The Death and Life of American Imagination

In February 1953, a violent North Sea storm crashed through the Dutch levee system, killing 1,835 people and leaving a hundred thousand others homeless. In the aftermath, the country responded by building the Delta Works, the world’s most sophisticated system of flood defenses. According to John McQuaid, a reporter for Mother Jones on assignment in the Netherlands, the system is “engineered to a safety standard 100 times more stringent than the current goal (not yet achieved) for New Orleans’ most heavily populated areas. Even Dutch pasturelands have more protection than the Big Easy.” As one government engineer told McQuaid, conceiving and building the Delta Works “was like putting a man on the moon.”

That was half a century ago. Why the disparity between what the Dutch could accomplish then, and what the U.S. (the country that did put a man on the moon) has conceived to protect New Orleans, one of its most historic and treasured cities, and the surrounding region? You can call it foresight, or innovation, but beyond that, what the Dutch response required—and where we appear to be failing in our response to the aftermath of Katrina—was tremendous imagination.

Imagination is an intangible, unlimited, and free resource. It is not, at least for the purposes of this discussion, the same as fantasy, where universal laws cease to apply, where elephants might speak Latin or humans travel back in time. Nor is imagination reserved for artistic pursuits, though imagination is the core of creativity. Applying imagination to problem-solving requires the ability to come up with an idea, and to break that idea down into the steps that will bring it to fruition. It also requires an alchemical mix of will, vision, discipline, and action, not to mention stubborn perseverance in the face of frustration or opposition.

A prime example of this use of imagination would be George Hotz, the seventeen-year-old who spent all summer cracking Apple’s iPhone; he broke the lock that tied the phone to AT&T’s wireless network and freed it for use on other carriers’ networks, even overseas ones. Hotz spent five hundred hours with four online collaborators, and was motivated by the challenge and by “fun.”

Presently, imagination of this sort is very much in demand. One wake-up call to the erosion of imagination in American culture came in 2004, when “failure of imagination” was cited in the 9/11 commission report as the primary reason U.S. officials misjudged the threat of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Maybe government officials couldn’t imagine terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center, but plenty of others could and did—and not just those who actually carried out the long-planned and highly complex attack. The ability to prevent terrorist attacks depends on leaders who are as imaginative as those who would carry them out.

While imagination is one key to national security, it’s also crucial to economic security. In 2004, executives at leading technology companies like Dell, Cypress Semiconductor, and IBM spoke to Lee Todd, president of the University of Kentucky, about creating sustainable jobs for the U.S. in the years to come. All said the same thing, according to Todd: Imagination and creativity represent the future of the U.S. economy. On a broader level, the World Economic Forum chose “The Creative Imperative” as the theme for its 2006 conference in Davos, Switzerland. Writers like Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, point to the new “imagination economy” as a trend that’s just taking off. He sees it in quite simple terms: “People have to be able to do something that can’t be outsourced,” Pink told me. “Something that’s hard to automate and that delivers on the growing demand for nonmaterial things like stories and design. Typically these are things we associate with the right side of the brain, with artistic and empathetic and playful sorts of abilities.”

Government leaders in education are joining the chorus, too. “American education’s single-minded focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (‘STEM’ subjects) is admirable but misguided,” wrote two former assistant U.S. secretaries of education in the August 12 issue of The Wall Street Journal Online. What makes America competitive in a shrinking global economy, they claimed, is “our people’s creativity, versatility, imagination, restlessness, energy, ambition, and problem-solving prowess.” As they summed it up, true success—economic, civic, cultural, domestic, military—depends on a broadly educated populace with “flowers and leaves as well as stems.”






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