The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

DW – We seem to have a lot of these negative cultural narratives about technology – the apocalypse of course, environmental collapse, but also the most negative assessment of our economic situation, that capitalism has reached its end game and technology won’t power it any further. Do we face a hard limit on our current development? What comes next?

NS – It is worth pointing out that the narratives are just that: narratives. We should begin by asking ourselves where those narratives come from and why they are that way; there’s no prima facie evidence that they have any connection whatsoever to how the future’s actually going to play out. Except, of course, insofar as they might make people so discouraged and skeptical that they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

For practical purposes, the only narratives that matter are the ones we see on screens in video games, TV series, and movies (much as I would like to believe in the power of the written word to sway the imagination, it just doesn’t have the same ability to swerve the zeitgeist as the screen-based media).

In the budget of a video game or a movie, writing is a very small wedge of the pie. The money all goes into other wedges. In both games and movies the production of visuals is very expensive, and the people responsible for creating those visuals hold sway in proportion to their share of the budget.

I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.

“…entertainment executives basically don’t care about narrative at all.”

As a counter-example, you might look at AVATAR, in which they actually did go to the trouble of creating a new planet from whole cloth. This was far more creative and visually interesting than putting dirt on the Empire State Building, but it was also quite expensive, and it was a project that very few people are capable of attempting. Only James Cameron has the clout to combine such a large budget with so much creative independence; he was able to turn Rick Carter loose on the design and create magic. But in basically every other movie, game, and TV show, the creators of the visual environment are caught in a trap where their work is expensive enough to draw scrutiny from executives who are, by and large, unwilling to take chances on anything new, and will always steer in the direction of something that is cheaper to produce and that they have seen before. And this ends up being the degraded near-future environment seen in so many dystopian movies.

That environment also works well with movie stars, who make a fine impression in those surroundings and the inevitable plot complications that arise from them. Again, the AVATAR counter-example is instructive. The world was so fascinating and vivid that it tended to draw attention away from the stars.

Compared to all of these considerations, the things that matter to literary people (character and story) are entirely secondary and are generally pasted on as an afterthought. So, what you are characterizing as “negative cultural narratives about technology” are, in my view, just an epiphenomenon of decisions made by entertainment executives who basically don’t care about narrative at all. Taking those narratives seriously is kind of like looking at a Rolls-Royce and assuming that it is made entirely out of a giant block of paint.

The “hard limit” and “what comes next?” parts of your question are where you ask me to be way more oracular than I’m comfortable attempting. There are plenty of people with money and vision who would like to build a future more interesting than “Empire State Building covered with dirt” and I don’t really see any reason in principle why this couldn’t happen. To me it seems to be largely about institutions and whether they are capable of adapting. It is easy to fall into a trap where existing institutions are productive enough to funnel money to vested interests who’d rather keep milking them in their current form than take a risk on transforming them.

DW – I want to ask about some of the revelations in recent weeks about privacy. The NSA’s Prism programme and Palantir being employed by government and major corporations has made people wonder just what else is out there that we don’t know about. The early promise of the internet seemed to be greater liberty, but as the technologies have evolved they appear to be concentrating immense power in a few hands. Which direction do you think we are heading in, and what should we be doing to effect the course of these technologies?

51dDx7RzlOL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_NS – I don’t claim to be an expert on this sort of thing, if indeed I ever was–it has been a long time since I wrote Cryptonomicon. But just on general principles, what impresses me is how easily leaked this information is. That’s not to understate the difficulties Edward Snowden is facing, but the fact is that the NSA is going to find it quite difficult to keep a lid on such activities. Much of the shock and dudgeon expressed over what Snowden revealed seems disingenuous to me. Every techno-thriller movie and TV show that I have watched in the last twenty years has assumed that the intelligence agencies had all of these surveillance capabilities and much more. And there was much indignation in the US about the FBI’s failure to predict the Boston Marathon bombings. One can’t be indignant about all of these things at once. Deep layers of cant must be scraped off of this discourse before we can even begin talking about it in any useful way.

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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