The American idea is to push beyond frontiers, whether in geography (Manifest Destiny), science (splitting the atom, DNA), invention (the telephone, the lightbulb, the airplane, the Internet), industry (mass production), music (jazz, rock and roll), or popular culture (Hollywood).

Return to:

The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

The means of creativity have now been democratized. For example, anyone with an inexpensive high-definition video camera and a personal computer can create a high-quality, full-length motion picture. A musician in her dorm room commands the resources once available only in a multimillion-dollar recording studio. Just a few years ago, a couple of students at Stanford University wrote some software on their personal computers that revolutionized Web searches and became the basis of a company now worth $150 billion. Individuals now have the tools to break new ground in every field.

These information tools are more than doubling their power in terms of price-performance and capacity every year, which means multiplying by a thousand in less than a decade, by a billion in 25 years. Every decade, according to my models, we are also shrinking the size of these technologies by a factor of about 100. Today you can e-mail movies and sound recordings and books. In about 20 years, you will be able to e-mail three-dimensional products; they will be “printed” in 3-D using tabletop nanotechnology assembly devices, which will rearrange molecules from inexpensive input material into complex products. So you will be able to e-mail a blouse, for instance, or a computer, or a toaster—or the toast. That will democratize the means of production, so we’ll finally be able to bury Karl Marx.

This exponential growth of information technology is not limited to electronics; it also includes our biology. This biotechnology revolution is also doubling its power each year, and will ultimately bring great gains to human longevity. That is not a new story. Life expectancy was only about 40 years in 1857, when The Atlantic Monthly was founded. It was 47 years in 1900. It is now pushing 80, but this increase will go into high gear in about a decade.

Despite well-publicized obstructions, the American drive to push beyond frontiers is alive and well, and represents the dominant philosophy in the world today, with continued exponential advance on the horizon.