The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

DW – In your 2011 essay Innovation Starvation you question if we still have the capacity to get big things done, citing the kind of technological innovation that went in to the Apollo programme. Have we lost our faith in technology to bring progress, or is there good reason to retreat from the disruption that comes with it?

NS – The particular events that set me off were the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Fukushima, both of which were examples of what I would consider old technologies that became ensconced within our system and took on permanence wildly in excess of their technical merits. The Fukushima reactors are technology from the 1960s, constructed in the 1970s. Look under the hood of a 1960s automobile, if you can find one that is still running, and compare it to a new Tesla, or even a Buick, and you can get a sense (as if you needed one) of how crazy it is to have a plant of that vintage under the control of a bureacracy as catatonic as Tepco.

“So yeah, we’ve definitely lost our faith in technology to bring progress.”

So, I would consider the state of the nuclear power industry to be a case in which an early, faulty embodiment of a new technology was pushed out into the market, leading to a quite understandable backlash from the general public as most people discarded their rose-colored glasses and created barriers to adoption of new tech. The two main barriers that were created were legal/regulatory, and cultural. I won’t elaborate on the former.

51N+4sZ8AGL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_The cultural barrier is somewhat more in my bailiwick, and I’ll talk about it in a moment, but the point is that these barriers were set up too late to solve the problems that inspired their creation, and so they had the unintended consequence of locking in all of the bad stuff that had come before–grandfathering it into place, in effect–while making it impossible to build newer and better stuff. So Fukushima and many other reactors of that vintage are still there, while people trying to construct modern replacements for them can’t make headway. Even wind turbines and solar farms are difficult to build because of regulatory barriers that were put into place to control much more baleful technologies.

A lot could be said about the cultural barriers, but maybe the most succinct thing I can say is that I was browsing on my Apple TV the other day, looking for a movie to watch, and was confronted with an entire category of films labeled “Dystopian Futures.” I am old enough to remember when some of the very first dystopian SF movies came out. They wouldn’t have been called that at the time, other than by film critics writing for an elite audience. At the time it was refreshing, and extremely hip, to see depictions of futures that were not as clean and simple as Star Trek. Now, the dystopian future is the only future that is allowed to be presented in new SF films and television, and it has become so ubiquitous, and so tired, that Apple TV is deploying it as a mass marketing term right up there with “Romantic Comedies” and “Superheroes.” So yeah, we’ve definitely lost our faith in technology to bring progress.

Is there “good reason to retreat from the disruption?” Well, there’s a buried premise in the question I don’t agree with. The presumption is that the world is static–and basically hospitable–until we do something and thereby disrupt it. Which I don’t agree with at all. We live in an environment almost all aspects of which were engineered by our ancestors. The continents of Australia and the Americas, when discovered by Europeans, had been made over by systematic hunting, burning and gardening over tens of thousands of years, and didn’t exist in anything like a pristine state of nature. We live, and have always lived, in a completely manufactured environment. All we’re left with is the ability to choose between different technological strategies. It’s incoherent to point at one thing and call it a technology in contradistinction to the [implicitly non-technological] status quo ante.

Other things being equal, and speaking very broadly, newer tech tends to work better than older, which is why Apple keeps getting us to buy the latest and greatest iPhone. So, at the mass-market consumer level, we have a strange state of affairs in which people are eager to vote with their dollars, pounds and Euros for the latest tech but they flock to movies depicting a relentlessly depressing view of the future, and resist any tech deployed on a large scale, in a centralized way, such as wind turbine farms.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

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