The Race for the Coolest Stuff

A staple of action/thriller movies like the Mission: Impossible and the James Bond series is that the government agencies have all the cool gadgets, stuff we can’t get. There’s usually some opening scene featuring geeky scientists displaying the latest technology, such as a pen that is really a flamethrower or special shoes that allow you to scale buildings. There is a car with amazing powers and built-in wings or jets that become enormously useful in the final chase scene.

There is something wildly implausible about all of this. The truth is that the government is behind the private sector in its pace of innovation, and even in its adoption and use of private technology. Just look at the post office! It’s pathetic. And a decade after households had PCs connected to the Internet, government offices were still using typewriters and triplicate. It’s been this way for a very long time. Government doesn’t invent anything, and it is a very late adopter of what the market does bring to market.

Another implausibility of these movies is that the government’s gizmos work most of the time. That’s not true, as the modern history of “smart bombs” illustrates. Without access to a market for replacement parts or a market to test and improve technology on the margin, the government’s innovations depreciate quickly and end up being highly unreliable. Anyone who has spent time in a government bureaucracy can tell you the stories.

Where does the idea come from that government has the cool gadgets? It is probably a result of World War II, and the atom bomb in particular. The legendary Manhattan Project, initiated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, ended up creating the ghastly and immoral nuclear bomb that annihilated a quarter of a million people at the end of the war. That made an impression and generated the myth that government, because it has access to more resources and people than free enterprise, can create more-impressive technology.

It’s one thing to build weapons for mass killing and another thing to invent things that improve life. The private sector never had a reason to invent a weapon of mass destruction, which accounts for why government did it first. The lesson is generalizable across a wide spectrum of technology. In real life, the private sector pushes out the horizons one step at a time, with a constant stream of new releases that improve the old, each tested against user experience and economic viability.

My reason for bringing this up is to praise a movie that has dramatically broken from the usual pattern. The movie is Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that you can’t stand the sheer unreality of these movies, the way Tom Cruise can fall 30 feet onto a steel surface and bounce off mostly unharmed, the way these car chase scenes feature antics that couldn’t be realized by the best Nascar driver and so on. And that is all true for this recent release too (but hey, they are supposed to be fun movies, so lighten up!).

But there is one extremely important respect in which this film truly gets it right: It seems to be the first in this genre that fully understands that private technology is better than government technology.

Most of the government’s own equipment in the film is flaky. The fancy gloves that allow you to climb up windows on skyscrapers fail. The right-hand glove somehow shorts out or maybe the batteries die or something along those lines. It makes this electric sputtering noise and shuts down, nearly killing agent Ethan Hunt.

Then, in another scene, the wonky tractor magnet that is supposedly creating a levitating force field flies out of control and nearly kills another agent.

The government’s technology is so bad that even the amazing mask-making 3-D printer shuts down unexpectedly, requiring the agents to enter into high-level negotiations as themselves! Not even the signature of all Mission: Impossible movies can exist, due to government incompetence.

And there’s another case…An agent is supposed to wear this contact lens that secretly takes pictures of paper, and then these pictures are automatically printed in a remote location. Taking the picture requires that you blink twice. The enemy agent happens to notice this peculiar blinking habit, and further notes that his eye has a strange crossword shape in the retina and orders the agent to be killed immediately!

Nothing the government has given them for their mission works right!

But what about the private sector? Hilariously, the mission with its famed self-destruct message is delivered on an iPhone (in the one scene in which it is not, agent Hunt has to bonk the Soviet-era payphone to get it to go up in smoke).

The agents all use iPads to accomplish their amazing techno feats. They use the iPads’ scrolling technique to cycle through pictures of enemy agents. And all their computing is done with the very conspicuous use of MacBooks.

It’s as if the filmmakers sat down to think of cool stuff and realized that there wasn’t anything cooler than you can buy right now from Best Buy, so they finally decided to throw in the towel on the old idea that the best gadgetry emerges from a government lab.

As for the remaining government stuff, it is the usual assembly of dangerous weaponry and satellites. It’s all left over from the Cold War and can only be used for evil.

The message is then clear: Government technology is malicious, outmoded or ineffectual, while the private sector’s technology is advanced and gets the job done. This amounts to a decisive turnaround, even an epic artistic shift. It amounts to an admission that that the great technological battle between the public and private sectors has been decisively won by the free market.

In that sense, the new Mission: Impossible might be the most realistic action film ever made. If you want to accomplish the impossible, you know where to turn.