When President Obama said that "Google, Facebook would not exist, had it not been for investments that we made as a country in basic science and research” he left something out. The government money he refers to would not itself have existed had it not been for taxes collected on companies like Google and Facebook. There would have been no chicken without the egg. So who takes credit for Google and Facebook? Its creators or government?
Wikipedia traces the provenance of a similar claim: that Al Gore invented the Internet. During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Gore said:
During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.
The Wikipedia entry quotes Newt Gingrich as saying that Gore had made this branch of public policy his specialty:
"In all fairness, it's something Gore had worked on a long time. Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet, and the truth is -- and I worked with him starting in 1978 when I got [to Congress], we were both part of a "futures group" -- the fact is, in the Clinton administration, the world we had talked about in the '80s began to actually happen."
Yet the fact remains that government cannot command success into existence in a society which lacks a deep pool of competence. Ultimately Government doesn't really create stuff. It redistributes what a society already makes and sometimes it adds a little value and takes credit for it.
This was dramatically illustrated in North Korea when Pyongyang' ballyhooed missile launch failed moments after liftoff. No matter how much Little Kim wanted his missile it was still subject to the effects of statistical reliability and failure rates. North Korea is a technologically backward country. And not all the government in the world is going to fix that without uplifting the underlying country.
But perhaps the most valid reason to be skeptical of claims that Government created Google or the Internet is because that is an exercise in selective memory. Selective memory is a phenomenon in which only the triumphs and none of the failures can be recalled. Thus, Barack Obama can take credit for Google, but what about Solyndra? What about General Motors? So if Al Gore invented the Internet, did he also invent the Global Warming meme?
In 1966, Philip K. Dick wrote a story titled "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale". In that story, people were offered fake memories in lieu of actual achievement. This is called "extra-factual memory". The plotline was later made into a movie called "Total Recall".
Douglas Quail, a simple and ordinary man, wishes to visit Mars. Unable to afford it, he visits a company, Rekal, Incorporated, that offers implanted memories ("extra-factual memory"). The attempt to implant some exciting Mars memories of Quail as a secret agent reveals that Quail actually is an undercover government assassin with a mind full of dangerous secrets. The Rekal staff quickly get Quail out of their office; he heads home and finds certain physical evidence to support his new old memories. His handlers initially seek his death but instead Quail, being an assassin, avoids this and goes on the run. Unfortunately, he has an implanted device which can be used to read his thoughts. He therefore makes a deal in which the memory of his Mars mission is replaced by a false memory of his deepest desire as analyzed by psychiatrists - that he saved the world from a Martian invasion at the age of 9. The Rekal staff begin the memory-implanting procedure, and run into the same problem as they did earlier - the incredible memories they are about to insert are already there and real.
Barack Obama can recall when Government created Google and Facebook. Doubtless his recollections seem "real", but are they actually true? Maybe it doesn't matter. In the movie Total Recall, two characters argued over how bad it was to be stuck in a dream.
"All right, let's say you're telling the truth and this is all a dream. I could pull this trigger and it won't matter."
"It won't make the slightest difference to me Doug, but the consequences to you will be devastating. In your mind, I'll be dead, and with no one to guide you out, you'll be stuck here in permanent psychosis."
Franklin Roosevelt maintained that a key part of leaving the Depression was implanting the idea that by an act of will, America could. "We have nothing to fear but Fear itself." Perhaps the President is making the same case today. Government may not be able to do or invent anything. But it's better for us all if we believed it was true. If you build it, he will come. The sun will shine -- Tomorrow. If you have Hope, it will Change.
Or maybe it only happens in the movies.