In Praise of Our Technopolis

Gregory Benford is the author of two novels set on UC campuses, "Timescape" (at his alma mater, UC San Diego) and "Cosm" (at UC Irvine, where he is a professor of physics)

Noting how easy it is to build aircraft outdoors and fly them in clear skies, businessman E.J. Clapp wrote: "There is going to be a Detroit of the aircraft industry. Why not here in Los Angeles?"

That was in 1926. Soon airplane manufacturing businesses sprouted alongside the citrus groves, then blossomed into a full-fledged aerospace industry. Other technology-driven industries cropped up, followed by facilities for the sort of scientific research that makes engineering creativity thrive. Now science and technology are far more deeply rooted in this semiarid landscape than the few remaining orange trees. Why?

For one thing, the weather promises sunny beaches and mild breezes, not the chilly intellectual ambience of an MIT or Harvard. Even eggheads ain't stupid. Many a rocket scientist presumably landed here simply because she saw the same bikini-in-January advantages snowbound Cheeseheads notice at sunny Rose Bowl games.

But weather is not just a comfort--it shapes. Our air is clear for jet testing and stargazing. Mt. Wilson and then Mt. Palomar drew the Andrew Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, respectively, to build big optical telescopes because they offered the best astronomical "seeing" conditions in North America. This same clarity and dependable sunlight led to Hollywood's filmmaking dominance over New York. Being able to train troops out-of-doors drew the Marines to Camp Pendleton and the Army Air Force to Edwards and other bases.

In the end, though, weather was less determining than determination itself. As Allen J. Scott suggests in his 1993 study, "Technopolis," immigrants here had already crossed many horizons; they were willing to venture forth conceptually, as well. Key to this culture was a new idea: tools open us to fresh possibilities faster than theories do. Edwin Hubble peered through Mt. Wilson's clear air and discovered that the universe was expanding. Einstein came to Caltech to confer with Hubble, who had directly shown what Mr. Relativity had not dared propose: a universe growing larger, not static. A famous picture of the shaggy-haired genius lurching around Caltech on a bicycle caught the flavor: Machinery sends us in new directions.

California has always been about movement, travel, speed. The eager boosterism of men such as Clapp flowed into crosscutting riptides, as imported technical skills blended. Optical tricks could make better movies and bomb sights alike. Machinists at lathes could turn out better oil drills or tank barrels or airplane exhausts. Switching talent from one field to another enabled skilled workers to steer their careers past industrial dead ends.

Building our paradise, we shamelessly mirrored the best of the Other Coast. Stanford was like Harvard, Caltech (CIT) like MIT, Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla like Woods Hole on Massachusetts' Cape. If San Francisco was like Boston, though, L.A. was like nothing in the East. For a while, it seemed more like brawling Chicago, its cultural currents making for tricky navigation. L.A.'s Old Money scarcely dated back more than a few generations, and usually kept its cash in real estate. Newcomers brought a sense of open horizons. Here, position was not everything. The race for insight and new products alike came from antsy intellectual resources, not from highly fixed natural resources, the old form of wealth.

Quick minds gathered in close clusters were the crucial elements, realized early by a state that built a new kind of bridging institution: the University of California system, the greatest of public universities. Few now realize how revolutionary its close concert of academic abstraction and business practicality was at the start of this century. From the beginning, the system helped drive the economy. At UC Davis, the system enshrined viniculture as a legitimate intellectual pursuit, fostering the nation's leading wine industry. Oceanographers at UC San Diego invented the wet suit, only to have a UC committee recommend not bothering to patent it, because only scientists would use it. Medical radiation therapy got its momentum from high-energy physics at UC Berkeley, where Ernest O. Laurence's cyclotron provided the particles. Orange grove yields grew using secrets discovered at an agricultural field station in Riverside, later the kernel of UC Riverside. Caltech, USC and the UCs made engineering central; even during the Depression, out here there were jobs.

