How America is losing its tech mojo (and how it can get it back)

What will win: Enervation or innovation?

By , ITworld |  IT Management

Once upon a time, the United States led the world in science, inventions, research and development, and technology. Now we're a nation of fat dumb Facebook addicts and the rest of the world is kicking our butts. How did we go from world leader to world loser?

[How to ruin your life with social networking]

Software patents: A plague and a pox

The Patent and Trademark Office headquarters: No friend to the little guy

Source: mason13a/Flickr

When you can't innovate, litigate. Software patents are a drag on progress, though they have spawned a busy and hopeful patent troll industry that has emerged to try to attach itself, like a lamprey, to companies who are producing actual products, and feed off them. (Lampreys, if you don't know, "feed on prey as adults by attaching their mouthparts to the target animal's body, then using their teeth to cut through surface tissues until they reach blood and body fluid." Usually lampreys don't kill their hosts -- not right away, anyway -- but merely weaken them.)

It is often said that patents foster innovation. This may be true in industries with heavy capital costs and high barriers to entry. But the software development world is different. Anyone can play; all it takes is a personal computer, ability, and time. Software development is more akin to writing books and making music, and so advocates of reform say that copyrights and trademarks are proper protections for software. Creative works are protected from the start by copyrights and cost nothing; patents cost a bundle and do not apply until they are approved, a process that takes 18 to 30 months.

The system is weighted in favor of patent applicants and holders, and it is expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to successfully challenge even the most obviously bogus software patents. Software development moves so fast that the glacial pace of patent litigation snoozes on long after the patents in question have any relevance, and even without any disputes 20 years is eons in the computer world. Adding to the fun, the USPTO isn't exactly bursting with examiners who have computer science backgrounds or software expertise, and so applicants are rewarded with junk patents, one of the most famous being Amazon's One-Click patent.

Patents are supposed to protect the little people from the big bad megacorps. But this doesn't work for software. Big companies like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and others routinely file for thousands upon thousands of software patents every year. So technically they are stepping on each other's patents every minute of every day. Nobody wants to start a patent war, so they cross-license with each other and go about their business. The cost of a software patent application can easily hit $20,000, legal advice on how to deal with a patent threat is $40,000 or more, and defending a patent suit can cost at least $2 million. The little people are excluded from this fun game.

What if your own patents are violated by one of the big people? They will pummel you with their patent portfolios and blacken your sky with lawyers until you give up.

We don't need no education

Anything good happening here?

Source: Thomas Favre-Bulle/Flickr

Right here in the good old US of A we have perfected the art of producing marginally-educated high school graduates, an astounding achievement that wastes a cool $100,000 and 12 years of schooling per graduate. We spend more per student than anyone else. The much-cited OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report "compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, [and] ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics."

But why bother working hard in school when there aren't any jobs? We're number 106 in our employment rate. That means 105 countries are better than we are at creating jobs.

And why bother looking for a job when the ones you'll find are so frustrating? Those of us who are working are barely treading water. While wealth has been flowing upwards into the coffers of the top 1 percent of our population the past 30 years, wages have been stagnant. The top 1 percent income earners have seen their annual take rise from half a million in 1979 to nearly $2 million in 2007. Meanwhile, middle-class working people have lost ground, with per capita incomes of $31,000 dropping slightly from 1979, while taking big hits on home values. Working people are are subsidizing the uber-rich and making their corporate masters very wealthy.

Those of who are working, that is. American workers are working very hard, putting in more hours than anyone else on the planet. So they have less time to take care of themselves, less time for self-improvement and learning new skills, less time to help educate their kids, and less time to contribute to their communities.

But we are number one in obesity

The U.S. holds the world title for most obesity, at 30.6% of the population. Mexico is second at 24.2%, and the U.K. third at 23%.

Despite spending squillions more than anyone on health care, we rank 50th in life expectancy and 46th in infant mortality.

Sad 'green' technology policies

Made in the USA?

Source: Jeff Kubina/Flickr

While many of our fine elected persons are arguing and legislating in favor of pollution, waste, and obsolete, destructive energy technologies, and doing a fine job at blocking any sort of actual forward movement in modern green tech, the rest of the world is cleaning our clocks. For example, a U.K. company, the Mark Group, expanded its business of insulating old homes with advanced new technologies into the US. This is potentially a $5 trillion market that we are leaving wide open to more foresighted, ambitious countries. Inexpensive clean energy and efficient infrastructures are the foundations of future growth, and we're missing the boat by an entire ocean.

Investing in prisons, domestic spying, and bombs

It's hard to believe that this is the same country that was excited about going to the Moon. It's hard to pin down how much the US spends on defense and the absurdly-named Homeland Security, since there are many sleights of accounting hands, but depending who you ask in 2010 it was anywhere from $700 billion to over a trillion dollars. How much went to research and development? About $146 billion. That sounds like a lot until you compare it to the Cold War rate of 3 percent of our gross domestic product. $146 billion is 1 percent of the 2010 GDP of $14 trillion.

Did you know that the U.S. has the highest percentage of citizens in prison of any country on the planet? Over one percent of all American adults are serving time. This is a major drag on the economy, and considerably more expensive than education, R&D, and jobs training.

In a nutshell, we have unlimited funds for wars, "security", criminalizing everyone, and protectionism for companies locked into hawking obsolescence. But no funds for progress.

So, is there any hope? There are a number of bright spots. The catch is these positive indicators are not the usual suspects, but come from an entirely different direction that the usual pundits and analysts are missing.

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