an obvious choice for me given my preoccupation with the themes of economic disruption and cultural evolution.

My work as a policy consultant and government relations professional in a small firm is the direct result of these preoccupations. Our team specializes in direct and digital advocacy for company clients, including some of the giants in advanced computing and digital service delivery. We also have the enormous privilege of working with small start-ups and public interest-oriented non-profit organizations. The strategic coalitions we develop with public interest advocates have led to wins in the public policy sphere as well as wins on legislative matters. These victories have allowed us to produce credible thought leadership on some of the densest and most complicated questions facing our society at-large. For example, how do we ensure that the “tech goose,” as it were, continues laying golden eggs and that the benefits we have come to rely upon remain unspoiled? Or, for example, what regulatory or legislative complements need to be in place to assure the transformation of the financial services industry into the financial inclusion industry?

If you’re a doubter, you might scoff at the notion that helping tech, media, and telecom industry companies — firms like Google and PayPal — is disruptive to the power structure. You might read this piece and think that perhaps I haven’t seen the headlines calling attention to the negative impact of “Big Tech” firms.

But you would be wrong. There is no panacea. On its own, the fact of technological development is not a universal remedy for anything. There is no such universal remedy for the legacy systems of colonization, class-based oppression, genocide or any of the other ills that live with us today. What we know is that this time in our history will be marked as the most epic changing of the guard.

The confluence of political, economic and cultural levers of influence surrounding tech, media, and telecom industries is the center of the universe, as far as I am concerned. This is where conversations are happening right now, about how our economies will be organized going forward, including which inputs our economy ultimately relies upon to produce GDP growth.

The ways technological systems are learning to handle human systems is very much under development (algorithmic bias, digital redlining, tech diversity & recruitment) but industry players are invested in doing things differently this time around, and as a technology policy professional, I am in a position to help inform those decisions.

Our shared past, or at least what is taught about U.S. and world history, is a singular narrative that tells the story of wealthy men of European-descent (read: white) representing only themselves, creating power for only themselves and reiterating to us all why only they are entitled to enjoying privilege. This status quo created the conditions for one of the most wealthy, upwardly mobile cities in the world, New York City, to view its middle class as expendable.

The universe where the wealthy are empowered to continually enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors and hoard both the means and tools of production needs to be massively disrupted.

Consider that nearly 32.6 million people in the United States are unbanked or underbanked and around the world, that number is even more staggering. These people have little to no access to financial services, including financial planning services, savings and, crucially, low-interest lending. As a matter of historical fact, middle- to low-income people have been underserved and undervalued by traditional financial institutions, which (no shock and surprise) operate as designed. These institutions are designed by the wealthy to work for the wealthy. Companies like PayPal and other fintech firms following in their wake have created an avenue of opportunity in the small business lending space that did not exist before.

Other clients of ours, like Google, are disrupting the toughest, most capital-intensive segments of the broadband service provision space, bringing Internet access to landlocked countries with the lowest development indicators in the world.

The Weather Channel is another client of ours that is integrating visual techniques developed in the video gaming industry to shape the public’s understanding of climate science issues.

We also have the opportunity to work with organizations like the Teamsters and Communications Workers of America, institutions themselves that organize and advocate on behalf of the most fundamental segment of western democracies: labor.

Star Trek was Gene Roddenberry’s way of leveling harsh critiques of U.S. culture in the 1960s. He was a TV screenwriter using his particular skill set to push socio-cultural change. I’m a technology industry policy consultant using my particular skill set to do the same.

Today, many Americans are voicing their frustration with the way things are, with political leadership and with the general lack of economic mobility in this country. People are also awakening to a new understanding of themselves and their economic, political, and social relationship to one another. In a world where the execution of our ideals has been furtive, conceited, and essentially insincere, disruption has productive value and we have only the future to gain. To Gene Roddenberry, thanks for the push, and to my reader… yw.

DeVan Hankerson is a technology and telecom policy professional with a background in domestic and international cross-border services and telecoms trade issues. She currently focuses on platform competition policy, wireless competition, artificial intelligence and the intersection between policy development and data science. She has worked in the public interest sector as an advocate and researcher on behalf of consumer-focused non-profit organizations. DeVan also served as an Economic Research Associate at the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She obtained her MPP from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a degree in Psychology and Linguistics from Vassar College.

[1]: “Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground. Be truthful; a lie implies fear, vanity or malevolence; and be frank; furtiveness and insincerity are faults incompatible with true manliness.” — Theodore Roosevelt, May 1904