The State of the Union address is a set piece. Appeal to the middle class. Rattle sabers at enemies abroad. Toward the end, highlight a few ordinary, courageous Americans by name.
Last night, Barack Obama waded into new territory with a plan for the nation that seemed to rely particularly heavily on gee-whiz technology. In fact, Obama made so many references to 3-D printing, genome mapping, Apple, and clean energy that some wags on Twitter suggested he might be trying out for a writing position at a technology magazine.
I think this raises important questions. First, are presidential addresses featuring more technology? Second, is more of the technology being discussed the sci-fi, unproven kind? It matters because the State of the Union is usually taken as a blueprint of a president’s plans for the coming year.
We didn’t have time to analyze every presidential State of the Union address. But we did look at three speeches in which technology was key: Obama’s last night, Ronald Reagan’s in 1986 (at the culmination of the Cold War), and Harry S. Truman’s in 1953.
The data we have suggest that technology—particularly the promise of futuristic, as-yet-nonexistent technologies—is taking on a bigger role.
If you feel like it, you can do this analysis for yourself. Here’s what I did. First I counted the number of specific technologies mentioned by name. I excluded things like “industry” and “trucks” as too generic and also excluded those merely hinted at (as when Obama made an indirect reference to drone warfare). You’ll find my tallies below.
Then, I decided if the technologies were real or futuristic. In Obama’s case, I counted “high-speed rail” as real, but “self-healing power grids” as futuristic. There were some tough calls: even though 3-D printing is real, I categorized it as fantasy because of the way Obama framed it, promising it could “revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”
Truman’s 1953 speech is interesting because it includes a detailed discussion of the atomic era. The speech has some poetry, as when he describes the bomb as “that great white flash of light, man-made at Alamogordo.” But it largely sticks to the facts. Atomic bombs and atomic energy, he said, have opened “the doorway to the atomic age” and divided the world between East and West. (I counted atomic energy as real, not futuristic, even though this was early on the path to commercial power.)
Reagan may have been the first to insert Hollywood-style science fiction in a State of the Union speech. Certainly he takes the prize for pure cinematic imagery, as when he promised “a new Orient Express that could … take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low Earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.” Reagan’s speech was all about projecting American power into outer space and cowing the Soviet Union. In fact, the Tokyo-Washington rocket, Reagan said, was “the same technology” that would let the U.S. create a “security shield” to block nuclear weapons and thereby “solve the greatest problem of the 20th century.”
Even though the space shield was pure balderdash and brinksmanship, some of Reagan’s predictions, which I tallied as futuristic because they were at the time, actually did come true, including a “space station” and “a space telescope that can see to the edge of the universe and possibly back to the moment of creation.”
Obama’s speech was less militaristic but stands out for the sheer number of technologies mentioned. And I didn’t even count “mapping the human brain” or “map the human genome,” since no specific technology was mentioned. Maybe it’s because times have changed and we’re surrounded by more technology. Or maybe this president is counting more than his predecessors on technology to fix what are otherwise the kinds of problems politicians are supposed to solve.
Barack Obama, 2013:
Macs, 3-D printing, drugs to regenerate damaged organs, new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful, wind energy, solar energy, technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner, high-speed rail, high-speed Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids, modern pipelines to withstand a storm, nuclear weapon/nuclear materials, weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines
Ronald Reagan, 1986:
Space shuttle, a space telescope that can see to the edge of the universe, space station, a new Orient Express that could … fly to Tokyo within two hours, [nuclear] security shield, nuclear weapons
Harry Truman, 1953:
atomic bomb, atomic energy