It's becoming harder to tell the fake stories from the real ones

April 24, 2013: 2:22 PM ET

An article by the Onion decries the state of American technological innovation. What's so funny about that?

FORTUNE -- On Tuesday, there was a real news story about a company that's marketing bulletproof clothing for use by American schoolchildren. The day before, there was a fake news story, from The Onion, about how American innovation has stalled as companies like Twitter are increasingly cited as examples of the cutting edge of technological development.

It's becoming harder to tell the fake stories from the real ones. America, it seems, is becoming satire-proof.

The best Onion parodies are the ones that come closest to reality, but maybe it's possible to come too close. "Nation Starting to Realize New Era of American Innovation Never Gonna Happen" might be too close. It's so close it's almost not funny at all.

The opening paragraph:

After nearly a decade of promises that the nation was on the brink of a technological, economic, and scientific golden age, citizens across the country confirmed Monday they are now realizing a bold new era of American innovation is just flat-out not gonna happen.

If it weren't for the Onionish tone, and the depiction of "citizens across the country" being up in arms, that sounds like a pretty typical bit of tech punditry -- almost clichéd.

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Likewise the following quote from a fake citizen. With just a little bit of work -- even just a Google search -- the Onion could easily have found a real citizen to say this:

"During the last election, I admittedly got really excited when Obama proposed things like a high-speed rail system, a modernized and more efficient national power grid, and affordable college educations for every American," said physical therapist Chris Donner, 42, of Wilmington, DE. "But now that I've had a chance to sort of step back and calmly assess where we are as a country, I can say with full confidence that we're not taking any bold leaps into a bright future anytime soon."

And there are fake poll numbers that sound like they could easily be real.

According to a recent survey, 41 percent of Americans said they had abandoned any hope of the U.S. developing a progressive blueprint for reversing global warming. Seventy-nine percent claimed that the idea of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter blazing the trail to a new technological paradigm is "just plain dumb if you really think about it." And when asked if they truly and honestly believed the United States would at any point pioneer a new age of research and development rivaling that of the Space Race era, 45 percent of survey respondents immediately replied with a simple "Nope," while the remaining 55 percent stared silently at the ground for several moments before quietly chuckling and shaking their heads.

There are of course plenty of real arguments along these lines, one of the better recent ones coming from Jason Pontin of MIT Technology Review, who wrote last October:

That something happened to humanity's capacity to solve big problems is a commonplace. Recently, however, the complaint has developed a new stridency among Silicon Valley's investors and entrepreneurs, although it is usually expressed a little differently: people say there is a paucity of real innovations. Instead, they worry, technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys.

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