The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

DW – As we’ve been conducting this interview Elon Musk – who seems to me a little like a flesh and blood Tony Stark – announced his Hyperloop project. It raises the obvious question, why haven’t we already done this?

NS – According to a widespread meme that is not devoid of truth the track gauge used by modern railroads is derived from that used by horse-drawn vehicles, such as Roman chariots.

A similar point can be made about petroleum-based fuel. This had its origins in the practice of sailing around the ocean hurling pointed sticks at sperm whales and boiling their heads to make lamp fuel. When we ran out of whales, kerosene was developed as a synthetic whale oil substitute. One thing led to another and we ended up with the modern petroleum industry.

“I would urge people to consider the Hyperloop not only as a technical proposal but (…) as a question that we need to address as a technological society.”

It is a bit facile to talk this way, since there are many technical reasons why petroleum makes an excellent fuel, but it does help to illustrate the idea of technological lock-in.

Now let us consider the problem of moving humans quickly, safely, and cheaply between LA and San Francisco. The proposal least likely to get anyone fired, or publicly mocked, is to take existing rail technology and make it a little faster, and so that is the sort of plan that tends to make headway.

Elon Musk is simply pointing out that this isn’t the best way of doing it. To that point, it’s a strictly technological argument. But he’s implicitly making a more interesting point, which is that two cities such as LA and San Francisco ought to be capable of doing much, much better than that. He’s asking what happened to us as a civilization that we are unwilling to even think about doing something that is quite doable on a technical level but sufficiently different from existing technology as to pose a serious challenge to engineers, regulators, financiers, and insurers. His Hyperloop proposal is almost a kind of performance art, in that sense.

I would urge people to consider the Hyperloop not only as a technical proposal but in the way that I think Elon Musk actually intended it: as a question that we need to address as a technological society. Even if your answer is “I’m fine with Victorian railway technology, thank you very much” it’s worth musing over.

DW – The “proposal least likely to get someone fired” works as a good shorthand for many of the systematic problems that get in the way of new technology. Crowdfunding has surged forward arguably because it provides a route around some of those problems. Is this ushering in a more creative era for tech, or are there limitations to consider? Also, why sword-fighting?

NS – Crowdfunding is a thrilling development. It’s useful to keep some of its limitations in mind. There is a fairly hard upper bound on how much it’s possible to raise that way–somewhere in the low seven digits for extraordinarily successful campaigns. No one is going to build a Hyperloop with that. Preparing and running a large campaign is a full-time job for at least one person. Even if such people aren’t being paid, you have to, in some sense, subtract their their opportunity cost from the amount raised, and also factor in taxes and the cost of shipping out the donor rewards.

Once you have accepted donors’ money to do a particular thing, you actually have to do that thing, and not some other thing you thought of in the meantime. This is fine if the objective is, say, to make a film or construct a house (i.e. some project with a well-defined objective that is unlikely to evolve in the making) but if the objective is to undertake some sort of business enterprise, it can lead to a certain loss of flexibility. Most businesses adapt continuously as circumstances change. But it would be difficult to launch a Kickstarter around the premise of “here’s a team of smart people who want to do something that we’ll largely make up as we go along” because Kickstarter is oriented toward clearly definable, specific goals.

This isn’t meant to be discouraging, I’m just pointing out that, for many types of projects, it is not a replacement for a motivated, visionary investor.

In spite of this, some people go the Kickstarter route anyway just because it is a fine way to get attention for one’s project and build up a community around it. Presumably that is why Richard Garriott used Kickstarter to fund his game Shroud of the Avatar.

Typically there is an awkward gap between the size of project easily fundable by crowdsourcing, and one large enough to attract VCs. Some efforts are underway to fill that gap with Kickstarter-like schemes that actually reward contributors with equity, but this is very difficult because of complexities entailed in securities regulation.

Why swordfighting? Because I enjoy it enough to keep pursuing it, which is not true of any other sport activity I have ever tried, and so it keeps me physically active. In the end, the only real justification for any sport is to improve health by inducing one to get up and move around in a way that isn’t strictly necessary in modern technological society. I hate to reduce it to such arid terms, because in the case of swordfighting there is so much that I could say in a historical and romantic vein, but that really is the bottom line.

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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