Listening Post: the next biggest thing

Nine tons of twine. Why? Who cares?

Nine tons of twine. Why? Who cares?

America has always been a little super-size happy. We famously do things up big. Like most outstanding attributes, this has its charm, and it can be sometimes unattractive. But grandiosity has been in our DNA since colonial days.

It can be as silly as the world’s biggest ball of twine, now up to nine tons worth, housed in Cawker City, Kansas, or as scary as the accumulation of the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, or as disgusting as the world’s largest hamburger, such as a 134-pound monstrosity cooked up in Michigan in 2008.

The most famous example of America thinking big in my lifetime was Kennedy’s promise to get us to the moon before the end of the 1960s–just as soon as we figured out how to build the world’s biggest rocket. Rash, bold–American as apple pie. And the fact that we now have to hitch rides on rockets made in Russia up to the International Space Station is more a failure of policy than vision.

Sometimes big things are an unintended consequence of small things. I don’t think America set out to connect up the whole planet with tiny personal computing devices. But once Americans get started on something, it tends to get a little out of hand. In a science fiction story from my youth, life in the twenty-first century was managed by about a dozen stadium-sized computers, each cooled by a nearby glacier. My peers who read that story along with me wound up doing the worldwide web instead. Almost un-American.

The next biggest thing is notoriously hard to predict. The space race seems to be in the past. The internet, I expect, will expand to some kind of natural limit. We’ve built the megalopolises and done the interstates, electrified the land, and accomplished other super-sized stuff.

What’s next? Is America done with doing big? Or at least big stuff that matters? Or is something in the birth throes right now–something audacious, bold enough to rock the world–and we just can’t see it in our Twitter feed?

Nominate the next biggest America-sized thing in a comment below.


10 Comments on “Listening Post: the next biggest thing”

  1. michael owen says:

    nuclear war in Iran with Russia

  2. Dale Hobson says:

    Hi Mike–

    I was hoping for something a little less crater-based.


  3. Pete Klein says:

    The next biggest thing should be a smart phone as large a a 50 inch TV so you can actually see what you are watching on the phone.

  4. connie says:

    The Buffalo Bills win the Super Bowl. That would be a nuclear level shock.

  5. Dale Hobson says:

    Hi Pete–

    If the smart phone took over your retinas directly, it could appear bigger than a jumbotron. It would make driving pretty hard, though.


  6. Dale Hobson says:

    Connie–And I thought I was talkin’ science fiction.


  7. Hank says:

    The world’s largest parasol – sent into geo-synchronous orbit – to shield the Earth from some of the sun’s rays and thereby cool the planet. It would be a lot easier to accomplish than trying to get everybody on board to reduce greenhouse gases (a goal that may already be too late to accomplish anything useful).

  8. Dale Hobson says:


    An American-size idea if I ever heard one.


  9. Ellen Rocco says:

    A cure for cancer and AIDS.

    A national rail system located on the median land between lanes on 4-6 lane highways and interstates (taking over an extra lane from each direction because fewer people will be driving cars).

    Human population control.

  10. Sue W says:

    Augmented humans. Combination of biology, pharmacology, materials science and machines. This is already happening, mostly for medical reasons, sometimes for cosmetic or lifestyle choices.

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