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Is it time for a digital reality check?

Surprise, surprise: When the economy is in the tank, people outside the tech industry tend to think about mundane rather than the profound and world-changing.

NEW YORK--Solar panels clusters in New Mexico, wind farms dotting the Great Plains? That's all very nice. But that railroad tunnel in Baltimore is important, too.

On a gray and rainy Thursday, I went to Time Inc.'s midtown Manhattan headquarters for what was supposed to be a panel about the company's flagship magazine's annual "Person of the Year" honor. But amid consistently grave economic news, not to mention the fact that everyone in attendance seemed to agree that President-elect Barack Obama eclipses any other options for the award, the conversation was less about a magazine headline and more about the future of the country.

After a hefty fall season of digital-media and Web conferences, I was surprised to witness that outside the culture of think-big tech pundits, "the future" is a lot more mundane.

The road out of the economic crisis is "not a refund check...not more houses with more flat-screen TVs...(but) bridges that work and schools that inspire students."
--Elizabeth Edwards

"This is what President Obama's going to face," said panelist Elizabeth Edwards, Center for American Progress senior fellow and wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards. The road out of the economic crisis is "not a refund check" encouraging more consumption, "not more houses with more flat-screen TVs...(but) bridges that work and schools that inspire students."

The panelist lineup was impressive: in addition to Edwards, there was NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams; Mad Men actor John Slattery; personal-finance talking head Suze Orman; Saturday Night Live head writer Seth Meyers; and congressional Rep. Artur Davis (D-Alabama). None of them were the sorts of people whom I'd seen onstage in the past two months of tech industry events, from the Web 2.0 Expo in New York to the Future of Web Apps in London to last week's Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco (which featured Intel CEO Paul Otellini, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and former Vice President Al Gore, among others).

To be sure, the Techmeme set talks a whole lot about recession and recovery these days. Al Gore has urged us to move beyond "the gee-whiz stuff." Back in April, Tim O'Reilly expressed mild disgust at the fact that some of the U.S.' best and sharpest minds were busy building new ways to throw virtual hamburgers at each other on Facebook.

The problem is that some of these digital thought leaders' "real-world solutions" are still painted with that wide-eyed, change-the-world Valley sparkle. There is a distinct soldier-on, innovation-won't stop attitude, even as dozens of tech companies slice off a fifth, a quarter, a third of their workforces. Tech innovation will change the world in big ways, but it will change the world in small and unglamorous ways, too, and we're not hearing a whole lot of that.

At the Web 2.0 Summit, Gore suggested that in ten years we can build a "unified national smart grid" of sustainable electricity, a plan that would create thousands of jobs but which critics say might not even work. Paul Otellini excitedly showed off an Intel prototype of a camera-like gadget that could do language translations in seconds. Other panels at the same conference were all about consumer solar equipment retail, home DNA tests, and $100,000 electric sports cars.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams NBC

There was none of that on Thursday at Time Inc.'s headquarters. Williams suggested that perhaps President Obama's priorities should, FDR-style, putting people to work repairing a national infrastructure that's in bad disrepair. "Would it be that bad if we had a big jobs program?" Williams posed.

He asked why New York's LaGuardia Airport is in disrepair, why some of the city's infrastructure hasn't been touched since the days of controversial public works czar Robert Moses, and why it was possible that a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis last year. He asked why the U.S.' only high-speed train line, Amtrak's Acela Express, has to slow to 25 miles per hour to get through a tunnel outside Baltimore that dates back to the 1930s.

If people were put to work repairing it, Williams said, "you could get to Washington 20 minutes earlier."

The nifty smart-camera gadget that Otellini showed off at the Web 2.0 Summit might as well have been a flying car on The Jetsons in comparison.