This article is published in the January 2009 issue.

Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

Musings from the Chair

The hearing room for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology is as formal and imposing as the name suggests. Each time I have testified there on aspects of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program, I have paused to reflect on the two quotations inscribed there. The quotations command attention because they are inscribed on the paneled wall behind the seats of the committee members—and all witnesses face the committee and that wall.

The first inscription, a line from the poet Alfred Tennyson, captures the rapturous joy that is birthed by scientific discovery:

For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be

After all, this is why we were first attracted to research in general and computing in particular. It satisfies some of our oldest and deepest yearnings: to understand what and how and why.

The second inscription, from Proverbs, is a sobering warning to those who do not feel the siren call of intellectual curiosity, marshaled by strategy and tactics:

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

In simple, yet haunting lines, these two Janus-like invocations capture the rewards that accrue to those who both articulate and—equally critically—act on visions, and they warn of the dire consequences for those do not. I pause and ponder both each time I enter the House hearing room.

Enabling Innovation

I have often reflected on the critical ingredient to discovery and innovation. Is it knowledge? Without doubt, for each discovery builds on the vast and interconnected web of previous discoveries. Is it talent? Certainly, as anyone who has ever taught a class knows and understands. Is it persistence? Absolutely, for Edison was right; discovery is 99 percent perspiration.

Above all, I believe the most precious and rare element is vision. It is the ability to imagine what could be, to see what is invisible to most and obvious to only a few. It is that ineffable notion of taste, where one must choose compelling problems from among a plethora of seemingly equally inviting ones. More generally, vision is navigating the shoals between the treacherous rocks of the truly impossible and the placid waters of the purely pedestrian.

Computing at the Crossroads

Over the last sixty years, computing has profoundly affected commerce, science and society. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we find ourselves at an intellectual and emotional crossroads, facing a metaphorical midlife crisis. We are debating the nature of computing education—what are the essential elements of computing writ large and the compelling intra- and interdisciplinary research visions for the future?

I believe we must dream big and articulate visions for the future that inspire and attract. Much as physics asks deep and powerful questions about the origins of the universe and the principles via which it operates, and biology asks equally deep questions about the nature of life and its processes, computing can and must ask profound questions about the nature of computability, information, communication, intelligence, perception and their manifestations in technology. Simply put, we need compelling visions for the future and the wonders that would be.

We face perilous economic times, and our research and education institutions are under enormous financial strain. I cannot imagine a more important time to articulate a shared vision for the future of computing and mount the initiatives needed to make those wonders a 21st century reality. The consequences of the alternative are unimaginable.

Dan Reed CRA’s Board Chair, is Microsoft’s Scalable and Multicore Computing Strategist. Contact him at Daniel.Reed [@] or his blog at

Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish