I've found a perfect metaphor for our times.
A couple of days ago, a veteran entrepreneur and one of the most connected figures in Silicon Valley, Steve Millard, copied me on an article from UK Telegraph that I otherwise would have missed. You probably didn't see it either.
It seems that a British Royal Air Force unit is currently working out of a nearly anonymous U.S. Air Force base located in an equally anonymous suburb of Las Vegas ... remotely controlling unmanned Predator aircraft as they spy on Iraqi insurgents and, occasionally, take them out with Hellfire missiles. Then, after a long day of virtual warfare, the RAF airmen head into Sin City for R&R at the Bellagio and New York, New York.
Though as I write this it hasn't been verified, but I'm betting that it was these airmen who ran the Predator that tracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi right into his big concrete mausoleum. Scratch one homicidal mass murderer. Popping Zarqawi has got to be a whole lot better than drawing a royal flush at video poker.
You just can't make this stuff up. It is yet another reminder of that old rule of mine: New technologies always take longer than we predict, and arrive sooner than we are prepared for them.
I remember as a kid when remotely piloted vehicles were the stuff of Popular Science magazine cover illustrations (they had hang glider wings back then). The assumption then was these weapons would soon -- say, 1965 -- appear above some battlefield in Southeast Asia.
Well, it took another quarter-century, and the Predator, with its bulbous nose and upside-down V-tail, not only doesn't look quite like what most people expected, but its very existence still seems kind of shocking and futuristic. It also operates a lot differently than sci-fi buffs back during the Kennedy administration might have predicted: not a fast-moving robot fighter drone, but a slow-moving, high altitude camera and missile platform.
By the same token, though it was never made entirely clear, I suspect the vision of a robot plane back then was of something like a superduper version of a remote-controlled toy plane, with machine guns controlled by a soldier hiding in a foxhole somewhere nearby, always within sight. I'm also pretty sure that nobody back then, not even the most forward-looking Rand Institute whiz kid, could have predicted a bunch of RAF guys sitting in Vegas, directing missile launches from a snowmobile engine-powered pilotless airplane doing lazy-eights half-a-world away, four miles above Iraq -- whacking this generation's Rudolf Heydrich -- and then heading off for celebratory shooters and slots at the MGM Grand.
The reason this seems to me such a perfect symbol of our time is that it is that the nexus of so many of the defining characteristics of the age. For that Predator to get circling over Iraq required huge advances in materials science (the drone's Kevlar skin), CCD chips (on-board cameras), infrared technology, microprocessors, microwave (radar), reliable and efficient motors, sensors and flight control circuitry.