Though the Other Coast had invented and first developed the airplane, it yielded to our sheer energy. By the 1950s the aerospace-electronics complex bestrode the largest high-tech industrial region in the world, a position it still holds. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and designer Ramo Wooldridge provided the first U.S. space satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. Three years later, Rocketdyne's Redstone engine drove the first Project Mercury flights. The shuttle lifts off from Florida's Cape Canaveral, but it lands at Edwards Air Force Base. Meanwhile, the West Coast's most active space port is Vandenberg, at Southern California's northern edge. In aerospace and electronics especially, Southern California pioneered the new high-tech hierarchy: well-paid managers, scientists and engineers, underpinned by a vast stratum of laborers who assembled and built the molded plastics, aluminum cowlings, printed circuit boards and, lately, personal computers.

Growth was cutthroat and unregulated. Price gouging and lurching job growth brought Darwinnowings of the small capital firms that came and went like vagrant, failed species in evolution's grand opera. Slowly it sank in: Our great driver was no longer weather or agriculture. It was the restless Technopolis pace, one that no other region on the planet has done more to foster.

Innovations developed locally--and thus applied most immediately here--gave Southern California an edge. After 1990, aerospace's decline forced many engineers to find hot new jobs in Hollywood special-effects teams. Heads-up pilot displays in real fighter planes led to great simulation games bought by 12-year-olds. Meanwhile, we are making fresh industries out of age itself. The sunshine draws retirees, who want better medical care. Nestled around the old-style aerospace complexes are brightly growing new-techs such as medical device manufacture and biotechnology. To drive this synergistic complex harder, UC Irvine has ushered onto campus research labs built by private companies, which will hand the labs over to UC ownership a few decades hence: commerce feeding research.

Through such innovation, our Technopolis will likely avoid the fate of Massachusetts' once renowned Route 128, which is losing clout and profits. Route 128 ceded its comparative advantages in computer design and manufacturing to the Stanford University-inspired Silicon Valley and to burgeoning assembly complexes in the San Gabriel Valley and San Diego. California's secret seems to be its decentralized, experimental style, easygoing only in appearances. Technology workers learned to value collaboration and collective learning among a jostling, competitive crowd of hungry start-ups. Route 128 settled into its middle age with a complacent band of a few self-sufficient corporations who learned little from each other. They tried to innovate by pyramid management, rather than embracing the brainstorms of the grunts laboring below. Think 1970s Detroit for a comparison. So far, SoCal has uniquely managed the handoff from one tired wonder-tech to the newest.

Older industries will still recede as the new advance. A Dickensian jungle of faltering assembly plants and techno-sweatshop sociology could grow in our balmy clime. Some in SoCal see ahead an era of limits, if only because we cannot build 'burbs to the Arizona border. Our disjointed mosaic of seven counties and 200 cities is failing the Technopolis at the most basic, seldom-mentioned level: infrastructure. Traffic now compels decisions about location and office hours. Gridlock hobbles Digitalwidget Inc.'s ability to say where and what hours its employees can work. Air pollution limits what shops can set up in the region, so some painting and finishing gets shipped to who-cares Nevada. Even the techno-triumph of our water system is straining to carry so much water to agriculture, which drinks 80% of the supply. And the public schools woefully fail many students, leaving corporations two costly choices: educating their own work force or relocating to places where kids' technical skills go beyond lighting smudge pots.

There are limited techno-solutions to such problems, and we will try them all. SoCal could easily become the world's premier electric car complex. Biotech may find drought-resistant genes to tailor our commercial crops. Telecommuting may keep more of us working at home. Additional computers might marginally help some schools.

So, uncertainty will still be with us next millennium. What's clear, though, is this: Southern Californians see science and technology as integral to their socioeconomic success. I suspect Technopolis is about to realize that to remain healthy and prosperous it must discover political leaders as inventive as the scientists and technologists who thrive here and dream up a regional government with an imagination comparable to its own.

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