As an American historian, University of Washington history professor Margaret O’Mara says she’s particularly interested in understanding “how did we get to now?”
During a talk at the recent GeekWire Summit in Seattle, O’Mara discussed learning from the past to understand the future, and how the bigger story of American technology relates to American history.
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One point O’Mara made was certainly relevant to the now, or at least the way she teased it was. O’Mara said she wanted to begin her “history lesson” by helping people understand how history can be so powerful and empowering, “by talking about the president and Russia.”
But rather than launch into a rehash of everything we think we know or hope to know about President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election, O’Mara went back in history, to a 1988 speech by President Ronald Reagan in Moscow.
It was nearly the end of the Cold War, and Reagan was speaking at Moscow State University, the elite technical university in what was at the time the Soviet Union. It was a speech to 600 engineering students, whom O’Mara referred to as the top of their class and future leaders of the technology industry.
And he starts talking about revolution. He doesn’t talk about the founding fathers. He doesn’t even talk about the Reagan Revolution or the conservative revolution. He talks about microchips.
And he said there is a revolution going on in the world today. It is a bloodless revolution, but it is transforming everything. And its agent is this little device. A tiny device smaller than your fingernail and it is changing the world.
And then Regan goes on to talk about how this is an extraordinary product of American freedom and democracy. That this entrepreneurial explosion that came out of the United States, particularly in the personal computer industry, with companies like Microsoft in the 1980s, is proof positive of the free enterprise system at work.
And Ronald Reagan was right. It was an only-in-America story. That the United States in the 20th century became this incredibly hospitable environment for entrepreneurial activity; for people to come up with great ideas and be able to execute on them. For these companies to start in garages and grow to become multi-trillion-dollar enterprises.”
Watch the video at top for O’Mara’s full GeekWire Summit talk on how a society, a culture and a government created conditions for the tech industry to grow.