"To be relevant in today's world, you have to have a coolness factor. We want that."
Who said it?
If you guessed Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, you're right. You're also a gigantic nerd.
But indeed, the biggest story coming out of the security space today is DoD's desperate quest for cool. Still hurting from the Snowden ordeal, DoD is doing the hard work of mixing humility with confidence in an effort to lure tech's brightest to serve. It's courting engineers at established companies and scrappy startups. It's setting up shop in Silicon Valley, a drone's throw from Google and Facebook.
And, as Carter shamelessly explained, America's military doesn't have much of an option. Tech just moves too fast, and government too slow, for the decision tree to look any different. These days, cool isn't a choice. It's a commandment.
But cool is easier said than done. It's not just that the military-industrial complex is so invasive in such a seriously uncool way. Even Silicon Valley, which bristles at government intrusion, bases its business models on getting invasive in a frivolous way.
We all intuitively understand these dual types of life invasion are two sides of the same coin. It's as logical to weaponize the internet of things as it is to give weaponry civilian applications. At bottom, we're aware of just how little agency we're exercising. The intimate details of our lives are being colonized by the state and the market alike. And as cool as we might seem for a minute in pretending our overlords don't faze us, the secret is already out. Real cool is creating your own game, not adapting to edge others out at somebody else's. The invasion of intimate life is the biggest game in town. But it isn't ours, and it never will be. No matter how much we can access its benefits, we can't lay claim to them more than it lays claim to us.
The root of the problem is that, for whatever reason, the visions of war and peace that captured our imaginations most over the past several decade led us radically inward. Now that we've glimpsed the scary idea of an end to novelty on the internet — an exhaustion of surprise and delight amid infinite commensurable choices — we have an opportunity to turn outward again. And few among us are more uniquely qualified to make that turn than our military guardians and our technological innovators.
It's time to rediscover how freedom and strength can go hand in hand in real life, with flesh-and-blood humans in clear command. We need to do better and dream bigger than a future where bots and algos do all the work, from curating our gifs to slaughtering our enemies. Instead of fueling a competitive arms race toward marginal advantages in the crowded fields of war and peace, we need to be focusing on moon shots — areas where we can make extraordinary advances in the absence of tight tech and security competition.
That means, above all, colonizing outer space far more than our inner space. Terraforming and space travel are the place where tech and defense must come together anew. As we are still willing to admit, nothing is cooler than the eternal mythos of human life brought to new worlds. And nothing will make us more relevant in the universe of tomorrow.
Some may fear the implications of manipulating nature on such a scale. But humanity's age-old experience of earthly beauty and plenty provides a durable foundation for an American program centered around not just tweaking the planet's climate, but bringing human life to the cosmos.
The character of American life was shaped profoundly at its origin, by the first of the pilgrims. Our human story in space can be cast, in similar ways, and for an even greater span of time, by American carriers of our national character. Though we are an imperfect people, we are still the last best hope for a freedom strong enough to endure. Beyond the quest for cool, the quest for our destiny awaits.